Central America: A Humanitarian Response for a Humanitarian Crisis

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Author: Emma Buckhout

By: Emma Buckhout, October 2014

An unprecedented number of unaccompanied children and families have arrived at the U.S. southern border after fleeing their homes in Central America and Mexico this year. In fiscal year 2014 alone, 68,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico — more than double the 2013 total — were apprehended at the U.S.–Mexico border. Though President Obama was quick to call the influx of these children and families to the United States an “urgent humanitarian crisis” at its peak in June, the broader response from our policymakers thus far has been anything but humanitarian. Instead of addressing the root causes of this migration, including violence, poverty, and the failure of U.S. policies in the region, policymakers have focused their attention and resources on expanding enforcement mechanisms to detain and deport.

Child Migrant at BorderThe Latin America Working Group has mobilized to call for a humanitarian and sustainable response to this crisis. We are coordinating with faith, labor, immigration, Latino organizations and human rights groups and working with people like you all over the country to press our government to protect the rights of families and children and to work to address the root causes that cause them to flee. We have organized meetings with the Obama Administration, Congress, press and the public for migrant shelter workers, Central American children’s advocates and human rights activists. And we have worked hard to press for improved treatment of migrants in detention centers and to end deportation practices that place migrants in greater danger.

This wave of migration reflects the growing desperation families and communities are feeling as violence and poverty spiral out of control in Mexico and Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle. Honduras ranks first on the list of murder rates in the world, followed closely by El Salvador and Guatemala. These are also some of the poorest countries in the world. Thirty percent of the population of Honduras, 26 percent of Guatemala, and 17 percent of El Salvador live on less than $2 a day. Many of the children and families making the perilous journey to the United States have fled threats, torture, and extortion from gangs, as well as domestic violence.

For example, Alicia R. (pseudonym) was forced to flee her home in Honduras after gang members killed her mother in front of her. Though she moved and tried to hide, she couldn’t find safety for herself and her two children in Honduras, so she came with them to the United States seeking protection. (“Hondurans Flee Violence, Then Are Deported,” Washington Post, October 16, 2014).

Violence too often follows migrants like Alicia on their journeys north through Mexico, where many meet even more abuse and extortion at the hands of organized crime and corrupt officials who view migrants as a group that can be exploited for profit with impunity. Says Sister Leticia Gutiérrez, a prominent migrant rights defender in Mexico: “During the migrant journey, groups of organized crime can kidnap migrants, extort money in order to liberate them, and some of them, most likely women, will be raped and sold.”

Yet, despite this perpetual violence and threat, many migrants are being met with increased enforcement instead of protection, both in the United States and Mexico. When Alicia arrived at the U.S. border without proof of the threats she was fleeing, she was deported back to San Pedro Sula. “I told them, I cried, that I couldn’t go back to my country… but they deported us.” Mexico has also significantly increased its immigration enforcement this year. It has implemented a new southern border program (Programa Frontera Sur), increased its enforcement on the freight trains migrants have commonly ridden north, and drastically increased its interdictions of migrants. Mexico´s national migration authority (Instituto Nacional de Migracion, or INM) apprehended nearly 16,800 child migrants in the first eight months of 2014, which is a 62 percent increase over the total in 2013.

The numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border decreased throughout the summer as enforcement efforts as well as public education campaigns about the dangers of the journey have intensified; but experts across the region agree that if the root causes of this migration are not addressed, children, women, and men will continue to flee Central America and Mexico. Especially if the number of people leaving increases after the heat of the summer has passed, increased enforcement and militarization without proper accountability and screening may put migrants at greater risk and violate their human rights.

As the U.S. Congress considers funding assistance to the region, it must remember that humanitarian crisis requires a humanitarian response. The United States should not fund police forces in Central America that are abusive, and should never fund the military to come into the streets. The high level of corruption and abuse among authorities in Mexico and Central America charged with immigration control and border security is also deeply concerning. Increased assistance to these agencies could place already vulnerable migrants at greater risk, especially if it does not seek to strengthen accountability and improve respect for human rights in these agencies. Instead, the United States should channel resources to violence prevention programs, child protection programs and shelters for victims of violence, educational and job training programs, and improving judicial systems to provide safety and opportunity so that children and their families are not forced to flee their homes.