I really respect the opinion of these two scholars on the matter of migration and unaccompanied minors. Both have dedicated their entire careers to the topic of hemispheric migration. We would do well to heed their cautionary words and analysis on how this so-called "crisis" is actually, unfortunately, nothing new but is rather an artifact of the media and political spin that nevertheless has consequences for policies that still may not get at the root of this long-term social problem.
By Nestor Rodriguez and Cecilia Menjívar
The conventional characterization of the day regarding the situation with Central America migrant children heading to the United States is one that simply is not based on reality. There is no crisis.
The media, public officials and politicians have all contributed to create an image of this migration flow as a crisis, but Central American children have migrated unaccompanied to the United States by the thousands for decades. Granted, the numbers increased recently, but the conditions that have been cited in the media to explain this migration have remained constant during the past decade, so they cannot explain the "surge" we saw recently.
This popular construction of a "crisis" in the media, however, has had a significant consequence - not just for what the coverage has related but for what has been left out. It has focused our attention on the violence in the "origin" countries that contributes to the migration north but not to the root causes of this violence and how closely tied it is to U.S. actions.
This image of a crisis supposedly rooted in current violence in Central America misdirects our sense of responsibility for this region, which has suffered for decades from U.S. military interventions, U.S.-supported dictatorial regimes and ruthless neoliberal policies. Perhaps no other region was as thoroughly transformed and brutalized to serve U.S. interests during the Cold War as was Central America. Yet, when the legacy of decades of military intervention and School of the Americas' training of these countries' torturers emerges in the form of the highest murder rates in the world, the United States quickly finds distance from those conditions as if this violence sprang up independently of U.S. actions.
This historical erasure and the depiction of this migration as being the result of a crisis located solely in Central America confuse the American public. They cannot understand why the United States should assume responsibility for the children who are fleeing the conditions of violence that their government in large measure contributed to create.
The depiction of this migratory flow as a crisis also deflects attention from immigration policies in the United States since the 1990s. In our research, we have listened to hundreds of deeply worried Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan parents in the U.S. who toil in multiple jobs to support their children from whom they have been separated for years, if not decades. These Central American parents are unable to travel to visit their children because, given the militarized southern U.S. border and their uncertain status, they would be unable to make it back.
Separation from children for Central American immigrants is quite common, longer and more uncertain than it is among other immigrants - for instance, Mexicans. Under these circumstances, and with their kids facing everyday violence at home, the parents feel pressured to send for the kids. In the absence of a new immigration law to regularize their immigration status, sending for them, even if it is a dangerous enterprise, appears to be the only chance these parents have at family reunification. As long as millions of immigrants continue to live in the United States separated from their children back home for lack of an immigration policy to address their irregular status, the ebb and flow of child migration from Central America to the United States will continue.
There are no quick fixes to the problem of child migration, but one way Congress can start reducing this migration is to pass an immigration policy to lessen family separation, as various congressional measures did from 1965 to the early 1990s. Also, rather than using federal funds to put a bandage on a "problem" that has roots in Cold War policies, the Obama administration can use this money to improve schools, generate opportunities for dignified employment, create safety nets and strengthen public safety in Central America. These measures would go a long way in redressing the damage inflicted on Central Americans during the decades of Cold War expansionism (for which President Bill Clinton apologized to Guatemala in 1999).
These improvements would address the needs of many of those who feel pressured to migrate and those who are compelled to join gangs. Mislabeling social processes like migratory flows as "crises" leads to misplaced responsibility and misdirected and uninformed solutions that create even bigger unintended consequences in the future.
Rodriguez is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of "Black/Brown Relations and Stereotypes" and "Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions." Menjívar is a professor of sociology at Arizona State University and author of "Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America" and "Enduring Violence: Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala."