These are desperate times in what several respondents in my more than 400 interviews describe as “a time of horror.” Here lies the true humanitarian crisis, not in the United States but in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from where thousands of children and adults are fleeing.
Homicide rates reported in local press are higher today than during declared civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala a few decades ago. In Honduras, the murder rate is eclipsed only by Syria and possibly South Sudan. With assault, disappearance, extortion and rape also at all-time highs, anywhere else must be better.
As a result, more and more children from these countries are arriving to the United States: between 6,000 and 8,000 through 2011; approximately 14,000 in 2012; nearly 24,000 in 2013 and likely upward of 60,000 this year.
But in only one of the interviews I completed prior to President Obama’s crisis designation did a child ask me about the DREAM Act. Fifteen heard the US treated children differently and wanted to know how. Otherwise, knowledge of the way the US system works is limited. Similarly, in the eight months I have been here, I have heard no radio ads or churches announcing that children will not be deported.
What’s more, after meeting hundreds fleeing areas where their neighbors, family or friends have been threatened or killed, I am convinced the reasons lie in the violence. Among the first 322 interviews I did with Salvadoran child migrants conducted between January and May, the largest percentage (60.1 percent) of boys and girls list crime, gang threats or violence as a reason for their emigration. In the past two years, reports by KIND, UNHCR, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Women’s Refugee Commission have cited similar numbers from interviews with child migrants in the US.This research is ongoing but the thread of the story seems quite consistent. People are being pushed to the US, not pulled. To be sure, the story is more complicated than that. The decades of migration from Central America to the US have created networks of people in the US and en route to the US that facilitate the migration, even of children. Thus, migration becomes an option that might not otherwise exist. Another key question is why the gang violence is so rampant and the answer seems to lie at least in part in the drug business. If North Americans didn't use drugs, these gangs might well not exist.