Why are children fleeing their home countries to seek assistance in the United States? One mother tells her story:
“I know it’s not the best solution, to send her to the U.S., but what else can we do? We have no place to go.” She said when she tried to work from home, cutting hair so she could be with her daughter in the afternoons, the gangs demanded she pay “la renta.” Unable to make the payments, she closed her business and began working in a nearby town, leaving her daughter vulnerable to harassment by the gangs while she was away from home. “It’s an intolerable situation. I know the journey is dangerous, but it’s dangerous here,” she said.
Such desperation is typical of the stories told to a delegation from the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (MRS/USCCB) which traveled to Southern Mexico and Central America last year to examine and understand the dangers faced by children in the region.
As the situation now unfolds, commentators on all sides are offering different theories about why so many have suddenly taken on the perilous journey. It is estimated that by year’s end, 90,000 unaccompanied minors will have crossed the border.
The fact is, it isn’t sudden. The U.S. Bishops have been deeply concerned about this issue for some time and have continually bolstered awareness of the issue.
The MRS/USCCB delegation reported their findings in a 16-page report released in November last year - Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States. The report points out that “[s]ince 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of unaccompanied migrating children arriving into the country.”
Why is this happening? What has changed in these regions? The report elaborates on some recent shifts in the region.
One overriding factor is the rise of violence. “Generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness.”
The violence detailed in the report takes on many forms - extortion, kidnapping, threats, and coercive and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity. Trans-national criminal organizations, drug cartels and gangs are the major culprits.
Other root causes are the absence of economic opportunity, the lack of quality education and the inability for individuals to financially support themselves, among other recent shifts:
- Criminal organizations have expanded geographically in Central America and have become more sophisticated both in terms of operation and execution.
- Guatemala seen the demise of the coffee industry in recent years. (Last year, Guatemala's President declared a national emergency over the spread coffee rust, a fungus that is affecting 70 percent of the country's crop.)
- Political instability in Honduras has led to the absence of good governance and a breakdown in the rule of law. It has the highest murder rate in the world. 93% of crimes perpetrated against youth in Honduras go unpunished.
- El Salvador is particularly dependent on remittances from the U.S. amd has been severely affected by the global recession.
The delegation reported that “Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador lack the capacity to protect children in their law enforcement, child and social welfare, and educational systems. Gangs and other criminal elements are active in many communities and schools, and the government is unable to curb their influence because of corruption, lack of political will or lack of resources. Law enforcement personnel, low-paid and low-skilled, are compromised by these criminal elements. National educational systems are inadequately funded, with many children only advancing to 6thor 7th grade. Child welfare services are virtually non-existent, as are foster care and family reunification and reintegration services.”
The report concludes with a comprehensive set of recommendations, for the U.S. Government as well as those countries south of the border, with the primary concern being the safety of the children. Read the full report here, in English and Spanish.