Commentary
6:39 am
Wed June 4, 2014

How Central American Kids Gave Us An Immigration Reality Check

Migration of the Innocents: A Central American toddler migrant being lifted onto the Mexican train known as "The Beast."
Migration of the Innocents: A Central American toddler migrant being lifted onto the Mexican train known as "The Beast."
Credit Keith Dannemiller / Photo courtesy of the International Organization for Migration. ©2014 IOM

We thought we had the border licked.

Both President Obama and his Republican opposition had been patting themselves on the back of late for making the 2,000-mile-long frontera between the United States and Mexico more forbidding for undocumented migrants. Fewer and fewer had been crossing each year, because of beefed-up border security and because Obama had made a policy of deporting indocumentados in record numbers.

And then a bunch of Central American kids had to spoil the celebration.

They had to give us a reality check – and remind us that no matter what we do on the border, or how many migrants we boot back south, those folks will come if they’re desperate enough. They will come. Period. Punto.

The U.S. Border Patrol is suddenly detaining an exploding number of unaccompanied children crossing into this country. It was fewer than 14,000 in 2012, then almost 25,000 last year. More than 60,000 are expected this year. And those are just the kids who get caught.

As I reported last fall, a full third of all undocumented youths being held in detention in South Florida are Honduran kids who trekked here by themselves.

Their stories are doubly harrowing when you consider their route from the Central American isthmus up through Mexico. They usually confront a menacing if not murderous gantlet of gang and police abuse, and they too often end up riding Mexican freight trains like the one migrants call "The Beast,” which WLRN’s Wilson Sayre reports on today.

RELATED: First Civil, Now Gang Wars. Who Would Want To Be President Of El Salvador?

As a result, Obama this week had to acknowledge what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation.” He directed the State and Homeland Security Departments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to start a relief effort for all those migrant minors. It could cost more than $2 billion.

The Administration also wants to determine the “root cause behind these recent migration trends” – as if there has to be some complex explanation.

But it’s not complicated. And it’s a reminder for the U.S. – where immigration reform is once again farcically stalled in Washington – that this isn’t about domestic policy. It’s about foreign policy.

Central America's child migrants remind us that immigration reform isn't about domestic policy. It's about foreign policy.

The core reason so many Central American kids are suddenly on our lawn is simple: Central America today is every child’s nightmare. The monsters aren’t in their closets or under their beds; they’re on every street corner, school yard and public bus. Bloodthirsty, garishly tattooed narco-gangs known as the maras have overrun the region, especially in Honduras, which today has the world’s highest murder rate.

And the maras are like the walking dead: They relentlessly recruit fresh young blood. I once spent a day inside a predominantly mara prison near San Salvador, and many inmates told me they’d been harnessed by a gang before they were teenagers.

Because of the violence, which has exacerbated the region’s already crushing poverty, more and more Central American migrants working here in the U.S. no longer plan to return home. They’re sending for their spouses and children – many if not most thinking U.S. officials won't be so quick to deport kids.

The recent Al Jazeera America TV series “Borderland” captures their dangerous and sometimes deadly odyssey through Mexico, as does a new collection of photos that Mexico-based photographer Keith Dannemiller recently shot for the International Organization for Migration. His images of terrified toddlers being lifted onto steel hulks like “The Beast” are particularly haunting – a Migration of the Innocents.

DOWNRIGHT INSANE

On the Frontera List blog, Dannemiller, an award-winning 30-year veteran in Latin America, points out the tragic bottom line driving this wave:

Someone recently remarked to him, he writes, that “getting on board that train with your baby [is] insanity. I disagree. Resigning oneself to staying behind in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, that’s what is without hope and downright insane.”

That’s all the root cause the Obama Administration really needs. Of course we have to stem illegal immigration. But we need to realize that it has far less to do with the fences we build on the border than with the economies and institutions we help build at illegal immigration’s source.

That means above all the three dysfunctional countries Dannemiller cites – the Central American “northern triangle” that the U.S. military has called the most dangerous region in the world outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the U.S.’s responsibility is especially deep there, because it’s Americans who buy the illegal drugs that fuel the region’s corrosive violence. And because, in the 1980s, Washington helped fuel the civil wars that devastated Central America and made it all the more vulnerable to contemporary predators like the maras.

The Cold War conflicts produced a lost generation of Central Americans. The mara carnage promises to leave another. Thousands of isthmus families have resolved to escape that fate – which is why so many thousands of isthmus children are now showing up at our border after riding beasts.

PHOTOS: See Keith Dannemiller's images of "The Beast"

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.