“The Finding of Moses,” Arnold Friberg
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. [Exodus 2v1-3]
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
[from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus]
Many people have written to me and asked me to provide them with some guidance and information regarding the child refugee crisis at the United States-Mexico border and its relationship to current conditions in El Salvador. I am more than happy to do this—with a few qualifications.
First, I want to admit that I am not an expert in refugees or immigration: like most people, I am relying on the data provided by the U.N., NGOs and other organizations, journalists, and the U.S. Border Patrol. Second, I will admit that most of my experience has been in El Salvador and not Guatemala, Mexico, or Honduras, so I intend to mostly speak to this issue as it relates to that particular country. Third, I will try to provide a citation where there are particular facts or evidence that lie outside common historical knowledge.
Fourth, I will try to cite articles that present a range of opinions about this issue, but I cannot and will not pretend to be unbiased about it myself. It is my opinion as a mission co-worker and ordained pastor that the most Christian way to address this crisis is to help these desperate children however we can—both before they leave their home countries and after they cross the border—including encouraging the government of the United States to provide refugee status to those children who face real danger and violence in their countries of origin.
Lastly, I will gladly welcome a range of opinions, questions, and sources of information about this issue in the comments. But I reserve the right to delete anything I find disrespectful or lacking in basic human compassion and common courtesy.
What is going on at the border?
In the past few years, the United States has seen a rapid increase in the number of children—some of them quite young—crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by parents or other adult family members. If this pattern continues, Border Control agents will apprehend 87,000 unaccompanied children in the fiscal year 2014. This is twice as many as last year. Tens of thousands of parents have also been crossing the border with their young children.
What is causing this immigration crisis?
First of all, it is not immigration crisis. Some have called it a “humanitarian situation” and others have labeled it a refugee crisis. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that many of these children may qualify for international protection needs. Whatever you want to call it, this situation has more in common with the refugee crisis in southern Sudan and surrounding countries than it does with other patterns of northern immigration within the Americas. Since 1983, approximately 20,000 children, often referred to as “the Lost Boys,” have walked across the Sudanese wilderness and into neighboring countries to flee a violent and seemingly endless civil war. Would you say that the Lost Boys of Sudan were (and are) immigrants? Maybe. But they were first and foremost refugees, and so are these Central American children. Largely, these children are fleeing violence at home, not simply seeking better economic and employment opportunities in the USA (though economic issues in Central America are certainly a contributing factor).
How many children who are crossing the border feel that their lives are at risk back home? And what kind of violence are they fleeing?
The UN High Commission on Refugees report on this crisis estimates that overall, 58% of these children from Central America potentially qualify for international protection because they have “suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” But the percentage of Salvadoran children that may qualify for this international protection is much higher. In fact, “72% of the Salvadoran children [interviewed] provided responses that raised potential international protection needs,” and “sixty-six percent of the children cited violence by organized armed criminal actors as a primary motivator for leaving.”
What kinds of threats are they facing? The Salvadoran children interviewed stated that their daily lives were plagued by, “challenges of evading extortion; witnessing murders; and navigating threats to themselves and their families, friends and neighbors…The girls shared their fears of sexual violence.”
In El Salvador (and other parts of Central America, as well), many of these “organized criminal actors” are gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18.
But seriously, what is the root cause of all this? Where did these gangs come from?
Bear with me. It’s a long story. But you really, really need to know.
There are many, many complicated interlocking causes driving this crisis. Some, which experts call “pull factors,” include a desire to seek out better economic opportunities in the United States or to reunite with family members who live there. Some also see recent immigration policy changes as another “pull factor” in this crisis, but there is little evidence to suggest that this is a significant issue.
However, it seems that the majority of these children (especially those from El Salvador) are primarily driven by “push factors” to flee their homes, including dramatic increases in gang-related violence. In El Salvador and Honduras, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (a gang that the Obama administration has labeled as an “international criminal organization”) are recruiting children as young kindergarden—usually by force. Those that refuse to join a gang are threatened with violence or even killed. Young women are often threatened with sexual violence.
But what is the root cause? Fundamentally, it is 100 years or more of bad economic, foreign, and immigration policy on the part of the United States government with regards to Central America.
This is particularly true in El Salvador. From 1980-1992, El Salvador was gripped by an incredibly violent civil war. At least 75,000 people (and probably closer to 100,000 or 150,000 people) were killed, and 1,000,000 were displaced. This is an astounding amount of violence by any measure, but it is particularly shocking in a country with a population of just 5-6 million people.
During this conflict, the United States backed the highly oppressive, undemocratic Salvadoran government whose military forces were responsible for 85% of the war crimes committed during the conflict. This was part of the United States’ Cold War policy of “containment”: supporting governments around the world, no matter how oppressive, that claimed to be fighting socialist or leftist rebels within their own countries in order to prevent the spread of communism. Towards the end of the war, the USA was sending the Salvadoran government over $1,000,000/day in military aid.
As a result of this American money-fueled conflict, many fled El Salvador and immigrated—either with a valid visa or not—to the United States. There, many settled in Los Angeles and other large cities with large Latino and Salvadoran populations. They quickly discovered, however, that they needed a means to defend the incoming Salvadoran population from already-established area gangs. It was on the streets of Los Angeles and other cities that Mara Salvatrucha and other now-infamous gangs were formed.
After the Civil War, the US government began deporting gang members back to their countries of origin in large numbers. Some gang members were so young when they left El Salvador for the USA that they knew no family in their home country—except those people who were part of their gang. This strengthened ties between deported gang members in El Salvador and allowed gang activity to take hold in the larger cities such as San Salvador and San Miguel, where jobs were (and are) few and poorly paid and poverty and desperation created a perfect environment for gangs to embed themselves in the social and economic landscape.
