It’s been more than a year since our television screens lit up nightly with news of record numbers of Central American migrant children showing up at the US-Mexico border. As these things usually go, when the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors began to “normalize” last fall, the media attention waned — as has the sense of urgency to fix this crisis.
In reality, the stream of desperate people leaving the Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — never receded. Instead of presenting themselves at the US border, the migrants are being captured in Mexico and promptly deported. Out of sight, out of mind — all while the issues in Central America that catalyzed the exodus in the first place have gotten worse. Now, the United States simply has a migrant-crisis-in-waiting.
In May and June 2014 alone, about 20,000 children from Central America arrived at the southern border. Faced with this unprecedented surge, the US government pressured Mexico to play a role. The problem was effectively exported to the south. “The motivation for political action last summer wasn’t to target the root of the problem but to stop the flow,” says Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Américas, a national coalition of Latino immigrant-led community organizations. Thanks in large part to the implementation of a new enforcement program, “Plan Frontera Sur,” Mexico has acted for the past year as a wall of containment. As Chacón puts its, “Mexico became essentially an extended border of the US.”
According to projections by the Migration Policy Institute, apprehensions of Central Americans in Mexico are on track to grow 70 percent this year. By the end of 2015, Mexican deportations will “substantially exceed those in the United States.”
Of course, this is a plan that would work for only so long. In August, for the first time in a year, apprehensions at the US border again showed an increase, catching everyone by surprise. That month, the number of unaccompanied children detained at the southern border was about 50 percent higher than the August 2014 levels. All of which suggests that, in the face of Mexico actively detaining and deporting Central Americans, smugglers just adjusted their routes.
“Central America has become a factory of migrants: There is no access to resources, to economic or educational opportunities, and no trust in government actors,” says José Guadalupe Ruelas, executive director of the Honduras-based child-protection agency Casa Alianza. “These people are not chasing the American dream — they’re fleeing a Central American nightmare.”
Both Chacón and Ruelas visited Boston recently to meet with policy makers and raise awareness of the underlying reasons behind Central American migration to the United States. Notoriously, Honduras has had the highest homicide rate in the world, reaching an astounding 90 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012. That murder rate did drop slightly in 2014, but poverty remains pervasive. In fact, both Honduras and Guatemala have the highest rate of chronic poverty in Latin America: Nearly half of the population of those countries was born into poverty and hasn’t escaped it. After the collapse of a 2012 truce between rival gangs, El Salvador is again seeing levels of violence that it hadn’t experienced since its civil war. In that country, it is now estimated that, on average, someone is killed every hour.
As part of last year’s response to the border crisis, the Obama administration proposed an aid package for Central America, a $1 billion dollar plan that triples the funding that the Northern Triangle typically gets from the United States. The request, included in the president’s 2016 budget, was debated in Congress, and both the House and the Senate cut the funds the region would receive.
To call that decision short-sighted is an understatement. Until the factors that lead people to flee receive proper attention and are addressed with long-term solutions, it is only time before the 2014 mass exodus of Central American minors will rear its ugly head again at America’s doorstep. Mexico’s crackdown is, at best, a Band-aid policy. Congress will not fix this by pretending it is a question of more border security. Instead, it should focus on smart investment in Central America itself that can tackle the high levels of violence, the weak government institutions, the impunity, and the lack of economic opportunity. Such an investment will see returns far greater than any efforts to build longer, higher walls.