Children are uniquely vulnerable to gang violence. The street gangs known as “maras” — M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — target kids for forced recruitment, usually in their early teenage years, but sometimes as young as kindergarten. They also forcibly recruit girls as “girlfriends,” a euphemistic term for a non-consensual relationship that involves rape by one or more gang members.
If children defy the gang’s authority by refusing its demands, the punishment is harsh: rape, kidnapping, and murder are common forms of retaliation. Even attending school can be tremendously dangerous, because gangs often target schools as recruitment sites and children may have to pass through different gangs’ territories, or ride on gang-controlled buses, during their daily commutes.
Why now? The Economist‘s take:
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have had shockingly high murder rates for years, however. The reason so many of them have decided to leave at once is a widespread rumour that Mr Obama’s administration has relaxed the barriers against children—and their mothers if the children are young enough—entering the United States.
A leaked border-agency memo based on interviews with 230 women and children apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley concluded that they had crossed the border mainly because they expected to be allowed to stay. Migrants talk of a “permiso” (permit) to stay in the United States, although this may be a misunderstanding of the American immigration procedure in which many children are put in the care of family members while waiting for deportation hearings. Some Hondurans conspiratorially say they think America is preparing for war; that’s why they are letting more youngsters in. Others blame Facebook: it is easy for relatives in the United States to show the trappings of prosperity.
Julianne Hing disputes the notion that Obama’s policies are to blame for the influx:
Republican lawmakers are having a field day casting Obama administration policy, namely DACA—a program initiated in 2012 which gave a narrow class of undocumented youth short-term work authorization and protection from deportation—as responsible for the sudden uptick of new migrants. In early June, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions even called Obama “personally responsible” for the influx, Think Progress reported. It’s become popular political fodder for politicians with midterm elections on the mind.
However, humanitarian groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Women’s Refugee Commission have noted the jump in unaccompanied minor border crossings since late 2011 (PDF), long before Obama announced DACA in June of 2012. What’s more, in interviews with hundreds of detained youth, multiple agencies and researchers have found that the vast majority have no idea about the existence of DACA, let alone the notion that they might take advantage of it for themselves.
Dara Lind accuses the administration of getting its response to the crisis backwards:
The Obama administration now believes that the government’s top priority should be swiftly returning a child to his or her home country if it’s not immediately clear that he or she deserves legal status here. That means the administration sees this as an immigration crisis — children coming to the United States because they can, for economic opportunity, family reunification, or to game the system. If that’s the case, a crackdown will deter families from sending their children, because the odds would no longer be in their favor.
It means they don’t see it as a refugee crisis — children will now be assumed not to be in danger unless they can prove otherwise. But if families are currently sending children because they’re genuinely convinced the children are in mortal danger, a crackdown won’t have as much of a deterrent effect.
(Photo: A policeman checks a man during the operation ‘safe house’ at the Maquilishuat neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador on January 15, 2014. Salvadorean police make ‘safe house’ operations to search for drugs and gang members in violent neighborhoods. By Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)