Although the immigration problem has fallen out of the news with the advent of ISIS and Ebola, the problem has not gone away. The United States’ handling of the child immigration crisis has failed to address the root causes that are compelling immigrants to leave their native countries.
This past summer, American politicians (primarily Republicans) unethically and irresponsibly failed to identify people fleeing Central America as refugees. When people feel forced to flee violence and extortion in their home countries, it is the duty of neighboring countries to take them in and provide safety. By denying many Central American children and adults amnesty, the United States demonstrated not only heartlessness but also a continued disregard for the United Nations’ definition of refugees.
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." However, in American politics, refugee status has adopted a different meaning.
Historically, the United States has chosen to give refugee status only to those who provide a political advantage. This is why for the vast majority of the Cold War it recognized only those fleeing Communist regimes as refugees. For example, in the 1980s, the United States took extreme efforts to bring 125,000 Cubans to Florida in the Mariel Boatlift and at the same time refused refugee status to Haitians, Salvadorians, and Guatemalans fleeing from similar conditions.
Strangely enough, El Salvador and Guatemala were both on the list of the top three countries from which child immigrants fled last summer. Furthermore, they were fleeing their countries for largely the same reasons as they did in the 1980s: violence, extreme poverty, and fear for their lives. Once again, they were refused amnesty by the United States.
Why is this? Immigration has become such a divisive issue in the United States, that rather than face the facts, many politicians prefer to claim that Central Americans are flooding the United States in order to leech off of our social welfare and take away jobs from hard-working Americans. However, the driving force motivating Central Americans to leave their countries isn’t the “pulling” economic advantage of the United States, but the “pushing” fear of violence, particularly that of well-connected gangs which can bribe government officials and police officers.
Studies of the countries from which the immigrants are fleeing show the severity of this violent “push” factor. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala all rank among the top five countries with the highest murder rates in the world. In fact, Honduras has the highest homicide rate per capita with an average of 90.4 homicides per every 100,000 people.
This kind of danger has motivated many citizens to apply for asylum through the United Nations. The UN reports that from 2008 to 2013, there was a 712% increase in asylum applications to Central American countries like Mexico, Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica, which border the more dangerous countries. However, many people cannot wait for these applications to be processed while their lives and the lives of their children are on the line. It is clear that for the majority of Central Americans, crossing the border was not an act of selfishness, but an act of desperation.
Interviews conducted by the United Nations with children staying at temporary detention centers emphasize that fear of violence, not the promise of economic opportunity, was the driving force causing children to cross the border. When the UN High Commissioner on Refugees interviewed 404 Central American children immigrants staying in temporary detention centers, 58% of them mentioned threats of violence from gangs in their home countries as their primary cause for leaving their countries.
Although the United States is quick to grant refugee status to those in Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where it has more vested political interest, it is slower to recognize the crisis just next-door. It is time for the United States to take responsibility for those fleeing Central America, and recognize that a refugee is a refugee, no matter where they come from.
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” However, many Congress members seem to prefer that immigrants suffocate from the violence below the border, rather than “breathe free” above it. Politicians need to stop calling those who fled Central America last summer poll-tested, politically palatable names like “undocumented immigrants” and “illegal aliens,” and recognize them as what they are: refugees. Only once this occurs will America truly begin to live up to its ideals.