The United States debate on immigration has for years revolved around border security and deportation. Conventional immigration discussions almost always focus on the effects of immigration here in the United States. Rarely do politicians, journalists and more importantly average citizens bother to delve into the causes of immigration. And precisely this preoccupation with the effects of immigration has prevented any meaningful reform from being established. Only when the causes of illegal immigration are established and understood can there be a meaningful discussion on reform.
After the Los Angeles riots of 1992 police determined that the reason for the violence was youth gangs. As a result the police established a precedent of jailing minors and charging them as adults. Hundreds were sent to jail for felonies and other crimes. In 1996 Congress decided that any illegal immigrant sentenced to a year or more in prison would be repatriated to their country of origin. Between 2000 and 2004 about 20,000 Central American felons were sent back to their country of origin.
With no knowledge of the local neighborhoods or any family to turn to these repatriated youths turned to gang connections in their country of origin. They began dealing drugs and recruiting other criminals sent from the United States. Gang members would also recruit impoverished youth at ages as young as 9. They would beat them as initiation and then force them to rob and look out during murders or drug transfers.
Some cities in Central America are exclusively run by gangs. Gang members collect war taxes and any other tax they feel should be imposed on the population. To stay safe citizens try to avoid parts of the city where they know gang rivals clash. Mostly everyone stays inside after sunset when the de facto curfew established by gangs begins. Even then, however, the threat of violence is unpredictable and possible at all times. Gangs randomly kill bus drivers or target women who refuse to submit to their advances. When governments crack down on them gangs begin to indiscriminately kill youths to assert their influence. People live in fear every single day.
Government reform in Central America has been enforced in order to mitigate some of the violence. In Honduras for example after the election of reformist president Maduro new laws were imposed. Anyone suspected of being part of a gang was imprisoned for up to 12 years. Initially this reform decreased gang presence but soon gang members would replace the heads that had been arrested and would continue recruiting, even bringing members from other nations such as Mexico. The most effective antigang program would not only jail members but also create preventive measures since going to jail for gang members is actually proof of loyalty. The best programs have been ones that create after school alternative programs to gangs and encourage those involved to quit by promising them protection. In order to establish such programs there need to be funds which can be provided from the private sector. In El Salvador, for example, private companies have funded witness protection programs and offered to hire ex gang members.
But anti gang reform, especially in Central America, is not easy. With a large scale of corruption and weak government structures most Central American countries can’t afford to protect their citizens and eradicate the threat of gangs. In Guatemala, for example, an anti narcotics operation was dismantled in 2002 after it was found that 300 of its members were being paid by criminals. When foreign governments give aid to Central American countries to fight gangs the aid is usually given to elites who use weapons to publicly wage a war on criminals but privately cooperate with them. A staggering 60% of Guatemalans and Hondurans believe that the police officers in their country are involved in criminal organizations. With no allies in the government or within the gangs, regular Central American citizens turn to the only source of hope: immigration.
Most sell all of their belongings in order to pay traffickers and begin month long journeys filled with rape, crime and violence. When they make it to the U.S. most hope to be sent to a U.S. detention center but some are immediately repatriated. One woman described her experience with U.S. customs by saying “They didn’t even let us speak”. This sentence seems to be indicative of the policy the Obama administration seems to be taking on the current immigration crisis. Obama has promised a fast track deportation and allotted $116 million dollars to pay for the cost of transportation of unaccompanied children. Thankfully a 2008 law has prohibited the deportation of children without a court hearing which sometimes may take up to a year.
But what most don’t understand is the extent of the crisis the United States is facing. After exploring the causes of immigration I hope it becomes clear that sending Central American children and adults back to their homeland will not resolve the problem. Neither will tighter border security or larger personnel. Illegal immigrants sell all their belongings at home, begin a dangerous journey and risk their lives just to get here in search of security. No amount of border security and deportation threats will ever discourage these people from taking that journey. And until we realize that it’s not just economic factors that prompt people to take the journey to the United States we will always be stuck with a broken immigration system. We should consider the security concerns of citizens in Central America and encourage the strengthening of police institutions there. We should also try to reform the entry process to the United States by either increasing quotas for Central Americans who contribute significantly to the U.S. economy or even considering them refugees as their circumstances would certainly warrant. The issue of Central American immigration must seize to be looked at as an economic issue but should rather be considered for what it truly is: a humanitarian crisis which the United States has not handled well.