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Central American Refugee Crisis


Why are tens of thousands of Central American children—many times more than in previous years—embarking on a hazardous journey to the United States border?

From the migrants’ perspective, the answer is difficult but relatively straightforward. Domestic security in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has broken down in recent years due to violence from organized crime. These countries have the highest homicide rates in the world—it is now more dangerous to live in a Central American city than it was to live in Iraq at the height of the war. Furthermore, children are particularly vulnerable to these gangs’ activities. According to Amanda Taub of,

The street gangs known as “maras”—M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13—target kids for forced recruitment, usually in their early teenage years, but sometimes as young as kindergarten. They also forcibly recruit girls as “girlfriends,” a euphemistic term for a non-consensual relationship that involves rape by one or more gang members.

If children defy the gang’s authority by refusing its demands, the punishment is harsh: rape, kidnapping, and murder are common forms of retaliation.

In all three countries, the police are too weak and corrupt to offer any meaningful protection. In fact, the police often essentially operate as dangerous criminal gangs themselves.

For many people in these countries who were desperately poor even before the recent wave of violence, the only option is to flee the country.

On the other hand, for American officials debating what to do about the migrant crisis, the answer is more complicated. The surge in migration happened to occur during a politically heated debate in Congress over immigration reform.

Republicans have argued that the migrants should be seen as illegal immigrants, and that the solution is tighter border security to allow for swift and certain repatriation. Many Democrats, on the other hand, have argued that the situation should be seen as a refugee crisis, and the U.S. should establish refugee camps and arrange for a formal process of asylum. The Obama Administration has adopted a middle-of-the-road approach, decrying the humanitarian disaster yet advocating that the majority of migrants be sent home.

Some conservatives have argued that the Obama administration’s reputed leniency on immigration is itself to blame for the crisis. The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has said that migrants have heard about “lax immigration enforcement policies” and that this is the cause of the crisis. While such statements are probably motivated mostly by political point-scoring, it is true that many observers in the region have noticed a decline in the deportation of minors from the U.S. in recent years.

Furthermore, the concerns about leniency in dealing with the crisis illustrate the difficulty in finding a solution. While it might be cruel to send tens of thousands of children back to a war zone, it is likely that allowing them to stay will only encourage more to come. The journey across Mexico to the U.S. is extremely dangerous, and the border security systems are not designed to handle large numbers of refugees. Because of this, advocates for the migrants say that only humane solution is to declare a regional refugee crisis, allowing those in danger to apply for asylum within their host countries, at which point they can be transported in safety to the United States. However, those who see the situation as a problem of illegal immigration argue that this would be the worst possible solution. Still, both sides worry that a compromise arrangement would only lead to more migrations and a worsening crisis.

There is even less agreement about what to do in the long term. Drug-related violence has plagued the region for decades, despite immense international police efforts. In recent years, some observers say that Columbia and Mexico have found a measure of success in defeating the gang cartels, but the gangs have responded by focusing their efforts in Central America instead. Honduras in particular has experienced political instability in the past few years, making it harder for them to mount a concerted response.

While migrants can only afford to attempt the long and difficult overland route to the U.S., drug traffickers can afford to go by plane. In Honduras, this has led to another difficult question of international law: whether local law enforcement can shoot down drug planes flying over their airspace. For example, in 2001 the Peruvian military shot down a small plane carrying an American missionary and her infant child, mistaking it for a drug plane. Fear of similar incidents has led the U.S. to curtail anti-trafficking cooperation with Honduras.

As the international drug trade spurs violence across the Americas, it has become clear that the United States cannot remain aloof from its neighbors’ troubles. However, it remains to be seen how the U.S. will respond as it is drawn into the region’s crisis.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What do you think is more important: keeping illegal immigrants out of the U.S. or letting refugees in? When in doubt, which concern do you think is more pressing?
  2. One analyst compared the crisis to the U.S. decision in 1939 to deny asylum to a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Europe. Do you think this is a fair comparison? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think the U.S. should do about the crisis? Should we make it easy for more people fleeing the violence in Central America to declare asylum, or should we make it harder?


The flood of children and families fleeing Central America is a humanitarian crisis with no easy solution. The crisis will only end when peace can be restored to the region and economic opportunity returns, but until then, the nations that receive these migrants are unsure of what to do with them.


James Bargent (2014, April 1). “US Halts Honduras Cooperation Over Narco-Plane Shoot Down Law.” In Sight Crime.

Muzaffar Chishti and Faye Hipsman (2014, June 13). “Dramatic Surge in the Arrival of Unaccompanied Children has Deep Roots and No Simple Solutions.” Migration Policy Institute.

David Gergen (2014, July 14). “Use ‘safe zones’ to end immigrant crisis.” CNN.

Dara Lind, et al. (2014, June 16 – July 14). “The Central American child and family migrant crisis.” Vox.

Diana Villiers Negroponte (2014, July 2). “The Surge in Unaccompanied Children from Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis at Our Border.” The Brookings Institute.

Rene Novoa (2014, July 4). “Honduras facing narco nightmare as opium cultivation takes hold.” Inside Costa Rica.

Frances Robles (2014, June 4). “Wave of Minors on Their Own Rush to Cross Southwest Border.” The New York Times.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS

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