The United States faces a pressing new immigration crisis from Central America that defies easy solutions. A flood of undocumented migrants at the South Texas border, including unusually high numbers of unaccompanied minors, stems from an explosion of gang and drug violence across Central America.
Many parents would rather risk taking their children on the dangerous journey through Mexico, or even sending kids alone, than expose them to continued violence, threats and high potential for gang recruitment in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Homicide rates in those three countries were the highest in the world in 2011, according to U.N. data.
Senior White House officials acknowledge the government wasn't prepared and is resorting to extreme measures to cope with the influx, including housing the kids on military bases for processing into temporary foster care while they await deportation proceedings.
Part of the surge is being fueled by a widely circulated rumor that the United States now allows migrants to enter and stay without penalty. U.S. officials say they've launched a media campaign advising Central Americans that the rumor is false. This program needs to be stepped up dramatically.
The gang and drug violence are problems that cannot be solved through standard immigration reform proposals, such as guest-worker programs. Nor can they be addressed with hard-line stances, such as those offered at the Texas GOP convention, to build more walls and redouble border enforcement.
It's less economic opportunity driving these migrants toward the U.S. and more the fear that, if they stay at home, they could be killed. Yes, beefed-up border security will help U.S. authorities halt undocumented immigrants before they disperse into bigger population centers. But when it comes to families or unaccompanied minors being apprehended, it's not as simple as busing them back across the border and leaving them to fend for themselves. Placing kids on military bases or in foster care is compassionate, humanitarian assistance, not, as critics assert, a “catch and release” program.
Gangs developed after a heavy buildup of weapons during Central America's Cold War-era civil wars in the 1980s, followed by mass U.S. deportations of youths whose parents brought them to this country as refugees. Many were recruited on U.S. streets into gangs such as the notorious Maras Salvatrucha, and they simply regrouped in Central America. Then they joined forces with trafficking organizations to profit off Americans' insatiable appetite for illicit drugs.
The solution will require a longer-term strategy aimed at stabilizing Central American security, creating jobs and improving the quality of life. A hard-line, get-tough approach in this country, as impressive as it might sound at political conventions, is hardly a sufficient disincentive when these migrants compare it with the much meaner streets they face back home.
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