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 here, here, here 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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“Honduras suffers from the highest murder rate in the world, and El Salvador and Guatemala are in the top five. … a civilian is twice as likely to be killed in these three countries as in Iraq during the height of the war. …three broken states where the police are infiltrated by street gangs… and governments — corrupt from top to bottom — are helpless in their fight against organized crime”

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

As far as I’m concerned changing that 2008 law is the only answer for right now. There are kids, and adults for that matter, suffering in similar ways the world over. As the writer pointed out, many Mexicans have similar problems. All of these people can’t be accommodated. Liberals also ignore that these immigrants hurt poor Americans the most, because they compete for low wage positions and drive wages down.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

these dynamics appear to be conditions that the United States of America have a pressing need to address. can you possibly let go of all of your intent for faraway lands in the Middle East and direct resources to your most immediate needs. if you were to redirect military offensive budgets into altruistic humanitarian missions into Central America you will truly nuture fertile relations far into the future.

far more generous dividends could be extracted from educational and community building exercises into your Southern neighbours then waging war on hostile elements of said communities. the only future for these beautiful young Central American children is through the medium of further education. rewards may not be immediate but their is real potential that a great leader could emerge to carry his/her brothers and sisters forward to a prosperous future. educate, do not annihilate. peace brothers and sisters.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

Drugs are a very lucrative thing as long as they remain illegal or are patented. Supposing that a slight alteration to the immigration laws might resolve the issues with central america is not rational. US businesses are the biggest profit makers relative to illegal drug money and associated businesses. Conservatives know there is good money in this business but liberals are too dumb to see that greater police action is simply a way to propogate the problem. I suspect the liberals just can’t view such evil without mental break down, and thus they will always end up supporting those that maintain the profitability. They likely believe in mystical and magical things too. You know, like we believe in justice and democracy.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

@Calfri – You write “Liberals also ignore that these immigrants hurt porr Americans the most”.

Hmmmmm. Are all the companies that hire undocumented workers owned by ‘liberals’?

Working at the root causes is the most effective way to stem the illegal immigration business – such as large fines for any US Company that is found employing the undocumented or illegally documented workforce – whether or not those workers are supplied by a third party. This would make the hiring of those types of employees undesirable freeing up jobs for US citizens. And don’t replay that US Citizens won’t do the work – that’s a bunch of malarky.

Posted by MJJ1201 | Report as abusive

We can easily turn anyone away and we should. This falls under the same categorical BS as protesting “Illegal Immigration”. What about all the people that try and immigrate legally? If we really want to help these people we will stabilize THEIR countries. Oh – I know I am just another heartless conservative blah blah blah. Yes – well, my family came to the US the legal way.

Posted by Subwavelength | Report as abusive

” you can find them here, here, here and in a hundred other places” these links are to a closed system sir. We commenters cannot see them.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I served in 1985 and reject the notion that we created all the problems in central America. First, the Cubans and Soviets had some influence too. Second, the Contra rebels were not what I would call nice people trying to create a better life for their people. That would be the proverbial crock of $h!t. And the Sandinistas stayed in power and were even worse. We should be very, very careful about who we let in from Nicaragua and Honduras.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

To me, a right way to treat children is to not give them false hope. Considering the costs a family bears to get their kids here, flying them back seems to reduce the risk that they, and others, will repeat the same mistakes that brought them here. If we keep them, what is the motivation for the flood to stop at the tributaries and downstream?

Posted by kesh123 | Report as abusive

There are billions of people in this world living in destitute, even horrifying circumstances. There are thousands of non-profit organizations globally trying to help these people in their home countries…to do something about fixing the root of the problem and making their country a better place to live. Donate and get involved, or personally adopt a child that you will bring to this country and care for. African children seem to be in the greatest need…start there.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

This is one of the best analysis I have read about immigration. The result of the civil wars, brought substantial asylum immigrants to the USA. Some of those kids of these immigrants , became gang members, committed felonies and after jail time in the US, were deported back to their original countries, bringing crime and instability in Central America. They should have not be allowed in, in the first place. The melting pot of immigrants of previous generations no longer exist. In LA alone, different racial neighborhoods are the norms with no blending. In other parts of the world, elites from Iran and Irak moved the the US shores leaving an intellectual and financial in a vacuum against religious intolerance. So much for globalisation! The borders need to remain close, deportation need to be enforced. Like Dwight Eisenhower did in the 50′s and no one would accuse this great president of being a racist, he just used common sense.

