Meet the refugees from the War on Drugs

Over the past few weeks, the sudden explosion of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America entering the United States has received a lot of press. On June 2, President Obama announced that his administration was seeking congressional approval for an extra $1.4 billion in federal funding to help alleviate what he described as an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

According to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the number of “unaccompanied alien children” CBP “encountered” rose from 3,304 in fiscal year 2009 to over 46,000 so far in FY2014. put together a helpful graphic to visualize the data:

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In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees CBP’s parent agency, pushed back against Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn’s suggestion that the desire for citizenship or reuniting with family members might be the driving force behind the recent surge. “I think it is primarily the conditions in the countries that they are leaving from,” Johnson said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also recently implied that these immigrants are seeking to somehow take advantage of being in the US. “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” he said

This explanation seems highly suspect in light of the fact that total net migration from Latin America to the US has been in decline while deportations have been on the rise in recent years. Furthermore, the government’s treatment of immigrants can hardly be characterized as “lax.” The Obama administration’s harsh immigration, detention and deportation policies have sparked widespread criticism and even civil disobedience in the United States.

In attempting to reach the United States via Mexico, migrants from Central America of all ages undertake risks that include being abandoned, extorted, robbed, kidnapped, raped, enslaved and even accidentally dismembered along the way. In April of this year, hundreds of undocumented migrants from Central America marched on Mexico’s presidential residence to voice their demand that the country “ensure [their] right to free passage…without humiliation or violence, on [their] way to the northern border.”

After enduring harrowing journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles and after paying hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars to smugglers and criminals, many of these migrants – including an increasingly large number of children – reach the United States only to be apprehended, detained and eventually shipped back across the border.

Being detained after entering the United States, especially for children, can be just as traumatic as any other part of the trip. The infrastructure to deal with the recent influx of juvenile migrants simply doesn’t exist. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 1,366 children were illegally held in adult facilities for more than 72 hours. Conditions at overcrowded youth facilities sometimes border on inhumane. A number of migrants’ rights groups recently filed a joint complaint with DHS alleging extremely disturbing physical, psychological and sexual abuses suffered by unaccompanied migrant children at the hands of Border Patrol authorities.

Considering the extreme burdens and risks involved in attempting to unlawfully immigrate to the United States from Central America, one must ask why one would undertake such a treacherous passage. (Many try more than once.) Is the allure of life in the United States simply too much to resist, or is it “primarily the conditions in the countries that [migrants] are leaving from” that are behind the recent spike?

Let’s take closer look at three of the countries Vox and CBP highlighted – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. On top is the raw number of child migrants “encountered” by CPB from each country and below are the per capita rates:

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In 2009, Honduras underwent a coup supported by the United States, which installed a government whose economic policies have resulted in increased poverty and unemployment in addition to decreased economic growth and social spending. According to the CIA, Honduras has the eighth-worst wealth inequality in the world and more than half of the nation’s population lives in poverty.

According to the same agency, Guatemala sits only three places away from its neighbor as the eleventh most-unequal country on earth (also with a majority of its citizens in poverty.) El Salvador ranks thirtieth in inequality, with more than one-third of its population living in poverty. Unemployment in both El Salvador and Guatemala also remain relatively high.

But economic factors alone do not offer a complete explanation for the increase in child migration. Mexico too is highly unequal and has major problems with underemployment and poverty, but immigration by Mexican nationals has basically flatlined during the last few years.

Let’s look at some more data. Here’s the homicide rate in each country per 100,000 people, including Mexico:

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Mexico certainly isn’t bragging about its homicide rate of 15 or 20 per 100,000, but it’s fairly clear that the three countries that comprise the “Northern Triangle” are facing much higher levels of violence. In 2013, the Americas superseded Africa as the world’s most violent region, in large part due to crime-related killings in Central America. Last year San Pedro Sula, Honduras was named the “deadliest city in the world” for its murder rate of 169 per 100,000.

In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has linked the rising number of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle to the growth of crime-related violence in those countries, noting that “while the United States is receiving the majority of the new asylum claims, combined, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, documented a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications from citizens of these three countries.”

Considering this, something seems off about these charts:

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Despite markedly higher rates of violence in the Northern Triangle, those countries have received US security aid less than or proportional to what Mexico receives in recent years. Also, the State Department’s own estimates suggest that a large and increasing percentage of drugs and other illicit goods trafficked to the United States flow through the Northern Triangle. Yet anti-narcotics funding for those countries is once again less than or proportional to what Mexico has received:

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While the trend seems to be shifting toward providing more assistance to the Northern Triangle, the US government’s own estimates suggest that trafficking in the region is not declining and may even be increasing.

The US-led War on Drugs has not worked anywhere it has been tried in Latin America. It has only increased the profits of criminal groups, which allowed them to corrupt governments and security forces in order to more easily diversify into other nefarious sectors of the underground economy.

US-supported “free trade” pacts like NAFTA and CAFTA-DR have had devastating effects on some of the region’s most vulnerable groups of people. For those seeking to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, legitimate economic opportunities can be rare. Joining the informal economy is often less a choice than a necessity.

Ironically, many refugees of these US-led efforts are fleeing to the very country that bears significant responsibility for their home nations’ plight. President Obama acknowledged that the influx of unaccompanied minors is a “humanitarian crisis” and Secretary Johnson recognized that these children were primarily being “pushed” from their home countries, not “pulled” to the US by “lax enforcement.” But there has been little attention paid to the root causes of the situation.

Spending more money on top of the tens of billions spent on militarizing the border and the War on Drugs without changing these fundamentally failed policies would be a mistake. The US should recognize that as the main belligerent in the War on Drugs, it bears responsibility for the refugees that war has created. Not only should we treat those refugees as such, but we should afford them the support and respect they deserve, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors.

For now, perhaps we have to accept that the behemoth prison-military-industrial complex won’t be felled by a wave of lone children from Central America pouring over the border. But every such moment of heightened attention is an opportunity to point to the broader issues behind the crisis of the moment and to offer criticisms and suggestions for improving the system.

What we cannot accept is locking them in cages and telling them, as one CBP officer allegedly said to a 17-year-old girl who fled Guatemala after being impregnated by a rapist and having her family subsequently threatened by gangsters, “Welcome to hell…We’re going to put you on a plane [back home], and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”


* Data compiled from:





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