Southern Border Crisis a Symptom of Long-Term Problems11 Aug 2014
The sudden surge of unaccompanied minors across our southwestern border caught nearly everyone by surprise, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP notes that although “overall border apprehensions have only slightly increased” in recent months, “and remain at historic lows,” the number of children caught attempting to enter the United States illegally has ballooned from 27,884 in fiscal year (FY) 2013 to 57,525 in FY14. [See Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, July 2014.]
As we might expect, some have blamed President Obama for the surge, arguing that his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – by providing temporary legal status and work permits to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children – was tantamount to a mass invitation: “Come here, and we won’t send you back.” Just how much that may be a factor is open to debate – after all, DACA is old news, and was announced in the summer of 2012. The “mass invitation” explanation seems more designed to score political points than to explain the complex genesis of the current crisis. As is so often the case in Washington, the truth is more complicated.
For example, it’s not a coincidence that most of the unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the U.S. border come from four countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico – that are beset by serious social, economic, and political problems. All of these countries have troubled histories, fraught with poverty, corruption, and gross disparities in the distribution of wealth and political power. Add to that the recent epidemic of drug-related violence by gangs that actively recruit children and teens to their ranks, and it becomes easier to understand why so many Mexican and Central American children would risk everything to make the perilous and uncertain journey northward. Faced with a dystopian future – the kind of lives Thomas Hobbes described as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short – they simply vote with their feet. A few key statistics give a sense of just how bad the situation is.
- Violence – First off, there’s the immediate threat to personal safety in these countries. According to the United Nations (U.N.), the rate of homicide in Central America is four times the global average, and young people are especially at risk: a recent U.N. study found that “the homicide rate for male victims aged 15-29 in South America and Central America is more than four times the global average rate for that age group.” [See Global Study on Homicide, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013.
- Poverty – The World Bank points out that, although many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have made progress in reducing poverty in recent years, about 80 million people in the region still live in extreme poverty, “…half of them in Brazil and Mexico. And millions more who have risen out of poverty risk being pulled back down into it by economic shocks and severe weather brought on by climate change.” [See Shifting Gears to Accelerate Shared Prosperity in Latin America and the Caribbean, World Bank, Doc. No. 78507, June 2013.] The same study places El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the bottom of its regional human opportunity index (HOI), showing an extreme lack of equity in access to basic services such as clean water, education, electricity, and sanitation. Several states in Mexico likewise post disturbingly low HOI figures, even though the national average is higher than several of its Central American counterparts.
- Corruption – This problem is rampant in all four of the main sending countries of unaccompanied minors. According to Transparency International, a global anti-corruption coalition, El Salvador ranks 83rd in the world in the perceived level of public corruption, out of 177 countries, placing it behind Bulgaria, Senegal, and Swaziland, for example. Mexico ranks 106th; Guatemala, 123rd; and Honduras, 140th. [See Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, Transparency International, November 2013.] Endemic official corruption not only affects access to basic services, it affects access to basic justice. It strongly inhibits investment and economic development, and contributes to a long-term lack of decent jobs, further reinforcing the cycle of poverty.
We wish to make clear that we don’t condone illegal immigration. Given the scope of this humanitarian crisis, however – a crisis long in the making – we all should be leery of short-term fixes that are merely palliative, and do not address the underlying causes. Migration is a multi-faceted issue, and our foreign policy in the region should reflect this. If we don’t help our neighbors to the south to alleviate poverty and injustice in their own countries – for children as well as adults – we shouldn’t be surprised or inhumane when they reach our borders in search of hope.
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