The hazardous journeys of Central American child migrants are a most painful matter. The indescribable drama of the war in Syria, which has produced more than four million refugees between 2011 and 2016, has functioned as a huge backdrop of horrors and distracted attention from other tragedies such as that of Central American children crossing the Mexican border and entering the United States with no papers and only the clothes on their backs; helpless, hungry and fearful children. The cause of this tragedy is that their future has been confiscated by the violence of drug gangs and cartels, which assures them a fate marked by death or recruitment by organized crime gangs. Faced with such a perspective, some mothers prefer –in a heart-breaking expression of love – to separate themselves from their children by putting them on the risky route to meeting some family member established in the United States.
We currently have no reliable figures, not even approximate ones, on the number of children who have managed to cross the border and reach the US, but between 2000 and 2013 the number of unauthorized immigrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras increased almost 200% and together they represent 15% of the undocumented immigrants from Latin America in the United States. However, we do know of the calamity of children detained in their attempt to escape the violence that moves them to the north: between 2009 and 2015 about 180,000 children were detained at the border by the American authorities. At the highpoint of this crisis, former President Barack Obama presented Congress with a budget request for 4 billion USD to cover the cost of addressing the issue as a humanitarian crisis. The request fell on deaf ears and was rejected by the hardened souls of the Republican opposition majority.
Valeria Luiselli’s Book
Valeria Luiselli (1983) is a young writer born in Mexico whose books have been successfully translated into several languages. She lives in New York and her work appears weekly in the Spanish newspaper “El País”. Her book Los niños perdidos [The Lost Children] tells of her experience as a translator at the New York Immigration Court. Her task was to formulate the 40 questions contained in the Court’s questionnaire one by one, as well as the responses of each child. The Court based its decision to let them stay in the USA or to deport them on the children’s responses.
Luiselli uses the analysis of the 40 questions as a device to narrate the risky and precarious conditions in which the children travelled alone from different countries in Central America to the border of the United States. She pays special attention to the logic of the questions: often the most basic ones like “Where is your mother?” simply cannot be answered.
They are children fleeing poverty, armed gangs, domestic violence and a life without a future. To pay for the trip, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, siblings and other relatives have had to make an effort over a period of years – in the strictest silence – to raise the fee of thousands of dollars demanded by the gangs that run the murky trade of trafficking the children to the United States.
The vast majority travel in what is known as “La Bestia” [The Beast], a circuit of freight trains that crosses Mexico. On the roofs, between the wagons, hidden among the goods, they travel crouched, thirsty and hungry, without knowing if they will arrive at their destination. Luiselli writes, “It is known that aboard La Bestia accidents –minor, serious or lethal – are part of everyday life, whether due to the constant derailment of trains, to midnight falls or from the slightest negligence. And when it is not the train itself that is the danger the threat is from the traffickers, thugs, police or military that often intimidate, extort, or rob the people on board.” According to the writer, the Mexican section of the journey is pure horror: 80% of teenage girls are raped, 120,000 people may have disappeared over a decade, and more than 11,000 people were kidnapped in 6 months in 2010.
Luiselli’s own book also speaks of the activities of various NGOs and religious groups that have mobilized to counter the threats and sufferings that hang over these children; their members put their lives at risk to try to save these children from the imminent death that lies in wait for them in their native countries. Moreover, I know of activists, academics, artists and other people of great sensitivity who have begun to act to protect these children, to denounce those who take advantage of them and to raise the awareness of the authorities of the different countries involved of the reasons – that of saving their lives, no less – which explain why they embark on a journey into the unknown, on routes with danger lying in wait on all sides, hoping to find understanding and a better life.
In the current debate on immigration in the United States, which takes place in the context of Trump’s controversial positions, an important fact has been lost sight of; that the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico has declined spectacularly over the last decade to such a degree that there are now more Mexicans returning to their country than leaving it. But there is one contingent of migrants that persists in coming and that’s these unaccompanied minors trying to escape violence, mainly from the northern triangle of Central America and northern Mexico. The failure to look into the shadowy causes of this problem leads to the child migrants being branded as illegal within the narrow definitions of immigration law, losing sight of this migration’s character as a humanitarian issue protected by international human rights law.
Dealing with this problem will require us to think and innovate in the field of development cooperation between the United States and Central America in order to resolve the complex situation of poverty, violence and organized crime that afflicts these countries, especially when we recall that to a large extent this is financed by the trafficking of a drug consumed in the United States and the arms and ammunition used by the criminal gangs carrying it out are often acquired north of the border too.
Child migration to the United States requires a humanitarian response rather than one based on the xenophobia and racism of minorities emboldened by an irresponsible political discourse. The indifference of those who could relieve the suffering of children but fail to do is a sign of guilt that will weigh on their records.
Leopoldo Martínez Nucete tweets at @lecumberry.