Thursday, July 24, 2014

Scholars of Central America reach out to White House on unaccompanied minors

I am one of 650+ Central Americanists who signed this letter to President Obama regarding our treatment of unaccompanied minors. Here is the letter. You can follow the link to see the signatures.

July 22, 2014

Dear Mr. President:

As scholars of Central America and migration who are familiar with the conditions that cause so many children to flee their homelands, and mindful of the historical relationship between the United States and this region, we call on your administration to treat the “unaccompanied minors” at the border as refugees who are deserving of protection, due process, and humane treatment. We ask that they have access to legal representation by volunteer or government­ funded lawyers, in order for them to be reunited with relatives. Young migrants arriving from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—face real and credible threats to their lives and safety in their hometowns. Further, many of them already have parents or other relatives living and working in the United States. Both the conditions of extreme insecurity in their homelands and the hardships of family separation dictate that these youth should be reunited with family members in the U.S. as swiftly as possible.

The extreme violence and economic insecurity in Central America, as well as the role of migration as a survival strategy, have deep and well­ documented roots. The migration of children and youth from Central America is not new. Extortion and death threats from street gangs (some of which have their roots in Los Angeles) or organized criminals with ties to security forces have caused internal displacement and international migration for more than a decade. The local police cannot be trusted to protect these vulnerable communities and, indeed, are often part of the problem. While U.S. politicians apparently see this as a security problem for the U.S., to be resolved with more walls and detention centers, those who are truly living in insecurity and vulnerability are Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans.

Young people whose parents migrated earlier in search of economic survival are especially vulnerable. Public schools, which should provide safety and opportunity for local youth, are often avenues of gang recruitment. In El Salvador, our research shows, youth gangs within the public high schools are connected to one of the larger street gangs, either the 18th Street (Calle 18) or Mara Salvatrucha (or MS­13). Students who graduate from these institutes are regularly expected to join their respective gangs; those who refuse are threatened and some killed. In Guatemala, we have seen that those with migrant relatives are frequently targets for extortion. Indeed, migration often begins internally, as young people flee their homes to escape such threats. But it can be nearly impossible to escape the threats and assaults. The extortionists and gangs are present throughout all three countries, and local gang cliques can be linked to national and sometimes even transnational criminal networks; frequently, finding a job or even working as a vendor involves paying “rent” to the gangs. Without economic options, police protection, or basic public services, eventually many people see migration beyond national borders as the only option. While Costa Rica and México have also received an increase of asylum ­seekers from this region, the vast majority has come to the United States, where family ties and historical geopolitical relationships have made migration trajectories all but inevitable. Child testimonies reported recently in the media echo our long ­term research findings: these young people fear violence and hope to reunite with family members. Deportation would send many of them back to almost certain death and further destabilize the region, ultimately triggering more migration.

We want to emphasize that the United States is complicit in the conditions that cause so many to migrate. The reasons are many: U.S. historical support for military dictatorships and regimes of violence in the region; its promotion of free trade agreements and economic policies that have undermined subsistence agriculture and eroded public services, and its increasingly harsh immigration policies and practices that have separated families and deported too many whose livelihoods and security were in the United States. We have an opportunity and a responsibility now to make up for some past mistakes by offering humane treatment and consideration to the new arrivals and swiftly reuniting them with their family members.

SIGNED (Friday, July 18, 2014­ - Tuesday, July 22, 2014)

Don't forget about Nicaragua

While everyone's attention is on the Northern Triangle and the immigration challenge between those countries and the US, let's see what people are saying about Nicaragua.

First, we have two articles that cover the 35th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. David Broddiger and The Tico Times start it off with 35 years after Somoza's overthrow, not much for Nicaragua to celebrate. Growing intolerance, dissatisfaction with Nicaraguan democracy, authoritarian tendencies of Somoza, lack of spending on students, low wages, and the creation of a new multimillionaire club.

Rose Spalding also looks at the July 19th Anniversary and the New Nicaragua for the AULA Blog. Spalding focuses on the relationship between Ortega and COSEP (the business community) - :Even as the government-business relationship warms and the economy grows, these social and political concerns continue to bedevil the country."

Ortega's been moving in on the non-partisan and highly respected military as well.

While Sandinista supporters were returning from the July 19th celebrations, two buses were attacked by small heavily armed groups - The Return of the Contras? Massacre of Sandinistas Stirs Old Ghosts in Nicaragua.

