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4 Perspectives Addressing the Central American Child Migrant Crisis in the US

September 2, 2014

Over the last few months the world has reacted with outrage to the tragic stories of unaccompanied immigrant children — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — fleeing across the Mexico border into the US. As this humanitarian crisis deepens, it raises several questions: who bears the responsibility to care for these children? What role does the war on drugs play in this situation? How can we reverse this growing issue? What strategies are working to improve security and stem the spread of violence in Central America?

We asked four Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows, each with a different vantage point on this crisis, to answer the following question: From your perspective, what should be done to address the Central American child migrant crisis in the US? Read below for their responses.

Eva Rodriguez, Central America Leadership Initiative, director, Transformando Conflictos Partners, El Salvador

“According to US officials, about 120 unaccompanied children are arriving each day to the US. The number has tripled over the last five years and could soon reach 60,000 a year. That could grow to 130,000 a year in 2015. Why? I think it is due to a complex combination of increased violence and [the perception of] insecurity in the region, along with the messages passed on by the ‘coyotes’ who have seen a good business opportunity taking the young to the US-Mexico border. The desire to leave is also linked to fear of being recruited by gangs or simply due to the next generation’s perception through media and social networks that “life” is to be found beyond their pueblo (small town).

Working with youth violence prevention in El Salvador means definitely working with a generation that sees very few alternatives when they stay in my country. But very few alternatives is not the same as no alternatives. Our private sector has excellent programs that offer jobs — but some youth are excluded as businesses fear infiltration from the gangs. Just having your address in the ‘wrong community’ can prevent a worthy young person from getting an opportunity.

The strategy of the US and Salvadoran governments to spend significant resources warning young people and their families about the dangers of migrating and the realities of US immigration law will have limited results. The dangers of migrating are widely known. It would be better to intensify the limited efforts, community by community, of working one-on-one with youth on acquiring the skills and knowledge to have a meaningful future in their own country — and then to use their successes to show other youth possible pathways they could take. This entails good communication and collaboration between public and private initiatives. Private initiatives may include the private sector in the US selecting good Salvadoran corporate social responsibility initiatives,  the funding of multi-stakeholder roundtables that include the perspective of youth, adopt-a-school or community programs, among others. We can all be part of the solution.”

Simon Rosenberg, Henry Crown Fellow, president, New Democrat Network/New Policy Institute, USA

“The causes of the Central American migrant crisis are not simple, nor will be our nation’s response if it is to be successful. 

A lot has contributed to the crisis: expanding regional influence of the Mexican cartels and transnational organized crime, weak regional civil society and legal authority, lack of economic opportunity for people in the region, and holes in the American immigration system, which have been relentlessly exploited by human traffickers and other criminal actors. So far the Obama Administration’s whole government response has been smart: providing support to the three countries producing the migrants, unprecedented cooperation with Mexico in addressing the crisis, adherence to existing American laws for the processing of the children and families apprehended, and rapid deportation of those not qualified to remain in the US. The flow of child migrants is slowing, regional cooperation is on the rise, and a degree of order is being restored. 

But over the long haul the US will have to develop and then implement a much more robust regional strategy to create regional economic opportunity, strengthen civil society and citizen security, and modernize and improve our own immigration laws. Perhaps drawing from other successful initiatives like the Marshall Plan or Plan Colombia, the US needs a new and far better sustained strategy to improve the lives of our neighbors to the South. This effort will also have to include discussions about our own lax gun laws, which have helped arm criminal elements in the region, and our own insatiable desire for illegal drugs, which is helping create the breeding ground from which the increasingly powerful transnational organized crime syndicates have spawned.” 

Aline Flores, Central America Leadership Initiative, president, Honduran Business Council, Honduras

“I believe this problem goes beyond the work that the Honduran government and other sectors are doing. It is a humanitarian multi-national problem that must be addressed in this way. 

First, we must create opportunities at home for those who are deported back to their countries. One example of this is the Friend of the Migrant program run by Honduran Association of Banking Institutions, which aims to provide minimal training and incentives for our repatriated migrants to use the skills they acquired abroad to start small businesses or successfully re-enter the labor market and provide for their family.

The second solution is in the long term, creating conditions that favor investment, job creation, and social protection. In order to do this, we are working to make Honduras’ economy more competitive and solve the efficiency and transparency problems of public institutions so as to restore confidence in areas such as health, education and security,  and macroeconomic stability.”

Jaime Zablah Siri, Central America Leadership Initiative, vice president for Latin America, Hartsook Companies, El Salvador

“Over the last couple of years, thousands of unaccompanied children under the age of 18 from Central America have been crossing the border into the US at great risk. Why is this? Because the level of violence in those countries has become unlivable. The northern triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) is the most violent region in the world. Parents are trying to get their kids to a safer place, trying to get them to relatives in the US, or even to unknown destinations assuming that, even if the road or path is a dangerous one, their loved ones will have a better future.

The solution is not simple. We need to see drastic action taken by both the US and the Central America northern triangle countries. These actions should include violence prevention and rehabilitation programs, not only in the Central American region, but also in the US, which has a high concentration of illegal immigrants. There should be a media campaign in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and in the places in the US where these immigrants are received, warning of the dangers of the immigration process and telling the reality of the situation for immigrants in the US. 

But this will not be enough. I also believe that the US must help these countries, but not by simply absorbing all of the immigrants. I think that conditions or incentives should be applied, so that for example, if El Salvador reduces their murder rate, Salvadorian immigrants will receive Temporary Protected Status. All of this must be previously negotiated and with visible results expected in a short period of time. This will make the countries act and will provide results that are beneficial both to the US and for their own citizens.”

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.