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Minors at the Border – Three Questions for Daniel Esser

Daniel Esser

Thousands of Central American children have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, creating a humanitarian, judicial, and political crisis, as the Obama administration struggles to manage the situation. Assistant Professor Daniel Esser, an expert on aid effectiveness who has conducted field research in Mexico, explains the root causes of the influx and suggests ways to slow the flow of people to the United States.

Q: Why are so many unaccompanied minors trying to cross into the United States?

A: There are both push and pull factors at work. Living conditions for these minors in countries such as Honduras and Guatemala are generally atrocious. Gangs control entire neighborhoods and districts and exert control using extortion, kidnapping, forced gang recruitment, and aggravated sexual violence. The murder rates in cities like San Pedro Sula are a multiple of those in the most violent cities in the United States. Without protection by immediate family members, these children have no reason to stay put. 

At the same time, many of these minors are longing to be reunited with their parents, who may be in the United States. The latter are aware of the dangers facing their children during migration. They often even plead with their children not to embark on the trek, but in light of escalating violence in Central America, these minors have little choice. Moreover, these young people also act on false hopes fueled by rumors that if only they manage to cross into the United States, they might eventually be allowed to stay.

Q: What is happening in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that is causing so many young people to flee?

A: Two of the most violent gangs in the region originated in the United States, especially in California but also here in the DC area. After deportation, many of their members set up shop in Central America where most national governments have much lower enforcement capacities. Resulting criminal activities and accompanying violence have threatened community cohesion to a point where escape is a form of individual resilience—in a sense, the last option available. While wealthier citizens in these countries wall themselves in and are protected by an army of private security guards, children and adolescents living in these countries have been witnessing the complete breakdown of the state, both locally and nationally, when it comes to basic public service delivery. 

In addition, their exodus adds a new dimension to the billion-dollar business of human trafficking. Considering that each of the more than 50,000 juvenile migrants who, between October 2013 and June of this year, made it to the U.S. border with Mexico where they were apprehended, had paid between US$3,000 and $10,000 to their smugglers, we can imagine the perverse incentives that fuel this kind of migration.

Q: President Obama has asked Congress for emergency funding to deal with the current influx. What steps should be taken in the short, medium, and long term to resolve the situation?

A: The options range, at one extreme, from stricter border controls, expedited removal, and providing financial as well as in-kind assistance to the Mexican government so the latter can improve policing at its southern borders, to—at the other end of the spectrum—a system of emergency shelters that do not lock these minors away for eventual deportation but offer managed reunification with their families, stepping up funding for locally led anti-violence projects in Central America as well as, ultimately, a comprehensive immigration reform that acknowledges the economic contributions and inalienable human rights of currently undocumented immigrants in the United States. 

President Obama seeks federal support for measures that fall mostly into the first category. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced that he would mobilize the National Guard. As long as migrants fleeing the violence in Central America, which continues to be fed primarily by the United States' insatiable demand for illicit drugs, are framed as a "national security challenge," as opposed to human beings worthy of humanitarian assistance and humane treatment, there is little hope that the situation at the border will improve anytime soon. 

My reading, however, is that the president's current strategy is to buy goodwill from a partially xenophobic House of Representatives through embracing tougher rhetoric and supporting a focus on enforcement in the short run in order to contain the longer-term political fallout from more profound reforms that will hopefully be introduced before his second term comes to an end.

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To request an interview with Professor Esser, call (202) 885-5943.