Finally, there is a bit of a dueling narrative on why Nicaraguans are not fleeing towards the US like its neighbors. CATO's Alex Nowrasteh and NicaNet have the positive reasons while Sergio Ramirez focuses on Costa Rica where 10 percent of the population are of Nicaraguan descent.

Nicaragua has a lot going for it compared to its Northern Triangle neighbors right now but there are a number of signs that do not bode well for its future.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How did I miss the unaccompanied minors story?

One of the many things that has bothered me about the crisis of unaccompanied minors on the border is that I totally missed the story as the number of young people from Central America exploded over the last two-plus years. President Obama was warned over a year ago and frankly others have been warning about the number of children and Central Americans for quite some time yet the story wasn't on my radar.

One of the reasons is that I don't focus on immigration and the border very often. When I do write about immigration, I tend to focus on Temporary Protected Status for Guatemalans, support for comprehensive immigration reform, and the record number of undocumented immigrants that the US have been deported under President Obama.

Overall immigration apprehensions have been down and even some of the estimates from El Salvador that I would hear showed the same trend. People used to say that 800 people were leaving each day but more recently I would hear that only 500 people were leaving each day.

Second, while the Northern Triangle remains a very violent region, homicides rates have decreased in each country the last two years, four in Guatemala. It is possible that Guatemala finishes 2014 with a rate of 30 per 100,000 which would put its rate on a level with every one's success story - Colombia.

But there's a lack of trust in homicide rates and an understanding that violence is much more than homicides. So I decided to look through LAPOP's survey results from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These are from 2012 surveys so we don't have 2013 or 2014 here.

Salvadorans have high levels of insecurity but perceptions of insecurity improved from 2010 to 2012. El Salvador has intermediate levels of crime victimization for the entire region. Seventeen percent of Salvadorans surveyed were direct victims of crime, while 28.5% of households reported some person who was victimized within the past year - about the regional average. Self-reported levels of personal victimization also improved between 2010 and 2012.

Self-reported crime victimization also decreased in Guatemala over the same two-year period - 23% to 21% for personal victimization - although the change is not statistically significant. Even optimism about the economy improved from 41.6 to 45.3!

In Honduras, perceptions of insecurity improved perceptions of insecurity improved from 34 to 32.1 between 2010 and 2012 - at exactly the same time that the murder rate was taking off.
What can explain the reduction in the perception of insecurity in spite of the increase of crime in the country? A possible reason is reflected in the changes in principal problems of the country identified by Hondurans. In Figure 66 we can see that between 2008 and 2010 the economic crisis dominated the perceptions of Hondurans as the most serious problem facing the country. The political crisis of 2009 and the political and institutional problems that were the root of the crisis are what received most mentions in 2012. Therefore, despite the elevated levels of crime, political and economic problems are those that were emphasized with most frequency by Hondurans. We think that this distribution of problems can explain why levels of perception of insecurity has decreased and is below countries with lower levels of violence. 
However, unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, crime victimization worsened in Honduras between 2010 and 2012 from 14% to 18.9%. It is interesting to note that self-reported crime victimization is still below its height in 2006 when it reached 19.2% (probably no statistical difference but...).

Crime and the economy are motivating people from Central America to leave the region and, in most cases, go to the US. However, the link is not straightforward. And at the same time that murder rates and self-reported victims of crime improved except for Honduras.

It gets even more interesting when you factor in that fewer people stated an intention to leave their country and migrate between 2010 and 2012. If intentions were decreasing into 2012, why did larger numbers of unaccompanied minors and families increase so dramatically later that year and the next one and into 2014? That seems to be where US policy comes into play.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How could family reunification feed youth into gangs, even if both immigrant parents are working?

