Ellen Moodie understands many of the factors that may be driving a recent rise in the number of Central American children arriving at the southern U.S. border - a situation described as both an immigration and humanitarian crisis. The University of Illinois anthropologist, also a former journalist, spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s collecting stories of violence and crime in El Salvador's capital city following the country's civil war. She has continued to follow the conditions there, as well as in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, the other primary sources of these immigrants. Moodie spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
The impression from news reports can be that this is a sudden surge of children across the border, but how much is this a recent phenomenon?
This is definitely not new. Children have been coming from Central America seeking security for a long time. I know men who as young teens in the early 1980s fled their homes to escape recruitment into El Salvador's brutal civil war.
Even if we look at the Homeland Security numbers, it's clear there wasn't a sudden surge in June, when we first saw those horrifying shots of overcrowded border detention centers - "inhumane" is the right word to describe them. Their statistics show the rise began in 2011. In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered 56,547 children, largely from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras; in the same time period in 2011, there were 15,701, mostly from Mexico.
What's new now is the kind of attention it's getting. We've seen the angry California protesters blocking buses carrying women and children to a border patrol facility. We've heard Pope Francis saying Central Americans should be welcomed and protected.
How serious are the conditions in the countries they're leaving?
Many of these kids are fleeing death. It's no coincidence that they come from places with the highest murder rates in the world. Most recent reports on this phenomenon stress gangs. I really want to talk about economic crisis and endemic insecurity, related to failed free-market policies which lead to less-dramatic deaths than street killings. But let me address the question of criminal violence first.
Some researchers see the two main gangs in the region, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang, as highly organized and controlled by drug cartels. Others focus on the power of local cliques and point to how they draw youth looking for identity and connection. There are definitely some transnational networks, but local power is key to fear. Gangs that dominate communities impose great pressure to join, or to support them through extortion. Children and teens who don't join, or who want to quit, are often threatened with death. And everyone's seen killings. Killings are up everywhere. I know people who first send their children to live with family in other parts of the city to try to get away from the danger. Many don't trust police - there's lots of corruption and institutional weakness.
But I must insist: to put the full blame on gangs, no matter how terrifying, is to miss the larger point about ongoing economic and social injustice in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Gangs emerged in historical circumstances, including deportations from the U.S., as well as repressive policing rooted in U.S. zero-tolerance doctrines that actually fortified gang strength. But they thrive in a context of chronic inequality and desperation.
These children are referred to as "unaccompanied," but you think that term is misleading for several reasons. How so?
This word "unaccompanied" conjures Hollywood images of waifs wandering alone over a thousand perilous miles. Not so fast. First, these children, whether with family or not, are usually guided by a "coyote," or smuggler. A number of those coyotes are known, especially in rural communities, and stay in business because they've successfully guided people across the miles - including children. Of course there are also plenty of unscrupulous coyotes, and some have indeed spread rumors that children can stay in the U.S.
Second, young children usually come with adults - siblings or cousins, if not mothers. Most expect to reunite with someone. The cases I know are of working parents sending for their children. They left home to send remittances to support their children - who stay with grandparents or other relatives. I'm suspicious of the statistics that say only 36 percent of the children have relatives here. And remember: people who send children on this route - yes, truly perilous - are making choices, likely life-and-death choices, most of us will never have to make.
What is the argument for a go-slow approach in processing these children, and for maybe giving more of them a home in the U.S.? And how do you do that without encouraging the greater influx that some people fear?
The administration wants to change the rules to "fast track" it all. President Obama wants Central Americans at the border to be moved along in non-judicial procedures, denying them due process guaranteed to migrants - especially when they fear for their lives. A "go-slow" approach would follow current law.
The situation calls for a humanitarian response - yes, even spending money for shelters and care. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found 60 percent of children had legitimate claims to seek asylum here. One option should be Temporary Protected Status, which Hondurans could apply for after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and Salvadorans after the 2001 earthquakes.
There are of course much bigger issues about global inequality. But to the question of fear of an influx: Fear? Ask a kid from San Pedro Sula about fear. It's pretty clear U.S. immigration laws are not an incentive to Central Americans, whether tough or lenient. They keep coming in hope of something safer, despite all the risks.