By LISA LUINENBURG
Since October 2013, about 57,000 unaccompanied children from Central America have been apprehended crossing the border into the United States. This number jumped 159% between 2011 and 2013, and the total number of children caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this year is expected to reach 74,000.
Most of these children come from Central America, especially from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. On their way to the United States, these children travel thousands of miles through Mexico, facing untold dangers including rape, kidnapping, drug violence, robbery, and mutilation as they ride the infamous freight train La Bestia.
Many of these children are fleeing even more dangerous situations at home. A recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 58% of youth interviewed by the agency “had suffered, been threatened, or feared serious harm” that would likely merit international protection. In Los Angeles, the school district’s mental-health director found that 94% of these children reported at least three traumatic events and that 65% had clinical symptoms of PTSD and depression.
But why are these kids being forced to flee their families and their homes? Much of the reason lies in the history of U.S. intervention in Central America, which the corporate media has conveniently glossed over in the recent surge of reporting on the “child migrant crisis.”
An example of this history is the 1954 coup d’etat in Guatemala, which was really a covert operation carried out by the United States CIA. Since the 1930s, the United States had backed the brutal dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico, who in return gave hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to the American-owned United Fruit Company and allowed the U.S. to establish military bases in the country. When Ubico was overthrown in 1944, democratically elected Juan Jose Arevalo, and later President Jacobo Arbenz implemented many popular reforms, including minimum wage laws, near universal sufferage, and land reform.
The United Fruit Company lobbied the U.S. government to overthrow Arbenz, who was replaced in 1954 by the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas. Following the coup, Guatemala was ruled by a series of U.S.-backed military regimes until 1996. From 1960 until 1996, the Guatemalan civil war raged, during which the military regime committed untold atrocities against the leftist movement and the civilian population, including tens of thousands of murders and disappearances, and a genocidal campaign against the indigenous Mayan population.
U.S. military interventions similar to the one that happened in Guatemala have taken place in many countries in Central and South America over the past decades. These interventions have created the waves of violence and political instability that have plagued the region. Many countries in Central America have also repeatedly been subject to interventions from U.S. corporations, and have struggled under the recent surge in the international drug war.
Honduras, which suffered a military coup in 2009, has the world’s highest murder rate, followed by El Salvador (2nd) and Guatemala (5th). In Guatemala, the cost of tortillas has recently doubled due to increased U.S. ethanol production and the conversion of farmland traditionally used to grow corn to the production of sugarcane and palm oil for biofuel.
“This is really a forced migration. This is not kids choosing voluntarily to leave,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Under existing law, children from countries other than Mexico who are caught crossing the U.S. border are considered refugees, and are placed in shelters or with family members while their cases await hearing in immigration courts.
Because of the recent increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border, the government has been pouring money into building more of these shelters, and has allocated millions of dollars to set up emergency shelters. Baptist Child and Family Services, a faith-based, non-profit organization, received $280 million in grants from the U.S. government this year, and operates two of the largest emergency shelters, as well as six permanent shelters around the country. CEO Kevin Dinnin received $450,000 in compensation in 2012 alone.
In January of 2014, the National Immigrant Justice Center issued a policy brief that was based on hundreds of interviews with unaccompanied immigrant children in the Chicago area. These children reported grim conditions while they were in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, before being transferred to the contractor-run shelters. About 56% of these children said they had been placed in three-point shackles (bound at the wrists, waist, and ankles), and over 70% reported being held in unheated cells during the winter.
Even now, these temporary shelters are being run very secretively, with almost no journalists or immigration advocates being allowed to enter. One woman who was allowed to study these shelters before they were closed to outsiders reported that the children were never allowed to be alone, while others noted that the temporary centers were set up like emergency hurricane shelters.
Following reports of a recent decline in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border, the U.S. government recently announced that it will soon close three of the emergency shelters that it has established on U.S. military bases. One of these is the shelter set up at the Department of Defense’s Joint Base Lackland in San Antonio, which currently houses 700 migrant children. The other bases are in Oklahoma at Fort Sill, and the Naval Base Ventura Country-Port Hueneme in California. The shelters could re-open if numbers of children crossing the border increase in coming weeks.
Obama recently requested an additional $3.7 billion from Congress in order to remove many of the existing protections for these children and speed up their deportation process. Many of these migrant children, who range in age from about five years old to teenagers, already lack access to legal representation, and are forced to represent themselves as they face their deportation hearings.
Congress recessed in August without addressing the issue. This has prompted President Obama to explore options for taking executive actions to deal with the migration crisis, prompting some politicians to shout for his impeachment on the grounds that he is overstepping his executive authority. In the meantime, as politicians and the president continue to fight over the issue, the lives of thousands of child migrants from Central America hang in the balance.
Photo: Immigrant children that ICE released at the Phoenix, Ariz., Greyhound bus station, May 28. Michael Chow / Arizona Republic / AP.