Middlebury's David Stoll published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the costs and benefits of immigration between Guatemala and the United States last week which I commented on here. He brought up some good points on the downside to remittances and family reunification that often go unmentioned in the press but that are part of the academic conversation that has been taking place. He sent along some comments to my questions which he has generously allowed me to share with you.
Mike, thanks for your observations.  You ask, how could family reunification feed youth into gangs, even if both immigrant parents are working?
My reference to downward mobility could have used a bit more explanation.
The best ethnography I’ve seen on this point is Robert Smith's Mexican New York.  It’s about a Mexican migration stream, from Puebla to the Bronx, with far more legal status than the Guatemalans with whom I work.
While a stateside working couple’s son is still in Mexico, being cared for by his grandparents and receiving remittances in Mexico, he’s at the top of the consumption pyramid for the small town where he lives.  Once reunited with his parents in the Bronx, he’s living in a leaky basement with parents who are too busy working to make ends meet for anything else.  And of course their meager wages-even two wages in New York's heavily informalized service economy- have very little purchasing power.  So that’s downward mobility in terms of what his parents’ wages can buy. Then there's the problem of how the little guy makes it down the street without being challenged by other young neighborhood males.
As for humanitarian advocacy, my objection is that it can be extended to most of the population of the Third World.  If "57,000 helpless children" (to quote the NYT editorial board yesterday) each deserve a lawyer, a court hearing, time to prepare their case, and therefore provisional legal status in the U.S., then so does every other under-18er in Central America whose parents can pay to get him to the U.S. border.   This amounts to a humanitarian rationale for opening the U.S. labor market to any family who is sufficiently desperate or bold to borrow the money needed to pay human smugglers.
This is not to deny the existence of genuine refugees from gang violence who need our help. But how to pick them out of the surge of youth labor migration which, as far as I can see, probably constitute the bulk of the youth surge.
I'd like to thank David for the comments. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Despite U.S. Efforts, Root Causes of Migration Prevail in Central America

I have a new briefing in the World Politics Review this morning entitled Despite U.S. Efforts, Root Causes of Migration Crisis Prevail in Central America (I would add U.S. and Central American Efforts). Here's the conclusion
While investing more resources in the region might reduce the number of individuals traveling to the U.S., it is unclear that this will be enough to significantly alter the pressures that are compelling people to leave. Approximately 4 million people of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan descent live in the U.S., and the remittances they send home comprise 15-20 percent of each country’s GDP and help millions avoid or survive poverty. Not too long ago, the goal of many of them was to earn enough money in the U.S. to be able to one day return home, buy a house, start a business and retire somewhat comfortably. It seems that might no longer be the case. The poor economic and security conditions have deterred many from returning. Instead, parents living in the U.S. are paying for their children and spouses to travel north for family reunification.
Economic and family reunification pressures are not going to become any less important over the coming years, as drug trafficking, gang violence and organized crime continue to overwhelm the already weak and corrupt police forces and governments in all three countries. Citizens can trust neither the criminals nor the state. Sending their children on the dangerous journey north might not be their first choice, but the alternatives are no less daunting.
The US and our Central American partners have been working for decades to improve conditions in the region. However, it is clear that the resources that we have committed have not been enough (money, people, high-level attention) and some have been counterproductive (mano dura, perhaps DR-CAFTA, an escalation of the drug war, failure to reverse the 2009 coup).

Some see improving conditions as a moral issue to make up for past US involvement; others to stem the flow of immigration; and and others to tackle the root causes of violence - but I am not sure that there are many people who are not interested in improving the region's conditions. Obviously, though, there is a lot of disagreement over how to improve those conditions.

We need to work together to strengthen democracy, emphasize job creation and sustainable development, increase investment in basic social needs, make illicit drug consumption less violent, and provide a reasonable, safe way for people to come and go between the US and the Northern Triangle for family and work reasons.

You can read the Briefing here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

US could grant Temporary Protected Status to Guatemalans

President Obama is scheduled to meet with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the White House this week. They are obviously going to discuss the recent flood of unaccompanied minors and families leaving the region for the United States. Vice President Biden is hosting them for lunch. Perhaps they are going to announce some new initiative but who knows.

President Obama could ask the Department of Homeland Security to move forward on granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to nationals of Guatemala. If we look at the map of where migrants are coming from in Guatemala, a large percentage are coming from the Western Highlands.


Gang violence is not as much as an issue there (though drug trafficking is) which is part of the reason why US officials claim that most Guatemalan migrants are leaving for economic reasons. The heavily indigenous highlands have some of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in the entire country.

This area of the country has been hit hard by earthquakes in September 2011, November 2012, and July 2014. If he does not want to extend TPS to all Guatemalans (which he could easily justify because of other natural disasters affecting the entire country), perhaps he could offer it to those migrants who are departing the western regions like San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quiche, Totonicapan, and Quetzaltenango.

TPS for Guatemala does not help El Salvador and Honduras (many of whose citizens in the US already have TPS) and probably won't make a dent in the number of migrants leaving the region (that requires long-term structural changes) but The United States should grant TPS for Guatemala.