Immigration crisis or refugee calamity?

The massive influx in children fleeing Central America seeking safe haven in the United States has reached critical mass. While much of the coverage has looked at the issue from an immigration prism, perhaps a more accurate depiction of the situation is through the refugee lens. Many of the young children risking life and limb to reach the U.S. border are fleeing certain death as violence and crime have overrun their communities.

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Unfortunately, much of the debate is centered on finding solutions to combat U.S. failed immigration policies, however, the failed policy that needs addressing is combating state failure. The root cause lies in the glaring and obvious failures of the state, namely El Salvador’s and Honduras’ inability to protect their citizens, primarily their most vulnerable—children—from the unspeakable violence plaguing every aspect of society. Consider these facts:
  •  More than half of the top 50 Central American cities from which children are leaving for the U.S. are in Honduras.
  •  Central America has the highest homicide, femicide, and sexual violence rates in the world; pushing more young girls to leave home.
  •  El Salvador saw a sharp drop in homicides after its two largest gangs called a truce in 2012 but that truce has not held in some areas and murders of children 17 and under are up more than 77 percent.

This is a crisis of state failure, not immigration. And once again, the United States is caught flat-footed. Similar to other crises, including the Middle East, Boko Haram’s reign of terror in Nigeria, with Central America there is no U.S. strategy for addressing fragile or failing states.

To date, there are nearly 60 failing states around the world, impacting more than one billion people. These nations can implode under their own weight in the blink of an eye and the collateral damage to neighboring countries can be equally catastrophic. For example, look no further than the bloody civil war plaguing Syria and how it’s drawn in its neighbors.

The Central American triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala mirrors the devastation seen throughout the Middle East. Blood is spilled continually and neighboring nations—paragons of peace and progress—are threatened by the fallout. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama have made tremendous strides over the past decade. However, poor police capacity and significant problems with smuggling and money laundering could derail the growth seen in these Southern nations.

So far, the American response has been to treat this as an immigration issue without delving into the root causes forcing people to make the decision to send their children on these dangerous treks to the United States. As with most issues of this magnitude, the situation is more complicated than people escaping violence. The most commonly discussed cause is the prevalence of violent gangs controlling communities the children are fleeing. This hints at the larger issue that the governments of these countries have failed to extend state control. They are lax in providing basic services and enforcing the rule of law, leaving portions of their countries as depositories of deadly violence.

The lack of state control alongside some of the historically highest levels of inequality on earth and ineffectual “mano dura” security policies implemented in the last decade have allowed for an environment where parallel systems of control have developed. This is further complicated by the fact that these countries have historically been violent, with the overwhelming violence against citizens perpetrated by the state, leading to a citizenry that does not feel safe in their communities and does not trust that the state will come to their aid.

Unfortunately, the U.S. solution to the violence seems to be a policy of containment along the U.S.-Mexico border through security and less emphasis on democracy. Meanwhile, real answers such as added support to the universal extension of the rule of law in these countries, empowering local municipalities and investing in education and economic opportunities that can provide viable alternatives to criminal enterprise and create democratic societies are ignored.

Until the root causes of the violence are addressed the children will keep coming; only now they will evade U.S. authorities and hide in the shadows. Policymakers need to determine if they are willing to pay on the front end via democratic stabilization of neighboring nations or the more expensive option on the back end; increased border patrols; National Guard support; increased judicial support and social welfare services. Not surprisingly, the U.S. is already paying the higher price.

Ham is a former congressional staffer and co-author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding. Vigil is a former UN Peacekeeper and co-author of A Window of Hope: El Salvador’s Opportunity to Address History of Violence.

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