Blowback on the Border: America’s Child Refugee Crisis


Although the U.S. government is not solely at fault for the child migrant crisis, we’re seeing the cumulative effect of years of policy failure. (Image:

After three years of relative silence, the U.S. press has finally “discovered” the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors piling up on the U.S. border. Although the coverage often began with moving stories of the hardships these young migrants faced, it soon turned ugly. For right-wing pundits and politicians, the “humanitarian crisis” has become a crackdown on kids.

The dominant narrative has been that foolish parents, perhaps duped by scheming criminal bands, are sending hapless children north to take advantage of loopholes in U.S. immigration practices.

This is just plain wrong. On every count.

Knowing the Risks

First, parents and migrating youth are not naive. They usually know the dangers, which include injury, rape, extortion, kidnapping, and even death. Parents carefully consider the risks before making the decision to spend thousands of dollars to send their children away.

The three countries responsible for the increase in child migrants are Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala in fourth and fifth place, respectively. In certain neighborhoods in these countries, the homicide rate is far higher than the already high national rate, and young people are the most at-risk of all.

That’s why many Central American parents have concluded that the greatest risk is keeping their kids at home.

Consider the case of David. Both David’s parents live in the United States, where they had hoped to bring their son up due to the violence in his neighborhood. Salvadoran gangs had been hounding the boy to join them. Sometime after he refused, his body was found decapitated in a vacant lot on July 12. He was 10 years old. Family members were afraid even to go to his funeral for fear of retaliation.

A study by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that more than half of the child migrants had reported fleeing violence and threats, and were likely eligible for international protection. If they’re deported, many could face the same fate as David.

Family Reunification

An under-reported fact is that many parents are not sending their children north to be on their own. They are sending south for their children to join them in the United States.

I asked Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs the Ixtepec migrant center in southern Oaxaca, about the sudden increase in minors migrating out of Central America. He replied that the increasing number of Central American children filling his shelter were the last link in a “chain of desperation.” The fathers migrated to support the families, then older brothers and sisters left to join the fathers, and finally mothers are leaving with the younger ones—or if the mother is already gone, they send for the children.

Children have a right to grow up with parents. Something is deeply wrong with economic integration and immigration policies that force them apart. Generations will carry the scars of separation, yet the issue of family reunification has scarcely surfaced in the current debate.

Rather than take any of this into account, the U.S. government has undertaken a propaganda campaign to convince Central Americans to stay put, as though the decision to migrate were a mere whim. While billboards popping up in Central America emphasize the risks of the journey, the State Department is focusing its efforts on “dispelling the misguided notion that these children will not face deportation proceedings.”

The Border Security Myth

There is a perception that “lenient” U.S. immigration policies—and false promises from scheming human smugglers—have encouraged new generations of Central Americans to take their chances at the U.S. border.

But the UN survey of some 400 child migrants and families found that only two listed permissive U.S. immigration practices as their reason for migrating. And if anything, the U.S. border is more militarized than ever, with record deportation rates.

Moreover, while human trafficking and organized crime are indeed established problems on the border, it’s actually a result of border control that is too strict, not too lenient. Tighter U.S. border security measures have made it nearly impossible for migrants to cross alone.

As with drug prohibition, policies to criminalize migration have created a black market that real criminals have eagerly claimed as their own. Today, the cost of migration has skyrocketed, and drug cartels earn millions taking migrants north. This leaves migrants extremely vulnerable to extortion and abuse, since when they are defined as “criminals” or “illegals,” they have no recourse to defend themselves.


The steady increase in child migrants dates back to 2011. Although the U.S. government is not solely at fault, what we’re seeing is the cumulative effect of years of policy failure.

Take trade policy. Since the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements went into effect, millions of Mexicans and Central Americans have been economically displaced and forced to emigrate.

NAFTA pushed the Mexican migration rate up to half a million a year. In the first year of CAFTA alone, 11,457 jobs were lost in El Salvador, while the number of Salvadorans leaving for the United States increased from 507 per day to 740 per day. In Guatemala, transnational extractive projects are displacing indigenous and rural populations.

Honduras is the most dramatic case of a policy disaster. Following the country’s 2009 coup, which deposed the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, the U.S. government blocked a return to constitutional order by normalizing relations with the coup government. Post-coup Honduran governments have presided over rampant violations of human rights, a huge rise in organized crime, and a breakdown in the social fabric, leading to widespread delinquency.

The U.S.-funded drug war also accounts for much of the violence. Every war has its refugees. The war on drugs has proven to be no exception.

