Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming
In a country with more than 6 million inhabitants, the 18th Street Gang and the Mara Salvatrucha have some 60,000 members, according to El Salvador’s Ministry of Security and Justice. Their presence is felt everywhere; they control entire neighborhoods, extorting regular fees from residents and business owners alike. In June, residents abandoned three apartment buildings in the capital because they could not afford to make monthly payments to the gangs. Gang violence is such a fixture of life here that the legislative assembly recently approved a change in the law that would allow those accused of murder—who, under Salvadoran law, are typically held in jail until police finish investigating the crime—to go free as the investigation proceeds if they can show that they acted to protect themselves from harm. Lawmakers said the change was necessary to provide the public with the “tools for self-defense.” Altogether, gang violence accounts for 40 percent of the murders in El Salvador and 27 percent of the overall crime.
The gangs not only recruit heavily among children, who act as messengers or drug runners because they are better able to evade detection by police; they are also recruiting younger and younger children. According to El Salvador’s National Public Security Council, the typical age at which children enter the gangs has dropped from 14 to 12. The Mara Salvatrucha recruits children as young as 8 or 9.
El Salvador’s minister of education has attributed the high dropout rate at many schools to gang recruitment. The gangs’ constant turf wars also keep some kids out of school. If a school is in an area controlled by the Mara, the gang will not allow children who live in neighborhoods controlled by the 18th Street Gang (known in El Salvador as Barrio 18) to attend. Students in some areas must carry backpacks made of transparent plastic to ensure that they are not carrying weapons, and they are searched by police before entering classrooms.
As the case of David de la O shows, saying no to a gang can be dangerous, and hiding is nearly impossible. For many, the best option—and in some cases, the only option—is to flee.
In 2009, I met three brothers traveling through Mexico on their way to the United States. Auner, the eldest, was 20. His siblings, who went by Chele and Pitbull, were 16 and 17. They had decided to flee El Salvador after violence came knocking at their door. First, two gang members were killed right outside of their home. Then their mother, who sold snacks on the sidewalk and had witnessed the murder, was killed by a gunshot wound to the head a few months later. Auner’s explanation for leaving is straightforward: “I’m running because I’m scared they’re going to kill me.” As with many of the children I met during the three years I spent reporting on migration through Mexico, Auner and his siblings had nowhere near the $7,000 to pay a coyote to take them to a relative in the United States. They had to leave El Salvador on their own, traveling by bus, staying in hostels, and navigating the treacherous journey on the advice of fellow migrants. I accompanied them until they reached the city of Oaxaca in south-central Mexico. Last I heard, they were on the outskirts of Mexico City; without a peso in their pockets, they planned to hop aboard a cargo train headed north.
As thousands of children like Auner, Chele and Pitbull arrive at the US border, it is important to remember the role the United States has played in creating this mass migration. In the 1970s and ’80s, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were in the midst of either bloody civil wars or fierce government repression in which the United States played an iron-fisted role. Fearing the spread of communism in Latin America, the United States supported the autocratic military governments of these three countries, which in turn generated thousands of northbound migrants. Some of these migrants went on to join gangs in California. The 18th Street Gang and the Mara Salvatrucha were not formed in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala but in the United States. Some fifty years ago, the 18th Street Gang splintered off from Clanton 14 in Southern California. The Mara Salvatrucha formed in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. At the end of the ’80s and the start of the ’90s, the United States deported close to 4,000 gang members. When they arrived back in Central America, they found fertile conditions in which to increase their numbers: countries devastated by war and poverty, with thousands upon thousands of corruptible and abandoned children.
But it would be an oversimplification to say that the flight of children to the United States is the product of violence alone.
Rubén Zamora is currently the Salvadoran ambassador to the UN and, until a month ago, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States. With his replacement awaiting confirmation by the Salvadoran Senate, Zamora has been left to address the international implications of the child migrant crisis. Zamora explains that there is no single cause of the surge in child migrants. In addition to gang activity, Zamora says that the improving economic conditions experienced by Salvadoran migrants to the United States have acted as a draw. “From sharing a single room with a group of people, now some migrants can pay $1,000 a month and rent a two-bedroom apartment for themselves in the suburbs,” he says. And that means “more people can pay to bring their children to the US.”
Thousands of migrants from Central America are ineligible for temporary protected status—not because they’ve violated any law but because they missed the cutoff dates. The United States offers a mere 5,000 visas for low-skilled workers every year. For many, the only chance for gaining legal status in the United States is the asylum process, and it’s a long shot. Over the last few decades, in part as a response to the wave of Central American migrants fleeing the civil wars, the United States has narrowed the definition of who qualifies for asylum. Because most of those fleeing Central America are not doing so because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” they are ineligible.
I recently asked two immigration lawyers from California and North Carolina how many requests for asylum they file each week. “At least ten,” they said. They’ve lost track of how many migrants they’ve represented over the years. But the tally of those who have been successful is easy to remember: none.
“Parents don’t see any chance of bringing their children legally to the US,” Zamora says, “so what options are left for them?”
The case of Sandra, a Salvadoran woman who migrated to the United States eleven years ago, is typical. She crossed without papers and remains undocumented. Working at a laundromat in Maryland, she isn’t wealthy. But she has been able to save enough money to bring her children across. Two years ago, she paid a coyote $7,000 to bring her 15-year-old daughter to the States. A month ago, Sandra hired another to bring her 12-year-old son as well. The coyote gave her two options: she could pay $7,500 for her son to be brought to Maryland, or $4,500 for him to be taken to the US-Mexico border, where he would be handed over to the US Border Patrol. The coyote assured Sandra that he knew how the laws worked and that her son would eventually be turned over to her. Sandra chose the cheaper option. But the child was caught by authorities in southern Mexico and deported back to El Salvador.
Sandra knows she doesn’t have a chance to get papers legally. She wouldn’t even qualify for a visa if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass. And yet she is a mother who wants to be close to the child she hasn’t seen in eleven years.
Sandra is originally from La Unión in eastern El Salvador, where gang members have begun charging extortion fees in her former neighborhood. The gangs, she hears, are closing in on her son.
I asked her if she would try again to bring her son to the United States. “Yes,” Sandra said.
The root of the child migrant crisis is simple: undocumented Central American mothers and fathers want to be reunited with their children. And because they don’t see an end to the violence that is rapidly encroaching on their kids in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, these parents have only one option—coyotes.
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