Posted by frenchinla | Report as abusive


@Calfri – You write “Liberals also ignore that these immigrants hurt porr Americans the most”.

Hmmmmm. Are all the companies that hire undocumented workers owned by ‘liberals’?

Working at the root causes is the most effective way to stem the illegal immigration business – such as large fines for any US Company that is found employing the undocumented or illegally documented workforce – whether or not those workers are supplied by a third party. This would make the hiring of those types of employees undesirable freeing up jobs for US citizens. And don’t replay that US Citizens won’t do the work – that’s a bunch of malarky.”

I don’t disagree with any of that.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

You can only disown that which you own. These children are not ours, we do not own them, they do not belong here. It is literally impossible to “disown” them

Posted by sjmwilco | Report as abusive

And when we welcome these thousands, what of the millions which will follow? Are we to have borders? Is the ultimate solution to dilute the identity – and prosperity – of America to a level so low that the problem is solved because no one cares to come here anymore? We cannot support the entire world. It appears that those who plead with us on emotion do not really understand this – but they soon enough will. I wonder, then, who will help us?

Posted by esdraelon11 | Report as abusive

The article starts out with the initial “fled north and settled in US slums” would probably be better worded to say: fled north and many managed to illegally enter the US or were part of the Reagan amnesty. THEN they settled in US slums. The article is written to try to convince American readers that we were somehow culpable in the creation of the MS13 gang, that is total cr_p! The gang was created in Honduras and spread because of weak governments in their countries that exploit their people. They actively sabotage any culture they are allowed to stay in and should get the same treatment that muslim terrorists get. Why we tolerate terrorists or gangs is one of the downsides of being programmed for thirty years by liberal educators teaching diversity and America’s duty
to accept immigrants from third world countries first rather than from developed countries. Thank Ted Kennedy for that. We should change that as we have PLENTY of people from third world countries. We should also build a
really good wall to keep south America out.

Posted by gregio | Report as abusive

Mr. Gaines: Thank you for an editorial that sheds historical light on the plight of these children. I hope that you will continue to make connections that are needed by the public in order to make decisions based on something other than political narratives, which seek to stampede opinions in one direction or another. However, I think that your editorial raises a few unanswered questions; such as, are we better prepared than we were to care for these children than we were in the period you write about and thus, prevent gang membership and criminal behaviour patterns from repeating themselves? What of the very pressing problems we face now with these unaccompanied children? Many of the pictures I have seen depict isolation and squalor as the environment in which they are kept. How do we as concerned citizens protect them now from neglect, abuse and illness, which may arise in a confined and most vulnerable population? Please continue to offer your insights to the public and to our representatives.

Posted by Rose8 | Report as abusive

Unless Mr Gaines show proofs that he was there, know the gangs, lived in these countries, experienced the violence, then I’m just going to chalk this up as “hear says” at best, complete made up at worse. This is absolute delusional.

The US did more damage to Vietnam during the war, yet we do not see flood of Vietnamese coming to our shore illegally. I wish all these children crossing our borders today are Vietnamese. At least we know, as Asian, they work hard, and most likely contribute much more to the American economy, culture, etc.

America can and should turn these illegal kids back to their countries. These kids do not qualified for asylim under the current law. These are kids smuggled to Mexico by paid criminals. The parents are culpable in their children’s suffering. Obama must do right by the American people and send these illegals back asap, or face impeachment when the GOP takes over the senate in November.

Posted by ChinaSucksTV | Report as abusive

[…] 2. We can’t disown the children at our border. […]

Turkey has taken in more than 750,000 refugees (from Syria). And Turkey is smaller and poorer than we are.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

[…] Angeles, where many formed gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. President Clinton subsequently intensified US deportation programs targeting gang members, effectively exporting their violence to the […]

[…] records to Central America since 2000, with significant increases over the last few years. About 90% of those deported were shipped to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The recent escalation of deportations from […]

[…] responsibility” for the violence in the three countries. Noriega noted that the United States has repatriated 125,000 criminals to the Northern Triangle since 2000, a practice commonly cited as a principal cause of the three […]