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Gangs Bust the False Dichotomies of the Child Migration Crisis

The ongoing Central American child migrant crisis [1] gained the national spotlight last week when the president asked Congress for emergency funds [2] to stem the influx. Many of the children, like other immigrants, are looking for work and education [3], or are trying to reunite with family [4]. But as Ross Douthat has pointed out [5], the numbers are spiking in large part because the children are following smuggler-spread rumors of amnesty, possibly inspired by the mixed signals of the DREAM Act. Since smugglers make more profit trafficking children than more logistically challenging adults, the administration’s recent efforts to counter the misinformation have not gone far.

The language surrounding the crisis on the U.S. side of the border can be almost as confused, however. As the crisis made headlines, one false dichotomy dominated the rest: “Please don’t call this an immigration reform issue. This is a humanitarian crisis,” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas recently said [6]. Refugee advocate Jennifer Podkul [7] was quick to echo the juxtaposition. “This is not a migration issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue.”

The rush to call this anything but an immigration story [8] is usually intended to highlight the root causes of poverty and violence in Central America. Rhetorically, it creates urgency and helps encourage a distinction between short-term solutions for children suffering at the border and long-term solutions to reform the system.

In reality, though, those are not competing frameworks. The child migration situation is both a humanitarian crisis and a migration issue, and it cannot be resolved without taking both aspects into consideration. A prime example of the importance of both priorities can be found in the motivating factor in this child migration influx that most defies easy categorization: the proliferation of gang violence in Central America.

Central American child migrants widely cite [9] gang violence as a motivation for leaving their countries, and the gangs they flee are fundamentally tied up in the migration issue. The most prominent Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (“MS-13”) and 18th Street Gang (“Calle 18”), began among Latino youth in Los Angeles in the 1960s and the 1980s respectively, but both expanded from the United States to Central America [10] after mass deportations following the 1996 Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This migration policy decision fomented cross-border crime networks that now have an estimated 70,000-100,000 members [11] in several countries.

The gang violence plaguing these children does not just illustrate the long-term consequences of immigration policy, but also the reason for considering this in international refugee terms. As many as 48 percent of Central American child migrants [9] are fleeing violence in their communities, including the violence [12] gangs perpetrate in their recruitment of adolescents [13]. Central American minors specifically seeking international protection as refugees from persecution in the form of gang violence have won asylum in the U.S. in the past [14]. The gangs’ sheer scope, as transnational criminal organizations and sometimes paramilitaries, has led some advocates to describe the child migrants as akin to defecting child soldiers [15].

Current migration numbers [1] indicate a geographically consistent uptick in migration, with children heading not just for the U.S. but for other Latin American countries as well (even Nicaragua, one of the region’s poorest countries, is receiving asylum-seeking minors). But the focus of the immigration on the U.S. border and the clearly distinct economic motivations in other child migrants’ journeys means that it is disingenuous at best to discourage an immigration reform angle to the issue. Indeed, focusing on the immediacy of the crisis only paves the way for more crises to be sustained by poorly thought out policy in the future.

The endless factors complicating both the immediate humanitarian crisis and any possible structural reforms indicate that the roots of child migration will not be an easy fix. Productive solutions will need to begin with an integrated vision of the issue, rather than partaking of an imagined competition between political priorities.

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#1 Comment By Labropotes On July 7, 2014 @ 6:27 am

I’ve lived in small villages in Honduras. When a kid is kidnapped, the town does nothing. The images of police press conferences, of volunteers walking across fields or through woods looking for missing children so common in the event in the US are absolutely unknown in Central America. In a region where mosquito borne illnesses are common child killers, most parents don’t take basic and cheap measures to stop them. It’s absurd that we describe this as a humanitarian crisis unless we add that it’s taking place in the hearts of Hondurans. These children will keep coming as long as what they find here is better than what’s there, which is very, very bad.

#2 Comment By Kirt Higdon On July 7, 2014 @ 6:56 am

This article brings to light a so-far unmentioned part of the gang/migration problem. The comparison with child soldiers is especially apt, but maybe not just defecting ones. The gangs which control the smuggling may be using this opportunity to introduce new members into the US, including “sicarios”, young teen assassins. It’s also worth noting that the Central American gangs originally formed in the US emerged from immigrant communities which were mostly refugees from the US proxy wars in Central America.

#3 Comment By M_Young On July 7, 2014 @ 11:00 am

Was it the alleged ‘mass deportations’ following the IIRC that aided the formation of these cross national border gangs, or the de facto open border itself?

It is also interesting to note that migrants are heading to Belize — though in small numbers — even though Belize’s homicide rate is similar to those of Honduras and El Salvador.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 7, 2014 @ 11:44 am

Wow . . . the gullibility here is staggering. No kidding other countries have crime and poverty and what have you.

That is their problem and they need to deal with it. As for liberal women hoping to advance immigration reform by fostering this continued illegal immigration to the US, the efforts you spend nurturing foreign children andsiphoning off our resources could be better spent assisting that several ,milliuon US children in dire need of education, a safe home, crime free streets, etc. This is not 1964 and you are not Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King. What ever ills are hosing these children will not be solved by bringing them here —

I figure we could resolve the matter with several C-5A cargo planes. As for the drug traffickers . . .supported by the governments south of the US border — try a twenty foot barrier of concrete and steel and a two mile perimeter of spikes instead of water barrels.. But border control s the weak link in all of this.

And I am unclear why we hire people intent on undermining the US immigration policies.

#5 Comment By hetzer On July 7, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

@EliteCommInc. – you’re targeting the problem from the wrong direction. Illegal immigration ground to a halt during the 2008 recession. We need to target the people who (illegally!) hire illegal immigrations. A minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, plus a seizure of all assets should be a stiff enough penalty to discourage such lawbreakers.

The illegal immigrants will then deport themselves.

#6 Comment By cka2nd On July 7, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

M_Young says: “It is also interesting to note that migrants are heading to Belize — though in small numbers — even though Belize’s homicide rate is similar to those of Honduras and El Salvador.”

But seems to be going down: [17]

#7 Comment By cka2nd On July 7, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

This website seems to have a wealth of interesting information – see the article below on Central American gangs – but is also totally new to me:


#8 Comment By M_Young On July 8, 2014 @ 3:12 am

cka2nd, I’ve taken a look at the numbers — look for ‘Global Homicide Study — and except for Honduras, which has experienced a really drastic increase in homicide which appears to have peaked last year, the rest of Central America seems to have hit peek violence in 2009 or 2010. Even given a year or so lag, why the mass migration now?