Why America can’t disown the children at our border

July 14, 2014

Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales

It only seems like the latest immigration crisis hit by surprise, turning up suddenly on the U.S. border from someplace deep in the jungles of somewhere else.

In fact, the children’s exodus from Central America has been in the making for decades. It is coming from a region where the United States has been a major political and military player for more than half a century, and it has roots in U.S. streets and prisons. If these kids weren’t the ones suffering the worst of it, you might call them payback.

During the 1980s, when much of Central America was racked by civil wars, thousands of Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan families fled north and settled in U.S. slums, where their kids formed gangs in part to protect themselves from existing gangs who rejected and threatened them. Police traced the worst of the carnage in the Los Angeles riots of 1992 to street gangs, including an obscure group of Salvadoran immigrants that called itself Mara Salvatrucha.

In response, prosecutors got tough, charging even underage gang members as adults and using the new “three strikes and you’re out” legislation to imprison as many immigrant slumdog felons as possible.

Then in 1996, tacking right in response to the 1994 midterms that brought Newt Gingrich’s 104th Congress to power, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, known by its awkward acronym IIRIRA (eye-RYE-rah). Its purpose was to enforce stricter limits on immigration and expand the grounds for deportation, especially for those convicted of major or even minor crimes.

Once these foreign-born convicts had served their sentences, they were sent packing, 20,000 of them between 2000 and 2004. The southward flow of felons stayed strong. By 2010, the United States had deported more than 125,000 convicts to Central America — more than 90 percent of them to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (not incidentally, the countries that almost all the children now flocking to the U.S. call home). Honduras, the country that now has the world’s highest murder rate, got 44,000 of them.

Having come to the United States when very young, many of these deportees were native English speakers who did not know their “home” country and spoke its language badly if at all. Some had actually managed to get U.S. citizenship, which was stripped from them upon their felony convictions. Some were young men who had never been in a gang, convicted of relatively petty, non-violent crimes. But that was before they went to prison, the crucible in which gang allegiances and a taste for savagery are best refined.

NO HEADLINEYou could think of this “gift” to Central America as the U.S. version of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons of Cuba’s hardest cases and shipped them to Florida.

These American convicts were sent to the right place at the right time, fed into a criminal nexus of weapons, soldiers and military discipline inherited from the civil wars and into a region with weak, corrupt governments but immensely powerful cartels that had just discovered crack cocaine and were in dire need of distribution and enforcement capabilities.

Soon the Mara Salvatrucha from L.A.’s Pico-Union neighborhood and the 18th Street Gang from the nearby Rampart section — gangs now known to law enforcement as M-13 and M-18 — expanded north into Mexico and branched out from drugs into extortion, human trafficking and murder, sometimes for money, sometimes just for fun. Known for remorseless brutality, M-13 has in recent years tied up with Los Zetas, the cartel started by former anti-drug commandos from the Mexican Special Forces, which has moved aggressively to take over territory in the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Building on their success in Central America, the old L.A. gangs have spread out in the U.S. as well. M-18 now has tentacles in all large U.S. cities and 37 states, as well as outposts in Europe and the Middle East. In 2012, M-13 became the first street gang ever designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization, making it subject to financial sanctions.

Clearly, more border security, criminal intelligence and diligent prosecutions are critical, but that will not be enough. If the history of the L.A. gangs in Central America suggests anything, it is that get-tough policies do not work by themselves.

Immigration, social service and law enforcement experts in North and Central America know what the solutions are — you can find them hereherehere and in a hundred other places. What they have in common is that they are hard, expensive and time-consuming, requiring not so much muscle as a major upgrade in local U.S. consular services, tight multinational cooperation, steel-spined resolve and as much money as needed for as long as it takes.

Resolve and money seeming to be in short supply, both the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans favor amending the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 to permit the Border Patrol to turn back Central American children as quickly as they are turning back those from Mexico, which is to say immediately.

Before doing that, it would be well to consider whether this is the right way to treat children, wherever they come from. At least some of the kids coming from Mexico are fleeing violence there, too. How many have been sent back to more abuse or even death? Nobody knows, and, so far at least, U.S. immigration policy doesn’t want to know. But to treat the children from Central America this way risks repeating the mistakes that brought them here.


I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com.


PHOTOS: Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ross D. Franklin/Pool

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool 


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