In 2003, Sonia Nazario won a Pulitzer Prize for a feature in the Los Angeles Times about the flood of unaccompanied young children fleeing Central America across Mexico and into the United States. Many of these children were trying to meet up with mothers who had already come to the U.S. alone; others fled the growing violence and poverty in their home countries. Along the journey, they faced constant threat of starvation, robbery, accident, torture, rape and deportation.
In the decade since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Much worse.
The past three years have seen the emergence of an internal humanitarian crisis: “Three years ago, about 6,800 children were detained by United States immigration authorities and placed in federal custody; this year, as many as 90,000 children are expected to be picked up.”
In recent years, the Latin American drug trade has become more focused on Central America. Anti-trafficking efforts in Colombia, the Caribbean, and Mexico have grown more organized, and drug gangs have taken refuge in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala instead. Central America how has the highest homicide rates in the world, exceeding the death rate of many war zones. According to Nazario, there is discussion as to whether Honduras could currently qualify as a “failed state”.
Like drug gangs elsewhere in the Americas, those in Central America often recruit young children to serve as entry-level employees. In Honduras, the gangs have so much power that schoolteachers must pay extortion, and young people have nowhere safe they can turn.
The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated. No one is immune to the carnage. Several Honduran mayors have been killed. The sons of both the former head of the police department and the head of the national university were murdered, the latter, an investigation showed, by the police.
Nazario describes one boy’s situation:
Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels. He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito—Little Hell—and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day. But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston. Now he sells scrap wood.
But all of this was nothing, he says, compared to the relentless pressure to join narco gangs and the constant danger they have brought to his life….He longs to be an engineer or mechanic, but he quit school after sixth grade, too poor and too afraid to attend. “A lot of kids know what can happen in school. So they leave.”
Sánchez says he has seen so many people murdered that, “Now seeing someone dead is nothing.” He says he wants to go to the U.S. but knows how dangerous the journey can be.
Despite stories even worse than these, children fleeing Central America have been treated as illegal immigrants rather than as refugees. One 19-year-old girl was deported from Mexico back to Honduras and now refuses to leave her house under threats from local gangs. She says she plans to flee the country again soon.
In the United States, immigration systems are straining to deal with numbers of unaccompanied children which they were never designed to handle. Politicians, already conflicted on the question of immigration, are unsure how to respond. Meanwhile, the United Nations has declared the situation a humanitarian crisis, and Nazario urges that we respond accordingly. She says these children are no different from those who fled conscription as child soldiers in Central Africa and the Balkans. She advocates that the U.S. collaborate with international relief groups to set up refugee camps along the border.
U.S. law allows refugees to claim asylum if they are fleeing violence back home, but as Nazario points out, young children are unlikely to navigate the complexities of an asylum claim without a lawyer. Furthermore, due to the strains on the system, their cases are often handled by border patrol agents, who are not trained to interview traumatized young children, rather than by qualified judges.
By sending these children away, “you are handing them a death sentence,” says José Arnulfo Ochoa Ochoa, an expert in Honduras with World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian group. This abrogates international conventions we have signed and undermines our credibility as a humane country.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How important do you think it is for the U.S. to limit the number of immigrants who enter the country? Do you think a restrictive immigration policy is a good idea, and if so, how flexible do you think it should be in accommodating refugees?
- Do you know anyone from Central America? If so, what are their comments on the situation there?
- In general, do you think the United States should see itself as a place of refuge for poor and desperate people from around the world? Why or why not?
The troubling situation of thousands of children fleeing Central America to the United States has increased tenfold in recent years, and American officials are unsure how to respond. Many observers are calling the exodus a refugee crisis and urge the United States to allow the children to seek asylum.
© 2017 CYS