What a Survey of Central American Children Tells Us about Drug and Immigration Policies
Testimony by Kelly Engel Wells to the PC(USA) Drug Policy Task Force at public hearing in El Paso, Texas, May 2, 2015.
I am a Staff Attorney and the supervisor of the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. We are a legal team of 9 people serving unaccompanied minors in immigration detention in and around El Paso, or released from detention within the jurisdiction of the El Paso immigration court, comprising West Texas and New Mexico. Last year, we provided Know Your Rights presentations and legal intake interviews to over 3,300 children, directly represented those who needed legal assistance while in detention, and worked to match all children eligible for relief with free or low-cost attorneys, wherever they were released.
In our legal intake interviews, which are generally conducted within one week of the children’s arrival in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), we try to understand why they came to the United States and whether they might be eligible for any form of legal relief. In the process, we learn a lot about the conditions in the countries they are coming from. So, when John Lindsay-Poland asked me to testify about the impact of the drug wars in Latin America, we had the experiences of over three thousand children over the last year alone to draw on.
To prepare for this presentation, my colleague Kristen Bowdre, who is here with me today, conducted a study of 148 files of children we flagged for asylum. I’ll present the results of that study and highlight what I think are some important policy implications, as well as some caveats about the data. This sample represents about 40% of the children flagged for asylum from July-December 2014. We are not social scientists, so I cannot comment on whether or not this is statistically relevant.
I want to highlight the intersection of US drug policy and US immigration policy.
We determined that approximately 30% of the children we interviewed might have a viable asylum claim. However, a much larger percentage of the children we speak to are directly or indirectly affected by drug-related violence, but may not have been flagged as having viable asylum claims because that is quite a high legal bar to meet. A study published by UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) last year of 400 children interviewed in ORR custody found that approximately half of the children mentioned being “personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors.”
When you look at the country breakdown of children that we flagged for asylum, you see that Salvadorans made up 53% of that group. That is a much higher percentage than Salvadorans of all the children that we saw, so it seems to suggest that El Salvador has a particularly dire situation.
Mexican kids only made up approximately 10%; however, I think they are really underrepresented in this sample for two reasons. First, Mexican children, unlike Central American children, are not automatically transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They have to claim a fear of return in order to make it into the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody. Most kids don’t know how to do that, or the Border Patrol doesn’t remember to ask; often they are just summarily repatriated.
Second of all, the dynamic here on the border, with a lot of people coming back and forth who live along the border communities, means that Mexican families or Mexican children who may want to seek asylum may have other ways of getting into the United States without winding up in immigration custody.
Up to this point, the US strategy for the war on drugs has focused on giving resources to law enforcement in Central America, which overwhelming evidence suggests is often implicated in the crime itself. So we’re basically giving money and arms and training to the criminals. Directly.
Looking at the gender breakdown, you’ll see that it’s about 60% male and 40% female. Girls may be overrepresented in this sample because one of the shelters that we included is a shelter specifically for very young children and teenage moms or pregnant girls.
Eleven minors (or 7.4%) spoke an indigenous language, and all those were from Guatemala. I wanted to highlight this because when you think about gang and drug related violence, we tend to think of it as an urban phenomenon, but we’ve been seeing kids even from very rural areas in Guatemala who have been expressing that this is going on in their communities.
Eighty-six minors (or 58%) had one or both parents in the United States, making them more vulnerable to threats and gang activity. And this is a really important thing that I want to highlight, which is the intersection of US drug policy and US immigration policy. The US has not had a mass legalization of undocumented immigrants in 30 years. So that means that undocumented immigrants who are coming to the United States living here for years or even decades, establishing their lives here, have not had a chance to legalize their situation and cannot bring their children here legally. It also means that they can’t go back to their home country when a crisis comes up to help deal with that crisis. So that’s creating a real crisis of child protection and making children very vulnerable to gang exploitation.
Twenty-six minors (or 17.5%) reported extortion; out of those minors 18 (or 69%) had one or more parents in the United States. So kids with parents in the United States are overrepresented amongst kids who are extorted. And that also has to do with the perception that children who have parents in the United States may have access to more resources.