When counternarcotics efforts targeted drug lords in Mexico, they splintered traditional cartels and created violent rogue groups that spread throughout Mexico and into Central America. By fortifying abusive security forces in nations barely emerging from decades of military dictatorships, the drug war has meant a setback for both democracy and public safety.

The Best Interests of the Child

As the Obama administration and the right wing focus on how to keep the child refugees out of the country, too few have any concern for what domestic relations law calls “the best interest of the child.”

The House Progressive Caucus position, by contrast, has called on the U.S. government to uphold the children’s rights to due process and asylum, to provide adequate facilities for their care, and to review policies that contribute to forced migration, such as neoliberal trade policies and U.S. support for the drug war in Mexico and Central America.

The refugee crisis on the border is blowback for years of short-sighted policies that failed to consider the human consequences for the people of the region. If we fail to address these root causes, we will fail to solve the problem—no matter how much taxpayer money or Border Control we throw at it.

But most of all, we will fail the children.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

  • Bluhorizons

    If the author is suggesting that “Free trade” such as NAFTA damages economies, I could not agree more. Free trade benefits the rich. But that is supposedly not what this article is about. It is about Ms. Carelsen’s heartfelt concern for the poor and oppressed and she thinks that we should just fling the doors open wide to help. That would work if we had unlimited land, unlimited resources and endless money. Wish we had those. Lacking them we actually have economic, land and infrastructure limitations which apparently Ms. Carlsen feel should be someone else’s problem. But whose?

    • allencraig

      Well actually, we do seem to have unlimited financial resources.
      That is if you’re a corporation. The U.S. government spends
      billions–not millions, Billions–every year in schemes that funnels tax
      payer money into the coffers of big business, oftentimes through
      foreign policy agreements, but just as often, through national laws that
      are written by lobbyists that serve to financially benefit the
      companies that employ those lobbyists.

      as for “stealing our jobs”, incase you wanted to use that tired story
      as an excuse to turn your back to those in need, those same corporations
      who benefit from the
      laws the puppet politicians pass for them, are also shipping millions of
      lower-paying jobs overseas. This brings their costs down while reducing
      by a substantial percentage the potential size of the U.S. workforce.
      With these lower labor costs, these corporations don’t “trickle
      down” this extra money (if you haven’t noticed), they just keep it as
      additional profits. Which are very important if you are going to be
      donating millions of dollars every year to politicians who eagerly tweak
      the Constitution by creating “laws” designed solely to increase profits
      of…you get the picture.

      So to say we can’t be the beacon of
      hope, or the democratic inspiration we’ve long thought of ourselves
      as being because our backs are so pressed against the wall is to be willfully
      ignorant of what’s going in our country and who really makes the
      decisions and why.

      For the reasons stated by the writer–and
      others that she didn’t mention–the United States is largely responsible
      for the social, governmental and economic problems
      of much of Latin America, and has been for over a hundred years. The
      LEAST we can do is to discuss ways of helping the most vulnerable in
      good faith.

      That’s the least we can do.

      • Bluhorizons

        Actually, the number of low and unskilled jobs in America has decreased dramatically over the years as mechanisation improves, so the jobs available to them are more valuable than ever. I find that the people who are most devoted to letting every single poor person in the world into America do not really know any poor Americans and their opinion is intellectual rather than practical.

        I guess you have not actually met Americans who have looked so long for a job they have given up. Unlike you, thy are not good at wiring letters or organising. They are as defenceless as the poor illegals you want to let in. I have friends like that who were once in the middle class and fell thru the cracks during the great rescission. They were never able to get a job again that paid more than $7. They lost their home and now live in a camper. Maybe you have contemptuous words for them that you do not have for the illegals who have taken their jobs. Are they victim of a corrupt system? Yes. Does this change their problem? No.

        There are people like yourself who make America-bashing an art form and blame everything on America. In fact, the reason countries are poor is much more often caused by lack of democracy, repression of opportunity and a system that creates poverty rather than wealth. Some of these poor countries and their failed systems predate the existence of the United States. Their poverty continues over the centuries and people from these places will be trying to illegally enter America for centuries. I know you like to blame America for everything but leave a little bit for just plain lousy governments.

        Last but certainly not least, terrorism is rising in the world and America is a prime target. A hole in our borders hundreds of miles wide is like a beacon that says, “blow me up.” When that happens I am sure you will blame your government rather than the people who fought against a wall or secure borders.

      • FreeBSD

        Yeah the United states can “discuss ways”, sure. But to blithely ignore the wasteful lifestyle practiced, promoted & encouraged in the United States is simply wrong. These migrants will take up such a life-style if they can. And just adding in so many more people is not sustainable. And that is why the attitude of “fling the doors open wide to help” is completely wrong.

    • FreeBSD

      well put!