What Really Drove the Children North
Our appetite for drugs caused the violence that made life unbearable in much of Central America.
In a nation where it is not uncommon to hear the other side of the Rio Grande referred to as "South America," it is amusing to observe the recent wave of self-anointed experts in the U.S. opining authoritatively on the causes of child migration from Central America.
Some of these are talking heads of conservative punditry who seem to know zip about the region and show no interest in learning. They wing it, presumably because they believe their viewers and listeners will never know the truth and don't care. What matters is proving that the large number of unaccompanied minors piling up at the border is President Obama's fault for somehow signaling that they would not be turned back. The origins of the problem are deemed unimportant and the fate of the children gets even less attention.
Thank heaven for four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who knows something about war and failed states and now heads the U.S. military's Southern Command, which keeps an eye on the region. He has spent time studying the issue and is speaking up. Conservatives may not like his conclusions, in which the U.S. bears significant responsibility, but it is hard to accuse a four-star of a "blame America first" attitude.
To make the "Obama did it" hypothesis work, it is necessary to defeat the claim that the migrants are fleeing intolerable violence. This has given rise to the oft-repeated line that "those countries" have always been very violent.
That is patently untrue. Central America is significantly more dangerous than it was before it became a magnet for rich and powerful drug capos. Back in the early 1990s, drugs from South America flowed through the Caribbean to the U.S.
Well, "always been very violent" covers a lot more history than is relevant; per UN statistics, the murder rate in Guatamale and El Salvador has been roughly flat for ten years. So why is the surge in unaccompoanied minors ocurring now, rather than two or five years or seven years ago?
But when a U.S. interdiction strategy in the Caribbean raised costs, trafficking shifted to land routes up the Central American isthmus and through Mexico. With Mexican President Felipe Calderón's war on the cartels, launched in 2007, the underworld gradually slithered toward the poorer, weaker neighboring countries. Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez, began facilitating the movement of cocaine from producing countries in the Andes to the U.S., also via Central America.
So by this history the relevant Central American countries have been on a downward spiral for seven years. Again, why the border surge now? And why all the reporting about immigrants surrendering to the Border Patrol and asking for their 'permiso'? Why the UN report that surveyed children held by the Border Patrol and delivered this:
Sixty-two percent of the children did not mention serious harm as a reason for leaving. Eighty-four percent of the children shared hopes for family reunification, better opportunities for work or study, or helping their families as a reason for coming to the U.S.
Forty-three percent of the Honduran children did not mention serious harm as a reason for leaving. Twenty-one percent of the children discussed situations of deprivation. Similar to the children from Guatemala, 80% of the Honduran children shared their hopes for family reunification, better opportunities to work or study, or to help their families as a reason for leaving, but very few gave one of these as the only reason.
I am in complete agreement that our War on Drugs is a disaster that has been crushing South and Central America for decades and ought to be dramatically reimagined ('Mend it, don't end it' is probably the politically expedient catchphrase we are looking for). But as to why the surge is happening now, I have no doubt that Obama's imaginative and compassionate interpretation of the law is encouraging people to come north and hope to benefit from an amnesty, a DREAM II, or something similar.
Our war on drugs has created a flammable (and untenable) situation to our south; Obama is throwing matches. I blame Obama for the current flames, but a real, long-term solution requires a redirection of our drug war as a starting point. (And don't ask about the jobs magnet...)