Twenty years later, these gangs have only grown in size and power, strengthened by ties with gang chapters in the U.S.A. The U.S. policy of continuously deporting gang members back to their home countries does little to help the problem. The Salvadoran government, already weakened by poverty, a shrinking coffee industry, and international trade and aid agreements that do little more than extract wealth and resources from their already-poor country for the benefit of private businesses and wealthier nations, does not have the money or resources to battle these gangs. So children are fleeing for their lives from the gang-related violence, hoping to reach the safety of the United States as their parents or grandparents’ generation did during the war.
In other words, we must be clear here: this refugee crisis is the fault of the United States government and its foolish and outdated foreign and immigration policies—policies that began decades ago. We helped the Salvadoran government tear their country to pieces in the name of “containing the communist threat,” and when Salvadorans fled to the States and formed gangs, we shipped those gangs back here, along with all the violence, crime, and trauma that they carried with them. Now, children are fleeing from these gangs. If Americans want to know where this problem is coming from, we have only to look in the mirror.
What kind of parents would send their kids over the border alone?
Desperate parents who feel that their children’s lives are in danger. Many families are too poor to pay for everyone in their family to cross the border together or to seek out legal help so that their children can travel to the U.S.A. legally, so they send their children alone. It costs thousands of dollars—at least $4,000, one local woman told me—to send someone across the border with a coyote. This is what many families here earn in one year. The process for seeking out legal refugee or immigration status is almost as expensive—and much more involved–with almost no hope of success.
Also, fellow Christians, we know this story. What kind of mother would throw her young child at the mercy of God, natural elements, and strangers in the face of his certain death? Moses’ mother. What kind of parents would carry their young child across an international border in order to protect him? Jesus’ parents. As Christians, we cannot judge these children and their families. Faced with two absolutely insane options, families everywhere will choose the option that they find slightly less insane. We must try to understand this.
Is it safe to visit El Salvador for mission trips (especially with Our Sister Parish)?
It is as safe as taking a mission trip to Chicago or Los Angeles. Groups that visit San Salvador stay in tourist-friendly areas and only travel with drivers who to stay away from dangerous neighborhoods. San Salvador is a large city, and some areas are safer than others, as is true with all large cities in the U.S.A. If there were gang activity going on in East Garfield Park in Chicago, would you be afraid to visit the Bean and the Art Institute downtown? Probably not. As Americans, we expect other countries to be more violent and unsafe than ours is. But how unsafe you are often depends more on where you are in a country than what country you are in.
Our rural town itself has its share of crime, and there are certainly areas that we avoid visiting, particularly at night. But there is no organized gang violence here (thank God) and there are plenty of people and institutions (including the Pastoral House/Our Sister Parish) who are working to make sure gangs do not take hold here.
Also, as Blanca (a member of the Pastoral Team) reminded me, “They [the gangs] never kill foreigners. [People] didn’t even kill foreigners during the war, except nuns and priests—and that was the armed forces.” The gangs rarely if ever hurt non-Salvadorans. They know that doing so is not to their political advantage.
What can we/I do?
Continue supporting the Pastoral Team and other organizations who seek to end the root causes of violence and poverty in Central America and give people a sense of hope and community outside gang activity. If you are not familiar with Our Sister Parish, you can learn more about our work here.
Learn about what the PCUSA and other faith leaders across the political and theological spectrum are doing to address the crisis.
Learn about what happens to these children when they reach the U.S.A.
Call President Obama and your Congressmen/women and tell them that instead of making it easier to send these children home to places where they might be in real danger (as they are considering doing), they should make it easier for them to have a fair legal hearing for refugee status and to apply for asylum or refugee status from within their home countries. Tell them that, as a person of faith and a follower of Christ, you support sane and fair refugee assistance policies that protect children seeking sanctuary from violence. Not all these children need or qualify for international protection, but those that do should have a fair chance at obtaining it.
While you are on the phone with your Congressman/woman’s overworked and underpaid intern, please tell them you also support immigration reform that makes it easier for Central/Latin Americans (and other immigrants, as well) to travel to the U.S.A. to work and to study. Doing so will allow them to help their families and nations break the cycle of poverty and desperation that make them so susceptible to gang violence–violence that is driving them across the border. The answer to undocumented immigration isn’t less immigration–it is an easier, cheaper, and saner process for legal immigration.
Finally, if you hear a fellow Christian say, “Those kids are illegal immigrants and we should send them home ASAP,” kindly remind them that Jesus and Moses also fled violent regimes as young children. Also remind them that these are children, for goodness’ sake, and if the greatest nation on earth no longer has room for the tired, the poor, the huddling masses yearning to breathe free, then we should demolish that incredibly hypocritical statue and its accompanying bronze plaque. Because protesting outside overcrowded detention centers and welcoming desperate children to the U.S.A. with chants of, “Nobody wants you,” does not just make us bad Christians. It makes us bad Americans.
Please pray for these children and their families. Could you walk for a hundred miles across a burning hot desert, even if you knew you were doing so to save your own life? As a young woman, could you risk being sexually assaulted every day on a several-thousand-mile journey to escape the same kind of violence at home? Could you do that at 10, 12, or 14 years of age? I don’t think I could do it now.
Jesus was thirsty on the cross—these children are dying of dehydration. Jesus’ feet were pierced—these children’s feet are blistered. Their broken bodies are His broken body. So let’s do what Jesus would do: meet them with lifted lamps at the door.