Why would anyone want to leave here in the first place?

Why would anyone want to leave here in the first place?

In this LectureHop, Staff Writer Nadra Rahman puts on her politics hat and attends a talk at Lehman Auditorium with several important guests who came to speak about Central America’s social and political world.

In introducing the symposium (titled “The surge: Politics, violence, and children in Central America and Mexico”), Professor José Moya noted that the recently publicized issue of unaccompanied minors’ migration in Central America is particularly timely because of the “real refugee crisis” occurring all over the world. According to Professor Moya, the crisis is one that has existed for a long time, but has come to the forefront now “not because the intensity of suffering has increased, but because the richest countries are now affected”.

The first two speakers contextualized the “surge” of unaccompanied minors crossing Central and North American borders in 2014, speaking about the “Northern Triangle” made up of the three Central American countries that produce the most immigrants: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These countries have seen the most migration, but they are also the ones most affected by migration.

Gun violence, domestic violence, and deepening poverty are the major factors that have pushed citizens out of the Northern Triangle. Father José Idiáquez, Rector at the Universidad Centro Americana, described the deaths of six Jesuit priests and the constant presence of gangs, death, and kidnapping. He said the “population lives in terror,” and often children left behind by their emigrating parents find themselves sexually and physically abused.

In describing the consequences of migration in these societies, Idiáquez said that, on a familial level, effects can include depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and a loss of identity, particularly when families are uprooted from their homes or scattered. On a socio-cultural level, there is a widespread rejection of religious and familial customs in favor of European and American ones (English, for example, is preferred to Spanish).

Researchers Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb provided further context and information on recent youth migration trends. They discussed the scope of the surge–over 68,000 children were met at the U.S. border in 2014, a 77% increase from the previous year. Of these 68,000 children, 51,000 were from the Northern Triangle. But 2014 didn’t come out of nowhere—the trend of increasing youth migration began in 2011.

The relationship between the Northern triangle countries and Mexico is complicated to say the least; currently, more Central American migrants are being detained in Mexico than in the United States. And while the U.S. deported 3 unaccompanied minors for every 100 in 2014, Mexico deported 77 for every 100, illustrating the extreme differences between the two systems. Hershberg added that America’s southern border is essentially all of Mexico, and that the U.S. will look the other way as long as Mexico “grabs the kids, beats them up, and throws them out”, since that will result in less political uproar.

Due to the miserable circumstances in their home countries, youth feel as though they can not stay; they are deprived of the right not to migrate. These conditions are the result of a difficult history made up of natural disasters that governments are “catastrophically unprepared” for, involvement in the Cold War (which resulted in the first big wave of emigration to the U.S. in the 1980s), and Central America’s position in the “drug corridor.”

Hershberg also stressed the significance of “predatory states operating in climates of impunity”. People do not feel safe, and the government does not provide the security that citizens are desperately seeking. Governments rarely serve justice, are riddled with corruption and decay, and allow gangs to flourish. Hershberg cited the president of Guatemala, who was recently thrown out of office because he was involved in a massive fraud scheme, as an example of the depth of corruption. Hershberg also explained how the dynamics of violence in society are reflected in the domestic sphere, creating the difficult environment that many of the unaccompanied minors are fleeing.

In the Q&A that followed, the panellists agreed that the best response to the circumstances that create the surge is to start with an end to impunity, from the very top of the political and economic structure. This would include a requirement for countries to declare commissions against impunity before receiving aid from the U.S. The panelists also suggested giving immigrants in the U.S. more rights so that they can help their own people, and advocated for the creation of a responsible program to address the cases of youth migrants. In regards to existing programs, Idiaquez noted the role of interdenominational groups that work to help migrants, providing them with food, shelter, and money in many cases. Finally, the panellists spoke about the need for better programs that assist with reintegration into society after deportation.

In her closing remarks, Professor Nara Milanich brought up other examples of large-scale children’s migration, ranging from the orphan trains of the late 1800s to Operation Peter Pan in the 1960s. She made the point that these previous migrations had all been conceived and planned by adults, while this current phenomenon is more organic, an ad hoc response by children to the crises that surround them. Provocatively, she asked the audience to consider the children and their agency seriously, and to focus on the children’s understanding of their actions, as well as the idea of childhood in a Latin American context.

Though the symposium was 40 minutes longer than expected, the audience remained riveted. It felt as though every note had been hit, as the discussion flowed from personal narrative to statistical analysis. Still, one was left with a sense of pessimism, as well as a burning question: what can be done about these issues in a region that is already so vulnerable?