Deportations, border security will worsen child crisis

Children younger than 2 years old landed in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city with the highest murder rate in the world, late Monday afternoon. These innocent toddlers were among the 18 mothers and 22 children that received expedited deportations back to Central America from the family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.

Nearly 60,000 children have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border since October, fleeing increasing gang violence in communities across Central America’s northern triangle. To address this humanitarian crisis, Congress and the president must understand the violence driving children out of Central America, the impact of past policies and the importance of investments in Central American communities and civil society.

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President Obama’s $3.7 billion funding request to Congress does not include enough funding for programs to address root causes. More than half of the request funds heightened enforcement, family detention centers and insufficient repatriation efforts. The administration is also seeking authority to expedite deportations. As the administration and Congress weigh their options, the trauma that women and young children have experienced in their home countries should weigh heavily on our nation’s conscience.

Increasing the deportations of children and other migrants will only make the situation in Central America worse. It is important to remember that the gang violence that is causing these children to flee is actually a result of U.S. deportation policies. Central American gangs (MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang) originated on the streets of Los Angeles, California, formed by migrants who fled the U.S. funded civil wars of the 1980s. State instituitions, significantly weakened by the civil wars, were ill-prepared to handle a flood of deportees, allowing the gangs to flourish.

The governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala repeatedly turn to militarized security programs to address gangs and organized crime. Yet within the context of weak state institutions, rampant corruption and impunity, these “security” measures, fortified by U.S. funding, has only bred more violence and insecurity in the region.

The murder rate in Central America, especially Honduras and El Salvador, is at an all-time high and has been on the rise since 2008. Children are increasingly the target of gang conscription and violent crimes; in Honduras, boys living in the most dangerous towns face a 1 in 150 chance of being murdered.

Stories of young girls being raped by gangs and boys tortured for resisting gang conscription are devastating.  At a focus group discussion held by the Women’s Refugee Commission in Brownsville, Texas, a staff member was told the story of ‘Jenny,’ who found pieces of a body in a plastic bag at her door “as a warning from the gangs about what would happen to her if she did not become the "girlfriend" of a gang member.”

Between January and March an average of 90 children were murdered every month in Honduras, a country with a population smaller than New York City. If the U.S. had the same child murder rate, 3600 children would be dying every month.         

With less than a dozen legislative working days left, Congress must act to address the humanitarian crisis. But it is irresponsible to enact policies without understanding the heart-wrenching conflict children experience in their home countries, and how poorly conceived past foreign policy contributed to the crisis. Beefed up border security, weakened legal protections and expedited deportations will only add to the suffering of these traumatized children.

We must act quickly in the short term to address the safety and legal needs of the children, while also addressing the root causes of violence in Central America. A long-term response would seriously consider a radical shift in U.S. policies toward the region.

For too long our policies have been driven by the so called “war on drugs” that prioritizes an overly militarized approach. This has caused massive breakdowns in community resilience structures, weakened civilian institutions, and exacerbated human rights abuses. The U.S. should instead invest more in strengthening judicial systems, promoting journalistic freedoms, and creating spaces for local civil society to hold their own government accountable.

We have an opportunity to address deep-seeded problems in our region, but Obama’s proposals are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past. Children and families don’t want to leave their homes. We must enact sound policies that make it safe for them to build a life in their communities.

Johnson is a program assistant and Sitther is the legislative secretary for peacebuilding policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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