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Keeping Central American Kids Out, Continuing the Violence

A boy holds his brother in front of the shack he shares with his family in a gang-infested neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

As we process the news that President Donald Trump is ending the DACA program, we shouldn’t forget that last month, Trump sealed the fates of more than 2,700 children attempting to flee criminal violence and economic malaise in Central America. They were innocent children caught in the net cast by Trump’s refugee ban in February.

Thanks to a program initiated by President Barack Obama, some Central American minors had been permitted to join their parents legally living in the United States. These 2,700 young people had been provisionally approved in February to enter the U.S., but hadn’t yet arrived. Last month, President Trump ended the Central American Minors program, leaving these children to unpack their bags, put aside their dreams for a better life, and reconcile to living without their parents.

It’s easy to decry Trump’s cruelty, which will likely also cause a rise in illegal migration and human smuggling, but the fact is: Obama’s Central American Minors  policy was intended as a stop-gap. There was, and is, no coherent U.S. policy effectively dealing with the fact that people are streaming out of Central America because of violence and poverty abetted by corrupt governments complicit in the drug trade and an oligarchic, rent-seeking economy. Now is the time to reconsider U.S. policies to address this overarching problem – and the short-term effects.

First, what are immediate repercussions of Trump’s policy about-face? Young children are likely to be deterred by the policy change, cruelly leaving many of them to be raised without parents in one of the most dangerous regions of the world. But at the same time, many teenagers fleeing gangs, rape, and the crushing poverty of Central America will keep coming. So by tightening a legal outlet for highly vetted immigrants whose parents are waiting to care for them, Trump’s policies will only fuel human smuggling and more illegal immigration. 

Central American children can still apply as refugees, but refugee status is ill-suited to those fleeing criminal violence. U.S. law defines a refugee as a person “who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The violence in Central America is generally blamed on its gangs, yet the vast majority of people targeted by gangs don’t meet this definition.

It’s worth remembering that while youth gangs exist everywhere, Central America’s hyper-violent maras stemmed from our own prison system and deportation choices in the 1990s, when Los Angeles gang members who had come to the U.S. fleeing Central America’s civil wars were sent back to countries where they had no ties and no longer spoke the language. The U.S. didn’t tell those countries about the criminal records of those deported – and provided no help for reintegration into these already poor, weak countries. Unsurprisingly, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala now have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Extortion, a more silent threat, has skyrocketed.

But blaming gangs is too simple. The violence in Central America today is largely the result of a public-private partnership. State collusion is enabling vast criminal violence, and neither U.S. policy nor refugee law has kept up.

The governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala portray themselves as overwhelmed by violence stemming from drug cartels and vicious gangs. Reporters can feed this narrative, because the risk in covering state violence is so great that covering cartel and gang members is, ironically, less dangerous. Thus, Central American gangs are blamed for most murders in these countries, although the independent Honduran Violence Observatory at the National University could only attribute 5 percent of homicides in 2015 to gangs, a similar percentage to previous years. A United Nations study found that in 2000, only about 14 percent of El Salvador’s killings could be attributed to gangs (United Nations 2007). A 2017 analysis of violence in Guatemala could attribute only 28 percent of the country’s murders to cartels in the major drug-trafficking corridor, and in the neighborhoods most renowned for gang violence, only 41% of murders – a large percentage, but still less than half – could be attributed to gangs.

So who is doing all the killing? Gangs, certainly, are a major proximate cause – but the gangs are often working closely with politicians and members of the police. While some government officials fight the gangs, others are protecting them, working in collaboration to share kickback money, extortion and kidnapping schemes, and to profit from other kinds of violence that can draft under the ubiquity of gang killings. For instance, over 120 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras between a 2009 coup and 2017. Such rural activists are not normal targets of (generally urban) gang violence, but do threaten government and business development ventures. In the maelstrom of criminality, however, it’s easy to obscure blame and point the fingers at criminals, rather than at well-connected business leaders acting with political impunity.

Refugee law has no way to deal with wholesale violence committed by criminal groups working with the acquiescence or complicity of public officials. Public policy falters as well. Trump’s new mean-spirited policy will keep families apart, stunt hopes, and harm thousands of children. It will also fuel the criminals who smuggle people illicitly when legal paths are closed.

But Obama’s policies were only marginally better. The Central American Minors parole program was a humanitarian gesture, and it was meaningful to those who were able to make the harrowing trip across the U.S. borer. But a separate Obama-era program – the Central American Regional Security Initiative – provided vast funds to the Mexican and Central American governments to fight violence, reform their security sectors, and stop illegal migration. In effect, it put the foxes in charge of the henhouse. There were some bright spots of creativity, such as offering funding for gang members to leave gangs just as many peace agreements reintegrate former fighters. But in general, funds that went toward building the rule of law, helping victims of violence, gang prevention programs, and other useful (but ultimately band-aid solutions) came in far smaller dollops compared to those that went to state security services that were often controlled by corrupt officials. Ascertaining even basic information on the program is difficult, and evaluations have been desultory.

To stem the region’s violence and actually deal with the immigration challenges posed by the countries to our south, we need to stand with the citizens of these countries and help them take their countries back from corrupt, criminal governments.

One of the most exciting examples of such a strategy was tried by enterprising legal professionals in Guatemala, who convinced the United Nations to serve as an outside body with the ability to put the country’s top leaders on trial under the aegis of the UN’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). An organization created since the institutions of the country were too compromised to prosecute top officials. That effort is now under threat: After uncovering vast corruption in Guatemala’s new government, which ran on a platform of honesty, the UN commissioner was just ousted from the country. The members of Congress who spoke out against the ending of the Central American Minors program should also speak in defense of the CICIG and champion it as a program that could be expanded throughout the region. The U.S. should be pushing hard for this type of multilateral approach to enforcing the rule of law as part of effort that, if it worked, would ultimately render band-aid immigration solutions less necessary.

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty.

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About the Author

is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focused on issues of conflict, governance, development and security.