Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been arguing for months on how to protect United States’ borders from illegal immigrants. Congress and the executive administration are making a mess of the whole situation with egos, money, and opinion-based polls on the line. With everyone fighting to win the “immigration battle” in Washington, the American government is forgetting an essential element of this crisis: These people are fleeing in order to save their lives.
The United States faces an immigration crisis as Central American children flock to the southern border in hopes of gaining refugee status within the U.S. The government is estimating that about 90,000 children will cross the international line this year with other estimates showing that the number will rise to 150,000 by next year. Why are a vast number of children fleeing their Central American homes? Many children are desperately trying to survive amidst the violence and poverty that is corrupting their homes. For example, in El Salvador, 36.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. With the highest homicide rate in the world and 60% of the population under the poverty line, Honduras has an even worse situation.
All across Central America, similar statistics can be found of a failing economy and a corrupt government are clear. Only a few months ago, the media was showing clips of the violence and coercion in Venezuela, but American media has long forgotten about those stories. Why are we surprised that children want to leave these kinds of environments? However, the turmoil still remains as families are being split apart and loved ones killed. For many of these families, the only means to survive in these countries is to have a child join a gang. These gangs supposedly will provide protection and monetary funds for these willing families. As great as that sounds, all of us know that joining a gang is hazardous for both the children and their family.
The U.S. government states that one reason to decline these children is the likelihood of their affiliation with organizations such as the 18th Street Gang, founded by Los Angeles Mexicans, in order to smuggle drugs and weapons across the border. Estimates from the U.N. Office of Drug and Crime states that as many as 8,000 Salvadorians, 5,000 Hondurans, and 17,000 Guatemalans can boast the 18th Street gang membership. These numbers demonstrate the influence these gangs have on drug and weapon transportation in the Americas. There are job opportunities, profits, protection, and a sense of community for many of these families. Their governments have failed them, but these gangs have not.
In no way is this article a promotion of gangs, but an emphasis on the allure of gangs for many of these children. As many of these stories trek on, we find that a child wants to break free from the gang, but they cannot. These gangs do not operate like a club or organization in the United States where membership goes as far as one’s convenience. A gang commitment is a binding contract for which death is the only out.
During a trip to El Salvador last year, I spoke with a 22 year old Salvadorian who broke free from his gang in the capital of San Salvador. Currently, he is under the protection of some non-profit charities in the area since being released from prison. This young man joined the gang as an adolescent because it was his only option for a sustainable lifestyle. During his involvement, he realized the amount of pain and corruption that ensued and wanted immediate removal. He claimed that when he tried to break free from his local gang, other members saw this as a form of betrayal and sought revenge. In these circles, no one is safe or spared. Instead of attacking the so-called traitor, they focused on his family. They gutted his baby from his girlfriend’s womb in the middle of the street leaving her to die. During his speech, he talked about the regret he had for joining the gang, but at the time, acknowledged that it was his only option. He spoke of his dream to come to the United States and peace within his country. However, for most of these people, that dream will never come true.
President Obama is requesting $2 billion from Congress to help solve the immigration crisis. The administration has vowed over $100 million to countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as financial aid to help these immigrant children fly home and stay there. The question is, however, can we provide protection and security for them? Upon arrival, these children will fear for their lives once more, and many will be killed for their act of betrayal.
As an American, one can see the need to tighten the borders for safety and economic reasons for our country. Also, it is hard to find the correct answer for our immigration crisis because both sides of the aisle have pros and cons to their solutions. There is no easy answer when it comes to a humanitarian crisis. This is not a budget problem, but an issue where lives are at stake. No Congressman or administration wants the blood of these children on their hands. It is probable that these children knew that crossing the border was illegal, but this may be their only option for survival. Now, the question remains what is the United States going to do to protect our people and its borders but also save these children in need. Unfortunately, the answer is not simple, and we will be anxiously waiting while Washington decides.