Detainees (mostly children) sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is the author of “Central American Refugees and U.S. High Schools: A Psychosocial Study of Motivation and Achievement,” and co-author of “Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society.” This op-ed appeared Aug. 22 in U.S. News & World Report.
This is the season when millions of families throughout our country start anew the familiar rituals of preparing their children for the first day of school; moms will buy notebooks on sale, dads will take their kids shopping for sneakers and older siblings will be ready to lend tips about great teachers, cool apps and how to get homework done on time.
Yet some 37,000 children — part of a much larger cohort of unaccompanied minors arriving at our border in record numbers — will start schools in our country without any such preparatory rituals.
The family is at the center of immigration and thus a critical factor in solving today’s crisis. Immigration is an ethical act of and for the family. Immigration typically starts with the family, and family bonds sustain it. Immigration profoundly challenges and changes families as well as the societies in which immigrants settle.
The crisis unfolding at the United States’ southern border is part of the increasingly catastrophic migrations that characterize the 21st century. War and violence, environmental dystopia and growing global inequalities are behind the largest displacement of people since World War II. The more than 51 million refugees worldwide are responding to barbaric social, economic and environmental conditions. The weak and the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, and above all, children, pay the highest price: today half of the more than 51 million global refugees and displaced persons are children.
What is unfolding at our border is part of a global upheaval but is also a response to unique hemispheric processes with deep transnational histories linking the United States to Latin America. The mass exodus of Central Americans to the United States began with the “dirty wars” in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and throughout the region during the Reagan administration. More recently there is what in Latin America is known as a “mano de obra desocupada” problem, or unemployed hands. As cartels mutate, break up and reconstitute, they shed gangsters in search of new business opportunities. Their aggressive coordination of narcotics, arms running, and human trafficking has created bloody and enormously profitable corridors of human suffering.
Honduras and Guatemala are the source of the largest number of unaccompanied children at the southern border. They are also the countries with the highest level inequality in North, Central and South America. The Gini coefficient is a standard economic measure of income inequality, whereby 0 represents perfect equality, while an index of 100 implies perfect inequality. In 2007, Honduras had a Gini ratio of 55.7, making it the eighth most unequal country in the world. Guatemala’s index placed it as the 11th most unequal country that same year.
Colossal inequalities, along with human, gun and narcotics trafficking, have birthed a culture of violence where coercion and blackmail are everyday economic strategies assailing the dispossessed. In 2013, more than 1,000 youth and children under the age of 23 were assassinated in Honduras, the country with the highest homicide rate in the world (90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with Detroit, America's most violent city, with 54.6. per 100,000). San Pedro Sula, the city that in recent times has sent the largest number of unaccompanied children to the U.S., is the world’s most violent city with 159 homicides per 100,000.
Another factor driving the current exodus is what amounts to a perfect storm of environmental dystopia. The 1969 Honduras-El Salvador war erupted when Salvadorans ran out of cultivable land that spilled over to neighboring Honduras. Enormous concentration of lands in the hands of a few families and the attendant land scarcity for the vast majority of peasants also contributed to war, according to a Stanford study. Deforestation for rare hard woods and beef point to another ecological disaster as more and more forests are destroyed for export commodities. And hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998, rendered more than 11,000 dead, 8,000 missing, and displaced more than 2.5 million Hondurans while triggering one of the most significant flows of environmental refugees in history.
More than 15 years ago, we began collecting data on both coasts of the United States for the Harvard Immigration Projects — now the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at UCLA. In the process, we assembled one of the largest interdisciplinary, comparative and longitudinal data sets on immigration and the family. The data foreshadowed the current pattern and help explain why at a time when the number of unaccompanied children from Mexico continued to decline, unaccompanied Central American children reached unprecedented numbers.
In the bicoastal study, which followed over five years approximately 400 recently arrived immigrant children and youth from China, the Dominican Republic, various countries in Central America, Haiti and Mexico recruited from public schools, we found that the majority of the children were separated from one or both of their parents during the migration process. Often, parents came ahead, and children followed. But Central American children demonstrated the highest rates of family separations as well as the lengthiest separations of all immigrant groups. Nearly all Central American youth (96 percent) were separated from either one or both of their parents during the course of migration. Approximately 49 percent of all immigrant children in the study were separated from both parents. The comparable number of Central American families was 80 percent. The length of separation from parents was unexpectedly long. Of the youth who were separated only from their mothers, 49 percent of Central American children endured separations lasting five years or more. The majority of Central Americans (88 percent) had separations from their fathers lasting two to five or more years.
Separated yesterday, Central American children are seeking family reunification today.
The unaccompanied children face an uncertain future. Some will head to schools but many more will face expedited deportations — the Obama administration’s policy of choice for the crisis. But mass deportations will only further delay family reunifications, the crux of the today’s crisis. We can send them back and yet they keep coming back. Children want to be with their parents — it is a law of culture and it is a law of nature. Understandably, parents want to be reunited with their children, especially when they are in real danger. Reunifying children with family members is the humanitarian choice. It is also the smartest policy option. Family reunification saves lives, grief and treasure.