The US-Mexico border stretches across 1,933 miles of desert and brush country but its symbolism reaches far into the minds and imagination of the US public and press. We are a nation hypnotized by border imagery and the soundtrack of a distorted immigration debate that governs our discussion about the lives and, ultimately, the fates of tens of thousands of children.
In early June, Central American children arriving on the border captured national attention after photographs of hundreds of kids confined to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at a Border Patrol processing center in South Texas were leaked to the press. Within days, however, outrage over detention conditions vanished and were soon forgotten, (although conditions remain largely unchanged) after politicians and pundits transformed the apparent mishandling of the children’s welfare into a “border crisis” about faulty border security.
In Murietta, California, where screaming, spitting, sign waving locals swarmed a bus carrying migrant children and women, a woman named Eileen Barker told a reporter, “We can’t even help our own. Our veterans are on the streets, we have so many homeless people here now. We have plenty of problems … and this has nothing to do with race or children, it’s the system that’s wrong.”
Barker’s words reflect the vast power of the so-called “immigration debate.” It has become catalyst for redirecting wide-ranging frustrations—unemployment, homelessness, veterans affairs—and its capacity to inspire a skewed expression of patriotism. This patriotism stops for no one, and encourages the public shut its eyes and ears to these kids even if it means disregarding the law. In recent weeks, the people who are the first to shout, “what part of illegal don’t you understand,” and whose axes grind the lines between legal and illegal, have begun pushing to change laws to fit the political moment.
The 2008 law in question, meant to address human trafficking, was signed into law by US president George W. Bush. It directs the US Homeland Security to transfer the children from the overcrowded, ill-equipped border patrol supervision to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement, where they are cared for as what they are, children alone. The proposed changes to the law, coupled with efforts to fast track their deportation in what’s known as “expedited removal,” strikes at a basic right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution—to have their cases heard, in this case, in immigration court.
And thus, within the nation’s emotionally fraught immigration debate, the children are recast and labelled “immigrants,” another wave of migrants in search of the nation’s economic opportunities.
But a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, found that of 404 Mexican and Central American child migrants interviewed, 58% could possibly qualify for refugee status or asylum because they “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” Other experts suggest that up to 80% could qualify for a special US visa for child victims of abuse or violence.
In reality, the search for riches has little to do with their arrival. Most simply want to escape violence and they arrived in the country where most have family in the US. Other than America, they seek asylum in Mexico, in Costa Rica, and in Belize.
If we could pull the children out of the immigration debate, we would see that the current crisis has been a long time coming, with the influx of Central Americans, particularly young people on the rise in the last two years. The ranches in South Texas that have become cemeteries where hundreds of mostly Central Americans have died while lost in the brush.
The national gaze must shift from being an inconvenient crisis for the US. We must hold accountable those in power who apparently disregarded the early signs of trouble, when Border Patrol agents complained about housing children in a garage or resorting to sending them to an Air Force Base.
Without the blinders of an “immigration debate,” we could peer across the border into Mexico where mass graves have filled with their bodies. In 2000, less than 100 miles south of the border, the organized crime group, Los Zetas killed 72 migrants pulled from a bus headed north. The National Security Archive later found that the DEA linked the Zetas to the Guatemalan Special forces in the weeks before the massacre.
If we could somehow free the children from the weight of the contentious border, we would have to peer into the long trail of death behind them and the US government policy in the region that undermines a nationalistic immigration narrative.
The children are fleeing dangerous gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) whose origins are rooted in a Los Angeles neighborhood. And like the resurgent clamor to change our laws, then president Bill Clinton, in the grip of a politically volatile moment, signed into law sweeping changes to immigration rules which sent thousands of criminals, drug addicts and gang members, along with scores of others convicted of minor crimes, into countries emerging from wars that the US funded, armed and supported.
The deported migrants were often the children of refugees who fled the Central American wars. The 1954 US backed coup in Guatemala toppled a democratically elected president and sent the country into a civil war that cost some 200,000 lives and only ended in 1996. A truth commission later found that the US funded and trained the Guatemalan Army which committed “acts genocide.” In El Salvador, the US invested heavily in the Salvadoran Army which committed widespread human rights abuses during that country’s internal war.
The frame of immigration doesn’t allow for backward glance, even to the relatively recent but largely overlooked event that has contributed to the exodus: the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted a democratically elected president, which the US quickly accepted. The coup, wrote Honduras expert Dana Frank in the New York Times, “threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.”
Despite a barely functioning judicial system, pervasive impunity and repression, the US has increasingly invested in the Honduran security forces in the name of “fighting drug trafficking.”
To respond to a “border crisis” the US, under Obama is set to increase funding and training of Central American security forces in the name of stemming drugs smuggling now as an attempt to “stem the flow”of migrants.
I know well the power and reach of the immigration debate. In 2004, I interviewed three Salvadoran children in Brooklyn who had been kidnapped from their smugglers by another crew and held until their family paid a ransom. In a draft of the story for the Washington Post, I explained that their long march north began in desperation after a gang of men broke into their home and shot their mother dead. The children, witnesses to the crime, were at risk in a country of widespread impunity. Their aunt whisked them to the US Embassy in San Salvador where American officials, charged them the customary $100 per visa application and, as typically done, denied their request.
In recent weeks I returned to the unfinished draft and it’s clear that I got stuck when I tried to make sense of their story within the prevailing story of the time—The Great Immigration Debate—instead of focusing on the story of their lives and the details of their journey that, all these years later persist in my memory.
The eldest, Ignacio, 16, showed me the secret compartment he carved into the tongue of his sneakers where he stashed his dollars. “These shoes have a lot of memories and my clothes too,” he said.
His younger brother Lito walked across the Arizona desert clasping a simple silver crucifix that dangled from his neck, a present from his mother. “I held it to give me strength,” he said. “And I was given another chance to live.”
The boys, along with their sister, preserved their shoes and clothing as mementos of their struggle to survive. Their symbols are reminders of the lived migrant experience, while our symbols, embodied in border imagery, distort our perceptions encouraging us to forget.