Central Americans are being pushed from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala largely because government is corrupt, opportunity is rare, and violence is high. When these conditions deteriorate to a point where people feel desperate, they will take desperate action.
At the same time, the U.S. has established law and policy to decrease human trafficking that has created unintended opportunities for abuse. These laws confer refugee status upon unaccompanied minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico at U.S. border crossings until a hearing can be conducted to assess the validity of the refugee claim. The delays in the hearing dates create the opportunity for the refugees to settle firmly in the U.S. The vast majority never appear at their hearings and remain in the hope of a future amnesty under comprehensive immigration reform.
The unintended consequences of a 2012 Presidential executive action to allow children brought to the U.S. illegally to remain under legal status may have been the final message to the desperate people of Central America to begin the current migration.
Government corruption has existed in Central America for centuries. It is a complex history and it includes the involvement of the U.S. U.S. foreign policy should seek to incent change in Central America that will stop the immediate flow, but also establish policies and incentives to help in the reduction of violence, gangs, and poverty. Safer communities and healthier economies in Central America are the ultimate solution to many migration issues. Present calls by some to cut existing programs and aid to the region are short sighted. Some existing programs work to advance U.S. national interests.
The argument that violence in Central America is the proximate cause of the current crisis on the border is false though it is likely a contributing factor, particularly in Honduras. El Salvador and Guatemala have murder rates similar to and even lower than some U.S. cities. According to the United Nations, the murder rate in El Salvador has declined significantly, and in Guatemala remained fairly steady since 2000. Honduras stands in a category of its own with a murder rate per 100,000 of 90. There has been a clear trend in increased murder rates in Honduras since about 2004.
These countries have not suddenly entered into an utter chaos that demands an exodus by the local population. In fact, the U.S. State Department reports, “Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit these countries each year for study, tourism, business, and volunteer work.” There are many college and university programs that provide cultural exchanges and charitable work trips to students each year to these countries.
The pulling force that draws Central Americans to the southwest border is U.S. law over the past two decades that was intended to decrease human trafficking. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 are the most relevant laws.
The unintended consequences of these laws were not fully anticipated. The practical effect of the laws enables minors who arrive at the border to be treated as refugees with legal status. They are entitled to due process of law and aid, and are afforded the opportunity to appear before the judicial system to determine the validity of their refugee application.
The Wilberforce Act, though cited by many as the cause of the current crisis was in part an attempt to close the loophole that was allowing every minor to enter. Enacted under President Bush, the Act allowed unaccompanied Mexican and Canadian minors to be returned to their homeland immediately. In 2008, the vast majority of the unaccompanied at the border were Mexican and very few Central American.
Though the Department of Homeland Security processes the arriving minors immediately upon arrival they must be transferred to Health and Human Service within 48 hours. They are then treated in a manner similar to a child placed in a state protective services system. Each of the minors is provided a hearing date for the evaluation of their refugee application. The hearing date is often far in the future, between 2-4 years. The end result is that the vast majority of those summoned do not appear for the hearing.
The spark that ignited the movement to the border that began in 2012 was likely President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action. Further evidence will need to be developed to prove this thesis, but there is a clear correlation in the timeline of events. The effect in Central America was a perception that children who are brought illegally to the U.S. are treated differently. In addition, the extensive discussion of comprehensive immigration reform in 2012 and 2012 that will offer amnesty to 12 million illegal aliens already in the U.S. may have convinced Central Americans that it was time to begin the journey or miss out on the opportunity.