By: Michal Kranz
For the last ten years, if not longer, illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico has remained a hot button issue in political campaigns and legislative battles, with concerns about racism, deportations, and opportunities for immigrant integration into American society cropping up every so often in the collective national consciousness. But only in the last year and a half has immigration over the southern US border reached crisis levels – and this time it is not Mexican families crossing over in search of a better life, but often unaccompanied children fleeing drug violence in Central America, mainly Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
The distinction is important because there are different laws that apply to each situation; children and families coming from Mexico can be easily turned away, and if they do make into the hands of Border Patrol, they can be deported much more expediently. Meanwhile child asylum seekers from Central America must be taken in for humanitarian reasons, and unlike Mexican child immigrants, do not receive an immediate screening for eligibility and must thus wait weeks for a hearing in front of an immigration judge. As a result, housing these children has become an increasingly difficult task, resulting in rising tensions between the federal government and local communities in place like Murrieta, California, where xenophobic protestors infamously halted buses full of recent immigrants who were to be housed at a facility in the town.
It is immigrants who are ultimately the victims however, not only of persecution and violence within their native countries but also of the US immigration system, which only grants about a third of incoming Central American children refugee asylum. This is because the burden of proof of persecution is on the child immigrants themselves, who are not required to be provided with a lawyer in the hearings and rarely are able to produce concrete evidence of their ordeals. More often than not, children end up being flown back to their countries of origin, which for many is effectively a death sentence.
But why the sudden uptick in these Central American immigrants? Over the last decade or so, the most intense violence has been focused on the Drug War in Mexico, which continues to this day despite a subtle decrease in killings as a result of government crackdowns and decriminalization of drug possession. However, increasing amounts of cartel activity in the transit countries of Central America has driven US interest toward that region and away from Mexico, as evidenced by President Obama’s decision to send Marines into Guatemala in 2013 to combat drug gangs there. These drug wars in general are fueled primarily by US drug policy, which has tried to limit the trafficking of drugs into the US from Latin America and elsewhere by fighting to eliminate the drugs and traffickers in the region themselves.
The recent wave of immigration, in part facilitated by these conditions, seems to be proverbial chickens coming home to roost, and while alleviating the current humanitarian situation is vital, analysts agree that until the broader problem of drug trafficking and prohibition is addressed this crisis will by no means be the last.
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