US/Mexico Border. Wikimedia Commons.
By Chris Hershberger-Esh, MCC’s Context Analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Mexico City.
Starting in late June, U.S. and international media became fixated on the surge of unaccompanied minors showing up at the United States border, coming primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala (“The Northern Triangle”).
The extensive media coverage brought needed attention to the root causes that push people to migrate, which previously had been sorely lacking from the immigration discussion in the United States. When Central American migrants continued to come despite the horrific realities of the journey through Mexico and then across the militarized border of the United States, one had to ask: What conditions back home made this journey their best option? There has been far more discussion on the push factors of migration this summer than I’ve seen in years of immigration debate in the United States.
Those of us working on these issues, however, recognize the shortcomings of this media blitz. For one, the issues of violence and instability did not just appear this summer. These three countries have had crisis-levels of violence for years now.
Further, the split-second attention span of the media meant this story’s time in the limelight would be limited. As the numbers of incoming children began to slow down and other crises emerged around the world, the media’s attention to the child migrant crisis has began to dwindle.
Google Trends data on the number of news searches for “Unaccompanied Minors” since May. The graph looks the same for “Migrant Crisis” and “Child Migrant” searches.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for the attention this issue has received, even if it is short-lived. The issue has produced some excellent analysis of the region’s historical and current context. So before this media moment is completely gone, I’ve prepared a summary of what we’ve learned so far, and highlighted some of the most intelligent coverage.
Starting with the latest news, what is causing the number of incoming migrants to drop? The Obama administration attributes it partially to their media blitz in Central America, where they attempted to dispel myths about the United States welcoming child migrants. They also credited the expedited process of deportation. Other factors may also be at play:
Scorching summer temperatures are one explanation: According to trends based on Customs and Border Patrol statistics, migration numbers generally peak around the spring months of February, March and April, while falling during the summer because of the lethal effects of extreme heat along the southwest border.
And while the number of Central American migrants entering the U.S. has declined, the figures are still high.
Nobody, however, has suggested that the conditions in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala have improved, even slightly. The violence and instability behind this crisis have remained constant–the crisis didn’t just start this year, and it certainly didn’t end this month.
One clarification: this is not about the drug war or the cartels. Yes, the cartels have moved their operations into Central America after the United States shut down the Caribbean smuggling routes. These cartels can be awful of course, but they are primarily focused on moving their product.
It is the gangs, not cartels that have terrorized communities throughout the Northern Triangle. They are not the same thing.
Oscar Martinez wrote an excellent piece for The New Republic on El Salvador’s gang crisis:
Many of the Central Americans now coming into the United States never wanted to leave their country. For them, the proper verb is not migrar, but huir—to flee.
Those gangs, however, didn’t originate in El Salvador:
Both of Central America’s major gangs were founded decades ago in California, by Latin American migrants who banded together in order to defend themselves from gangs already ruling there. By the mid-’90s, the U.S. government had decided it was a good idea to deport thousands of gang members each year, many of whom had committed small crimes. The gangs grew quickly and are still spreading. The United States seemed to have forgotten the golden rule of migration. Forgotten that migration works like a boomerang. There are cliques of MS-13, such the Sailors Locos Salvatrucha, that formed in El Salvador but whose members are now migrating to Washington, D.C.
While the gangs may carry out much of the violence, however, Saul Elbein argues they are still not the root cause driving Guatemalans to flee. Rather, it is the lack of law and order, where violence is power and impunity is rampant. From elite business families to cartels, gangs, and private security forces, those with firearms fill the power void (which describes Honduras and El Salvador too). Gangs thrive in this violent chaos, but they are a symptom, not a cause:
That lone guard explains something powerful about the way that Guatemala works, and what those migrants are fleeing—a world in which you can only achieve safety through force; and you can’t count on the government for anything.
But what’s up with Nicaragua? Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, has a minuscule homicide rate (11.3 per 100,000) compared to Honduras (90.4), El Salvador (41.2) and Guatemala (39.9). Jill Replogle explores this phenomenon:
But unlike its neighbors, Nicaragua has a relatively low crime rate, an absence of transnational gangs and a generally trusted police force that focuses on crime prevention, according to a KPBS examination of historical documents, economic information, and interviews with U.S. and Central American academics, journalists and residents.
The forces driving the migration crisis are highly complex, but that does not imply they came out of nowhere. Many observers in the region have been expressing grave concern for some time now:
Two years ago, Shifter wrote a prophetic report for the Council on Foreign Relations, another Washington think tank, warning that criminal violence in the region would escalate. He also warned that the longer the U.S. and local governments failed to act, the harder it would be to quell the violence and safeguard hopes for democracy in the region.
Shifter takes no pleasure in being proved right.
This is part of an excellent (and beautifully formatted) series by AZ Central covers everything you need to know: Immigration Surge Rooted in the History of Central America.
The truth is, this crisis has been developing for decades. The problems will not be solved by quicker deportations from the United States or further militarization of the police in the region. Simple approaches generally do not solve complex, deeply rooted problems.
But we’ve seen in Nicaragua that this violence is not caused by poverty, nor is it a curse of post-civil war societies, nor is it solved with heavy-handed policing. Rather, it’s about rebuilding trust and stability in these communities that have been so damaged by decades of destructive policies.
This is possible, but it will take far longer than the duration of the media’s attention span.
*** MCC Action alert: Protect children and families fleeing violence ***
MCC Washington’s Resource Page on the Migration Crisis: includes articles, small group studies, worship resources, fact sheets, sign on letters and more.
And if you’re tired of reading, here is a nice 4-minute video that nicely sums it up: