It’s certainly no longer breaking news that there is an immigration crisis, or rather refugee crisis, here in the United States. As a bilingual English/Spanish social worker, this issue is immensely important to me and so I wanted to throw out my own two cents.
My understanding is that this is a crisis not because the issue of unaccompanied children coming to the US is a brand new situation, but because it is happening at an unprecedented rate. I also have learned that there is not solely an influx of children crossing the border alone but also young women with young children. Most of these young women and children, unaccompanied or not, are fleeing violence, often gang violence, and/or sexual violence in their home countries. And let’s not forget about femicide, which is very high in El Salvador, Guatemala and, in particular, Honduras. So this issue appears to largely be about violence against women and children, though there are certainly reports of fathers bringing their children here too. And I’d guess these fathers have also experienced extreme poverty and violence.
I am really disappointed and disgusted, though not surprised, by the reactions of too many Americans. Why? Because of what I know about this situation and about life in Central and South America. I don’t know a ton but I do think it’s likely I know more than your average American does. I spent a month in Mexico when I was 18, learning Spanish and then I spent several months volunteering with some of the poorest children in a major Central American country. In addition, I learn a lot from friends and colleagues whose home countries/families’ home countries are in Latin America. This by no means makes me an expert and duh, I’m obviously not Latina. But like I said, I’m willing to bet that I know more than your average American.
Anyways here’s what I know… When I was volunteering in Central America, I was in an area that was (is) very dangerous. I had to sign a waiver before starting to acknowledge I might be robbed, raped or even murdered. And I was all like, “Sign me up!” Jk. I mean, I did sign up but because I had friends who’d volunteered with this same program and told me that the program goes to great lengths to create the safest possible environment for the volunteers. But obviously no one can ever 100% guarantee your safety. Especially not when you’re spending lot’s of time in a neighborhood that looks like a war zone and where it’s never safe to walk alone, ever. There was a lot of crime, especially from gangs. The country was only ten years-post a brutal civil war and was still reeling from that. I spent most of my time with seven year-olds who clearly had seen and survived far too much. But most of them hadn’t yet been sought out by gangs. That was more likely to happen in fifth grade. But my fellow volunteers who’d been there longer said they’d been told that gang initiations involved killing someone you love, and for many people joining a gang isn’t a choice.
Drugs, particularly the Listerine and glue kind, were rampant. I remember standing just outside the program where I worked one beautiful, sunny afternoon. I was with a bunch of kids, other volunteers and the program’s armed security guards. So I was hardly alone when suddenly a man grabbed my arm and said “Oye chica, me puede ayudar? Me vienen, me van a matar.” (Hey girl, can you help me? They’re coming for me, they’re going to kill me.). I turned for a moment to see if I could wave down a security guard and when I looked back to the man, he was gone. I decided to tell one of the security guards anyways, in case they could track him down and help. The guard I spoke to just laughed and said, “Oh he was high, so many people here are high and they think crazy things when they are.” Like I said, drugs were certainly rampant enough for this to be true. But violence was also rampant enough for this to be true. I’ll never know what happened to that man.
I went back to visit the program five years after I’d spent several months there. The program is flourishing and enjoys much success. But many children leave the program because of a family tragedy or because of community violence/gangs. In terms of which children succeed, as far ad I can tell, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. I returned five years later and learned that the gang situation had grown much worse. The volunteers used to take the public buses, chicken buses, which is an American school bus, supposedly one that failed inspection here and was sold to a Central American country. Riding a chicken bus is a chaotic, fun and tiring experience and one that helps you gain a better sense of the culture and community. But when I went back, volunteers no longer rode the chicken bus. It had become too dangerous. Too often buses were ransacked by gangs, who would shoot the driver and then rob everyone on the bus. It is devastating to me that such basic acts of riding a bus or driving a bus have become so harrowing.
One of my current colleagues has family from Colombia and she was explaining the reality of gangs in Colombia. She said that gangs take over towns and charge fees to the residents. Basically, she explained it’s like another tax, on top of any they may already be paying. So they’ll show up every day or every week and demand a fee be paid to them. If you don’t or can’t pay it, at least one of a variety of bad things will happen to you. It could be you’re kidnapped or you and your family are kidnapped or killed. She told me that from what she understands about the situation in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, she believes things are worse in these countries, the countries where the majority of these immigrants are coming from, or fleeing, I should say.
It’s hard for me to imagine that the average middle class American can really understand the level of terror that many Central American people experience every moment of every day. I mean I’ve been to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and lived for many months in one of them. And I still can’t truly understand the level of fear of the people who live there permanently. But. I listen and I consider the fact that these immigrants have survived unconscionable horror.
And that is why I am so frustrated by many Americans’ complete lack of empathy and understanding. These undocumented, unaccompanied minors are children, some of whom are as young as three. So you have a pre-schooler, someone who believes in Santa (or Papá Noel, in this case) and loves stuffed animals. Now these children have just completed a harrowing journey the likes of which most Americans will never undertake and they are without their parents. Then people here are yelling at them to go back to Mexico, which is not where they’re from anyways.
My husband and I were talking recently about what the situation in Central America must feel be and feel like for these young women willing to risk everything and for these families willing to send their children off on a dangerous journey. That level of desperation does not spawn from simply wanting a better life – something I’ve heard some internet commenters claim. It spawns from a lack of any other options and sheer terror. My husband and I both came up with the analogy that it must feel something like a concentration camp. I mean, we’ve all learned about the Holocaust. And when we think about Nazi concentration camps, it’s easy to imagine parents in that situation sending their kids off on their own or risk everything – anything to get out.
And so to me, the best term for these children and/or young mothers is refugee. Not illegals (which isn’t a term I use anyways). Typically I’d say undocumented but it seems to me like the environment these women and children are fleeing is verging on war-like.
So we can’t just send them back, at least not without a serious lack of compassion, ethics and humanity. Furthermore, lawfully we can’t just send them back. A 2008 reauthorization of an immigration law says that any unaccompanied child entering the country who originated from somewhere other than Canada and Mexico, is able to stay here until they have had a hearing and have met with an advocate. And they may be able to stay if they were trafficked or experienced certain types of violence in their home countries. So if the US sends all of these kids back then inevitably some children who lawfully can be here will be sent home. I’ve heard rumors that the White House is working to amend the law so these children can be returned to their home countries as quickly as possible, despite the fact that some of these children likely actually can stay here. And people are trying to justify this by saying “well the law wasn’t designed to handle an immigration crisis of this volume.” So basically the US is saying “Hey you can come here if this has happened to you” and when what we deem as too many people try to do it then we’re like “Psyche! No you can’t.” So children are being sent back to dangerous situations even when they shouldn’t be. And even when these children don’t have a legal case for staying here, the news is reporting with a positive or at least neutral tone that the White House is trying to return these children to their home countries as quickly as possible. But returning these children to their home countries is neither positive nor neutral. Don’t forget the situations these kids will be returning to. That needs to be discussed when we talk about their return home.
So the violence is horrible. It is a huge driving force behind this crisis. But I think that 2008 immigration act also has a lot to do with it. Some people are saying this is because of a 2012 immigration act, know as the DREAM Act/DACA which, in a nutshell, is for undocumented people who have lived here for at least five years and have completed certain requirements. But the 2008 act, as I mentioned provides relief for people who have been trafficked or experienced other forms of violence in their home countries. There’s also the Violence Against Women Act which created two visas with which I’m familiar, the UVisa and VAWA. And these can provide citizenship for people who have experience intimate partner abuse, sexual assault and certain other forms of violence within the United States. And certainly at least some of these women and children have experienced just that since they crossed the Texas border. I think unfortunately people are getting misinformation so women and children are arriving and turning themselves in so to speak, assuming they’ll get amnesty or asylum of some sorts. Unfortunately that’s only true for some of them. But still. We need to find out which ones of them can stay here.
Regardless of whether these people have a legal case to stay here, we need to consider the situation that is ongoing and worsening in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We need to show some humanity and compassion. When there are major events like this, I think about how this moment in time will be remembered. When this immigration crisis is remembered and revisited, how will we view those people who were hostile to the traumatized victims of crime, many of whom were only children?