When there is unrest in Latin America, the U.S.-Mexico border is often the first place to feel it as refugees flee violence or economic insecurity. Officials are reporting a huge spike in the number of youth from Central America detained at the border since January.
The U.S. government refers to them as “unaccompanied alien children.” But they should more aptly be referred to as kids often between the ages of 7 and 18 traveling without parents or adult relatives. The shelters that the U.S. government contracts with in South Texas are filled beyond capacity, according to immigrant advocates from the region. Children have been sleeping in hallways and offices. It’s grown so overcrowded that at least 100 children will be transferred this week to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where emergency dormitories have been set up for them, according to an official from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is in charge of caring for unaccompanied migrant children.
The official from HHS, who asked not to be identified, said the influx of children started in January. The spokesperson said 36 percent of the children come from Guatemala, followed by El Salvador at 25 percent, Honduras 20 percent, Mexico 12 percent and Ecuador 3 percent. She said 4 percent were from a mixture of other countries.
The HHS usually serves between 7,000 and 8,000 children a year. The official from HHS said they’d seen a 77 percent increase from the norm since January. She said the agency didn’t know why there was a huge influx of children. “It’s not our job to know these things,” she said. “Maybe it’s a question for the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security.”
I contacted several people from agencies working with undocumented youth but received no reply as to what might be causing children to flee their countries. According to HHS three-quarters of the migrant youth are boys over the age of 14.
While their reasons for leaving their home countries could range from economic to family reunification, I suspect that the growing violence in Mexico and Central America could be a major cause. In 2010, I had the great fortune to hear Carlos Dada, the editor of El Faro, one of the best and bravest news organizations in Latin America speak at UT Austin. Dada, who is from El Salvador, gave a dire warning about organized crime destroying Central America’s fragile democracies.
Dada explained that as the Mexican and U.S. governments battle the drug cartels, the cartels move south, corrupting and killing as they go in what he called “la casa fumigada” or the fumigated house syndrome. “Guatemala is already gone,” Dada told us. “If you want to report on how organized crime is swallowing a country in real time come to El Salvador.” In El Salvador, the economy is in U.S. dollars – a haven for drug lords looking for a place to launder their billions. The drugs, guns and violence move in and the people pour out of El Salvador looking for safety somewhere else, often in the United States.
“In El Salvador when a child turns 15 there are three choices: become a victim, become a victimizer or go to the United States,” Dada said. The journalist painted a bleak and heartbreaking picture of teenagers brutalized by criminal gangs in his country. The children had no recourse but to flee or become members in gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18. Law enforcement and parents were unable to protect the innocent. “In my country the criminals don’t need to hide, the victims do. We are living in a world that is upside down,” he said.
El Salvador and neighboring Honduras have some of the highest homicide rates in the world along with Guatemala. All three countries have been struggling to bring down the violence. In March, Dada’s newspaper El Faro reported that the government of El Salvador appears to be negotiating with the country’s biggest and most brutal gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18, to reduce the level of murders. These are gangs that got their start in U.S. prisons.
Back in 2010, Dada warned that it was a mistake for the U.S. government to ignore Central America when it came to fighting organized crime and the illicit drug market. The United States has not paid enough attention to the growing security crisis in Latin America fueled by U.S. drug profits, he said.
Dada’s dire warning came in 2010. Has Central America reached its tipping point in 2012? Could these children seeking refuge in the United States be a wake up call for a U.S. administration that has forgotten about Latin America?