For the last few weeks, the migration of unaccompanied youth from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the U.S. has been front page news. More than 50,000 minors have already made the perilous journey this year, with the total expected to reach as high as 90,000 by the end of 2014. This is nothing new for those of us who have listened to the stories of community members on International Partners delegations. We know the root causes of immigration: most prominent among them crushing poverty and gang violence. Because we also know that U.S. government policy, past and present, plays an outsize role in maintaining these push factors, the current the response of the Obama Administration– which has focused on border enforcement and accelerating deportations– is particularly alarming. The planned response is destined to be ineffective because it ignores the root causes. When life is threatened by poverty and violence people will always prefer the risks of immigration.
The map below sheds insight into the reasons that factor into parents’ decision to send their children to the United States. The largest number of children– more than 2,500 between January 1st and May 14th of 2014– came from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which tellingly has the highest murder rate in the world. San Salvador was #4 on the list, home for more than 800 children who left for the U.S. during the same time period. San Salvador and surrounding municipalities are also hubs of activity for Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th St gangs. Moreover, 11% of homicides in El Salvador in 2013 were committed against minors. These gangs developed in refugee communities in Los Angeles, California and spread to El Salvador as members were deported, setting the stage for later waves of immigration. Deportations lead to more deportations.
But what accounts for the huge leap since 2011 (see chart below)? A few months before unaccompanied migrant children began making the headlines, the Mesoamerican Working Group released a report on the need to rethink the failed “war on drugs” in Central America. The Merida Initiative (2007-2010) dumped more than $1.9 billion of U.S. aid into a disastrous attempt to confront Mexican cartels. Instead of stemming the flow of drugs to the U.S., the iron fist approach lead to increased regional turf wars between cartels (doubling the homicide rate in Mexico) and diverted trafficking routes from Mexico to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. An offshoot of the Merida Initiative known as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was launched in 2008, doubling down on the failed militarized strategy. Compounding the situation, the 2009 coup with tacit U.S. support ousted the democratically-elected leader of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, further destabilized that nation, creating conditions which resulted in the highest national murder rate in the world. As in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when the U.S. pumped weapons and money into the region to stymie social movements whose leaders have now been elected to the presidency in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the “war on drugs” has compounded the problems it ostensibly seeks to address at a heavy human cost. Violence leads to more violence.
Addressing the core reasons for immigration to the U.S. from Central America is the only way to create livable communities for our friends in El Salvador and elsewhere. This is what makes the work of International Partners so important. In addition to IP’s work on the ground, we must also look at how policies implemented by the U.S. government create cycles of violence and work to change them. While large scale change in U.S. policy toward Central America remains a long-term goal, small victories are regularly won by networks of activists pressuring their government to do the right thing. (Click here to see a recent example and here to see the results, which are still playing out.) International development work and foreign policy activism go hand and hand. Activism without a roll-up-our-sleeves approach strikes a hollow cord, but the success of the IP model is conditioned by macro factors, making a two-pronged strategy necessary to break the destructive cycle.