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.