Treat Central American Immigrant Children As Refugees?

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Immigrant justice activists call upon Central American children to be treated as refugees

Activists are demanding refugee status for Central American immigrants. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Last week, the news broke that another wave of unaccompanied migrant children crossed the border, which brings the number of unaccompanied minors that have attempted to escape into the United States since October to more than 52,000. Most of them are fleeing escalated gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Unlike many migrants from Central America and Mexico, coming to the United States to escape economic hardship, this new wave of migrants is escaping brutal drug-related violence plaguing the region. For this reason, both immigrant justice activists and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees are calling upon the U.S. government which has already allocated $116 million to process the deportations and pay the transportation of the most recent wave of children  to treat these migrants as refugees, allowing them to seek temporary or permanent asylum in the United States.

Political instability and corruption in Central America allows drug trafficking gangs fighting for control of key smuggling routes to grow unchecked. The resulting violence has been called an undeclared war, with murder rates in Honduras being the highest in the world. Middle and high school-aged children are recruited, or more often kidnapped, to join the street gangs and run errands for the more established members. The price for refusing to join a gang is high, typically resulting in the rape and murder of young women, brutal killing of young men and revenge carried out upon their families.

Many families are paying smugglers thousands of dollars to safely transport their children to the United States, often claiming that the notoriously dangerous journey north is far safer than remaining at home. However, instead of addressing these concerns  many of which are ironically the direct result of U.S. foreign policies like NAFTA and the so-called “war on drugs,” particularly the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew democratically-elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya  there has been a bipartisan effort to enforce border control, apprehend children to be processed, and deport them back to the war zones from which they escaped. Some children spend only one or two days in the United States, only to be immediately transferred back.

Back in Central America, those who have been deported, and are discouraged from trying to leave once again, are even more vulnerable to the violence.

Refugee status could be the difference between life and death. These are necessary policy wins in a larger struggle to abolish borders.