We need to stop the practice of deporting our criminals. If our justice system can’t adequately reform convicted criminals and protect society from their potential future ills, the impoverished governments of Central America are far less equipped to do so.
Fifty-seven minors (or about 40%) reported that gangs tried to recruit them. Most of these were over the age of 13. Minors are targeted for gang recruitment first of all because they are more vulnerable, and second of all, because there is a perception that they’re less likely to be arrested and prosecuted, which means that they’ll be able to work for the gang longer.
Fifteen minors (or 10%) reported being threatened with assault or beatings, and another 16% reported actually be assaulted or beaten; these are mutually exclusive categories. Eighty-one minors (or 55%) reported receiving death threats, and 32% reported receiving death threats to their families. These threats are typically related to forced recruitment.
When you put all of that together, we’re seeing a situation where children are being threatened with: either we’re going to kill you, or you have to join the gang, or we’re going to extort you or your family. So you either pay us, you give us your labor, or you get out. Fourteen minors, or about 10%, reported being forced to relocate internally due to threats or other danger. That’s obviously not including the relocation to the United States, so there was a previous threat that made them relocate.
Thirty-three minors (or 22%) reported receiving threats at or near school, which is very troubling, because what we’re seeing is kids who were in school and really wanted to go to school, but weren’t able to go to school because it became too dangerous. They were actually saying I can’t leave my house in El Salvador, and Salvadorans were highly overrepresented in that group.
The United States has a legal duty under international treaties not to return asylees to the country where they face persecution. And yet, it appears that we are doing just that.
Twenty-two minors (or about 15%) reported having a family member killed or disappeared. Eighteen minors or 12% said that they made a police report, but a much higher percentage (40%) said that they had no contact with law enforcement because they feared or mistrusted law enforcement. Salvadorans again are heavily over represented there.
And this has very serious implications for the US strategy for the war on drugs. Up to this point, it has focused on giving more resources, more money, more arms, training, etc., to law enforcement in Central America, which overwhelming evidence suggests is often implicated in the crime itself. So we’re basically giving money and arms and training to the criminals. Directly.
Nine girls reported threats of rape or attempted rape, five girls reported being victims of rape or sexual assault and seven girls reported that gang members tried to force them to be their girlfriends. So we saw this in three contexts mainly. One is interfamily violence, which we know is pervasive everywhere, but is often exacerbated in times of significant violence in the public sphere. Another context is rape as a form of intimidation to join the gang. And the third context is rape during migration. Again, the latter situation has very serious implications for immigration policies and how difficult and dangerous we are making it for these children to get to the United States.
In addition to these numbers, I wanted to mention two phenomena that we’ve been seeing recently involving Mexican minors. These aren’t apparent in the data analyzed because they really began in earnest in December 2014 – January 2015 of this year.
We need to make it possible for undocumented Central Americans to bring their children here legally. Children who don’t have parental protection are targeted by gangs and are vulnerable to forced recruitment.
We are seeing an astonishing degree of forced relocation in the Valle de Juarez. We have heard over and over again the same story: masked men with guns came to my house and gave us 24 hours to leave. Often, in the course of this “warning”, one or more family members is beaten or kidnapped, never to be heard from again. Valle de Juarez is an agricultural region about 40 miles southeast of El Paso along the US-Mexico border, and this appears to be a systematic campaign to depopulate the area. One client recently told me that as her family was being told to leave, the intruders explicitly told them that they don’t want people in that region. Another client, who went back to Mexico, had to find a new school to attend because her old school had closed because there were no more children left in her town.
It is very hard to imagine that such a campaign could be carried out without the explicit instruction or permission of the authorities, and in fact clients have told me that the patrols in their area seem to vanish right before something bad happens. And yet the US continues to work closely with Mexican authorities, sharing intelligence, equipment, training, and, of course, hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the creation of a “smart border.”
Secondly, we have seen cases, and also been informed by the Mexican Consulate, of Mexican teenagers, especially indigenous Tarahumara kids, being recruited or kidnapped and forced to bring marijuana to the US through the desert. Cartels appear to be targeting the Tarahumara due to their perceived physical fitness and knowledge of the desert terrain. The Border Patrol, for its part, routinely treats kids who may be human trafficking victims as criminals and violates its legal duties to them as unaccompanied minors, extending their stay in the U.S. and causing them to be even more vulnerable to police abuses in the future.
Where does all of this point for any changes to drug policy in the future?
First of all, while it is very difficult to identify the intended targets of the war on drugs, the collateral damage is quite apparent, and it is tremendous. Even if we all felt that drug use was a threat to the moral fabric of the American public—an idea that seems as obsolete to my generation as the fear of rock music—it would be extremely hard to justify the toll this war has taken on Latin America, not to mention on black and brown communities within the U.S. that are not the focus of today’s event.
Of all of the children we saw last year, not one was from Nicaragua.
Second, the U.S. strategy of improving regional security by providing more money for strong-arm police tactics is a complete, miserable failure, and should be totally discarded. For a better model, all you need to do is look next door at Nicaragua. Of all of the children we saw last year, not one was from Nicaragua. Despite the deep poverty that that country suffers, it doesn’t have nearly the level of violent crime suffered by Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala: Nicaragua’s homicide level is one ninth that of Honduras and a quarter that of El Salvador and Guatemala. One explanation for this difference is the community policing model in place in Nicaragua, which emphasizes preventing crime by identifying and addressing social issues that lead to criminality, as well as maintaining strong relationships between police and the public. The key to its success is trust, not fear. No amount of military equipment or ops training is going to create that.
Finally, we need immigration reform, now. First, we need to make it possible for undocumented Central Americans to legalize their status and bring their children here legally. Children who don’t have parental protection are targeted by gangs and are vulnerable to forced recruitment. Some people will argue that instead, we should deport these kids’ parents. That idea is unrealistic and inhumane to people who have lived here for years and given much of their lives to our country.
Second, we need to halt efforts designed to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching the United States. In response to political pressure from the right to halt the influx of unaccompanied minors last year, the Obama administration undertook dramatic efforts to prevent kids from reaching the United States, ostensibly to protect the kids from a very dangerous journey; in reality, the program is designed to protect the Administration from the political liability of a second influx. News reports since then have documented U.S. collaboration with Central American law enforcement aimed at identifying unaccompanied minors or potential asylum-seekers and preventing them from leaving their countries, again, purportedly to protect those vulnerable individuals.
However, this is extremely troubling when it comes to asylum-seekers, as they are, by definition, attempting to flee a country that is either unwilling or unable to protect them from persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. The United States has a legal duty under international treaties not to return asylees to the country where they face persecution; we cannot shirk that duty merely by preventing asylum-seekers from reaching the US. And yet, it appears that we are doing just that. Despite the lack of any meaningful changes on the ground in those countries, the number of Salvadoran unaccompanied minors in our local shelters is down 75% against 2014, and the number of Hondurans is down 93%.
We need to stop seeing the violence as the means used by the enemy, and realize that the violence is itself the enemy.
We are hearing similar information from other legal programs across the border. The Obama Administration attempted to counter these draconian measures that prevent unauthorized migration with a program that allows certain minors to apply for asylum without ever reaching the United States; while this is generally a good idea, the eligibility criteria for the program are so limiting that I can’t imagine that many people will actually be able to take advantage of it, and it certainly does not explain the dramatic drop in Salvadoran and Honduran children attempting to reach the US.
Third, we need to stop the practice of deporting our criminals. It is well-documented that the most dangerous and pervasive gangs in El Salvador and Honduras today were first established in Los Angeles in the 1990s and reconstituted in those countries after those gang members were deported. (Not coincidentally, far fewer convicted criminals were deported to Nicaragua, another explanation for its relatively lower crime rate.) It wasn’t until 1996 that legal permanent residents could be easily divested of that status and deported for committing crimes. If our justice system can’t adequately reform convicted criminals and protect society from their potential future ills, the impoverished governments of Central America are far less equipped to do so.
I’d like to end by encouraging anyone interested in this issue to spend time with those directly impacted by it. We have to stop seeing this violence as a foreign problem that we need to keep out of the United States with 18-foot-fences and 20,000 new border patrol agents, and instead work to recognize ourselves and our children in the faces of those who come here seeking safety. And we need to stop seeing the violence as the means used by the enemy, and realize that the violence is itself the enemy.