Rival politicians, and some press accounts, blame what they call the Obama administration’s lenient policy towards immigrant youth for luring thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America to the US. After hundreds of interviews with minors in El Salvador, researcher Elizabeth Kennedy* says the reason youth flee is simple: gang violence.
A mother cried. She had already lost her daughter four years earlier when a gang member courted her little girl, beat her, and then instilled so much fear in her that she ran away never to be heard from again. Now, this mom hoped to keep her two sons from the same fate.
It was proving difficult. Five gang members had beaten her older son, 17, on his way home from school when he did not join the gang three years earlier. Her youngest, 13, faced the same pressure. The family fled the area before he too was beaten. It was the fifth time they had moved in four years.
Now both boys stay home, afraid of what might happen if they leave. Outside, El Salvador’s two largest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street – and a host of other homegrown maras lurk.
They are “desesperados,” or desperate.
“This is no place for children,” the mother says.
These are desperate times in what several respondents in my more than 400 interviews describe as “a time of horror.” Here lies the true humanitarian crisis, not in the United States but in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from where thousands of children and adults are fleeing.
Homicide rates reported in local press are higher today than during declared civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala a few decades ago. In Honduras, the murder rate is eclipsed only by Syria and possibly South Sudan. With assault, disappearance, extortion and rape also at all-time highs, anywhere else must be better.
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As a result, more and more children from these countries are arriving to the United States: between 6,000 and 8,000 through 2011; approximately 14,000 in 2012; nearly 24,000 in 2013 and likely upward of 60,000 this year.
Politicians in the United States have said in the press that these children are pulled to the US by policies implemented by the Obama Administration. They say US legislation like DACA and possible immigration reform is pulling Central Americans North.
But in only one of the interviews I completed prior to President Obama’s crisis designation did a child ask me about the DREAM Act. Fifteen heard the US treated children differently and wanted to know how. Otherwise, knowledge of the way the US system works is limited. Similarly, in the eight months I have been here, I have heard no radio ads or churches announcing that children will not be deported.
What’s more, after meeting hundreds fleeing areas where their neighbors, family or friends have been threatened or killed, I am convinced the reasons lie in the violence. Among the first 322 interviews I did with Salvadoran child migrants conducted between January and May, the largest percentage (60.1 percent) of boys and girls list crime, gang threats or violence as a reason for their emigration. In the past two years, reports by KIND, UNHCR, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Women’s Refugee Commission have cited similar numbers from interviews with child migrants in the US.
It stands to reason. Of the 322 minors I interviewed, 198 have at least one gang in their neighborhood. (Their neighborhood is the smallest structure they listed, i.e., their colonia, canton, caserio, lotificacion or barrio, depending on if they live in an urban or rural area.) Those who did not note a gang presence said they expect one to arrive soon. Another 130 said they attend a school with a nearby gang presence. One hundred attend a school with gangs inside; 109 have been pressured to join the gang, 22 of whom were assaulted after refusing. Seventy have quit school. More than 30 said they have made themselves prisoners in their own homes; they do not even go to church. The feeling is widespread. I interviewed minors from rural and urban areas of every province.
The Salvadoran government has not provided an adequate response. Numerous people here say that the two child protection agencies in El Salvador – the National Council for Childhood and Adolescence (CONNA) and the Salvadoran Institute for Childhood and Adolescence (ISNA) – infrequently respond to reported abuse, parental homicide or underage pregnancy. Legislation passed in 2009 makes which agency is responsible for what unclear. Neither is adequately funded nor has programs for children persecuted by gangs or for children wanting out of gangs.
There is also little confidence in the police, military or other government agencies. Only 16 child migrants who said they had experienced insecurity reported it. Two of the 16 who made reports said they had received increased threats; the police refused to write up a report for eight of those who reported problems, and six said nothing happened after they spoke to authorities. One’s accused rapist still lives next door.
Fear of authorities is well-founded. Many say gangs have sources of information among police, attorney general offices, and neighborhood residents. As several of them told me, “You never know who is who.” Three told stories of youth who made complaints and were then detained as suspected, rival gang members by police. Police beat one youth three times because he worked late and was accused of being a gang member since he was on the streets.
The US is not always the first option. Many move within El Salvador. According to the Central American University’s Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) 2012 Survey, approximately 130,000 Salvadorans were forced to relocate within the country in 2012. One third had moved previously. Often, the same threats to life re-surface. (Police are required to move every two years for this reason.) Thirteen children I spoke to tried moving. Only one, who had been at the new location less than a month, found respite.
Faced with few options at home, they roll the dice and begin charting routes through Mexico to the United States. Most know that even if they reach the US, Central American asylum seekers are usually rejected and deported. Indeed, between 2008 and 2012, as many as 98 percent of Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran cases were rejected. Still, because they are desperate, they explain, possible injury and death on that treacherous journey is a better bet than sure death at home.
In a report released by El Salvador’s Technological University and the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in December 2013, 59 percent of women and 57 percent of men responded that they forego their human rights when migrating. Another 57 percent of women, and 61 percent of men report being willing to endure assault, rape, forced work, kidnapping, death or anything else that could happen.
While over 90 percent of children have a family member in the US, only 35 percent list reunification as a reason for their emigration. One father said he never wanted to be away from his son, but after a string of murders in their town, he worried all the time. Grandparents feel they are too old to fend off gang threats for their grandchildren. An aunt worried that keeping her nephew put her own children at risk. In all cases, the family decides long-term safety in the US is worth the short-term risk of migrating, and parents in the US fear returning to home countries because of high violence.
The US government has too often been on the wrong side of this debate, or has decided based on political rather than humanitarian grounds who could stay and who had to go. Now, we must respond to those in need of our protection. Not doing so will only exacerbate current problems and engender new ones.
* Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright Fellow to El Salvador who is conducting research with Salvadoran child migrants hoping to reach the U.S. You can follow her work at www.elizabethgkennedy.com or on Twitter @EGKennedySD.