The scandalous mistreatment of thousands of young, unaccompanied migrants along the southern U.S.’ border should become a watershed moment in the complex migratory dynamic between this country, Mexico and Central America.
The fact that upwards of 50,000 children have been detained trying to enter the United States without any sort of adult supervision or protection should shame the region’s governments. These are kids who have traveled more than a 1,000 miles from Central America to escape a place ravaged by daily violence, poverty and a systemic inequality has all but cancelled the possibility of any sort of social mobility. Imagine the experience that awaits a 12-year-old boy (or, worse yet, a girl) who travels across Mexico’s fearsome backbone on top of a rickety train, often besieged by drug smugglers, rapists or human-traffickers. Now multiply that grim scene by 50,000. Enough said.
What explains this tragedy? First and foremost is the social implosion occurring in the northern half of Central America, especially in Honduras, a country of origin for at least 15,000 of the recently detained children. For many of these young migrants, life had become unbearable back home. Many travel here to flee the threats of organized crime. Stories abound of death threats, rape and abduction attempts. Let’s be clear: these children do not leave their countries with aspirations of attaining the fabled American Dream; they come to escape the Central American Nightmare. Like the young Syrian refugees half a world away, they are merely trying to survive.
The end of the possibility of what is known as “circular migration” is —quite possibly —another factor in this drama. Before 9/11, unaccompanied child migration was mostly unnecessary; migrants felt they had enough freedom to go back home and retain some semblance of a family life before returning again to the United States. Once enforcement exploded and crossing the border became an increasingly risky affair, circular migration patterns slowly decreased and more-desperate measures became inevitable. For many undocumented parents living in the United States, it also turned into a matter of survival, emotional survival. It’s either this, the cruelest and most dangerous migration imaginable, or losing any possibility of ever seeing their families again. What would you do faced with a similar situation?
We now know that misinformation— some of it the product of naïveté or wishful thinking, and most of it malicious, the product of rumors perpetuated by human-smuggling networks— has also played a big role in this growing tragedy. According to Ana García, first lady of Honduras, gangs of coyotes promise young migrants “special residence permits” once they arrive in the United States. The fact that current backlogs in the U.S. immigration courts basically guarantee some sort of prolonged stay in the country for those caught probably represents another appealing, if deeply flawed argument.
So that’s the crisis. The question is: how can we solve it?
In the long-run, the only possible solution lies not in border enforcement or the construction of new and improved holding facilities, rather in the sustained and sustainable development of the Central American communities from which those migrants have been forced to flee.
Margarita Zavala, Mexico’s former first lady who pioneered the region’s focus on young migrants, explained it this way in a recent article: “We should all concentrate on generating incentives back in the places of origin, so that children decide to stay rather than risk the dangerous trek.” Ms. Zavala tells of how someone in Washington asked her for a formula to curtail child immigration into the United States. “The answer is very simple,” she replied; “develop their communities back home.”
If Ms. Zavala is right, the situation calls for an unprecedented pan-regional effort, a type of Marshall Plan for Central America. What would happen if, instead of throwing money into the mouth of that insatiable monster pit that is border enforcement, the United States decided to invest— I mean really invest —on the rescue and recovery of communities in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and even Mexico? Most migrants are not looking for a new homeland; they merely want a land they can call “home” — a safe, free home. They need someone to help them build nations. And no one does that better than the United States.