Child Refugees: A Humanitarian Crisis We Helped Create


Recently, our country has been engaged in heated debate over the crisis involving thousands of mostly unaccompanied Central American children showing up at our southern border. Anti-immigration groups have seized the opportunity to reignite the cry for more border security, quicker deportations and stiffer sanctions for those crossing the border without authority.

Alternatively, others argue that these young children are refugees, running away from violence, and should therefore be afforded humanitarian aid and protection.

Regardless of your position in this debate, I believe a better understanding of how and why this crisis is occurring could lead to a more productive conversation and a greater likelihood of finding a solution.

First, it is important to know that these children are not sneaking across the border to live here illegally. Instead of trying to cross the border unnoticed, they are turning themselves in to border patrol agents and seeking asylum.

Second, the violence these children are running away from is real.

This is a humanitarian crisis, not an immigration issue. There are reports of children as young as seven who have been murdered for failing to join or support the gangs in their community. Honduras has the world's highest homicide rate, and Central America is the world's most violent region, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013 Global Study on Homicide.

Finally, this violence has been exacerbated by U.S. policies.

The war on drugs, coupled with our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs, created powerful economic incentives beyond our ability to control. After 30 years, we can see the devastation of the war on drugs here and abroad.

Drugs are cheaper, more potent, and used at a higher rate in the U.S. than they were before the war on drugs. The enforcement efforts have fueled the rise of dangerous organized cartels willing to assume the risks and rewards of engaging in drug trafficking. These brutal cartels have overwhelmed law enforcement in the Central American countries where they operate.

Coincidentally, our policy of deporting young gang members who, as the children of undocumented immigrants had no legal status in the U.S., to Central America, particularly from the LA area, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, aggravated this development. These gang warriors mostly brought to the country by their parents as children during the 1970s and 1980s, had grown up in gang-infested neighborhoods and joined violent gangs like MS-13 to survive. By the time they arrived back in their countries of origin, they were street-hardened gangsters.

With no legitimate marketable skills, they quickly enlarged the ranks of cartel soldiers needed to protect the drug trade. Accustomed to extreme violence, these new recruits joined the fighting for turf, leading to more killings and intimidation—and in turn helped to make the crime groups stronger and more far-reaching.

Another contributing factor to the current situation has been the demise of Central American farms as a bi-product of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under CAFTA, U.S. government-subsidized farm products are dumped into these markets, causing large-scale unemployment in these mostly agrarian societies. This results in the dislocation of thousands of families from the countryside to the cities. Effectively homeless and unemployed, these dislocated families become easy targets of brutal gang violence.

In my opinion, our policies have contributed so much to the destabilization of the economies and public safety in these countries that it raises our obligation to act with greater compassion. We must work to assist these children in the immediate term and consider more sustainable policies for the future. If these countries can stabilize, it will be best for all involved.

Effective sustainable solutions to this problem should be based on a well-grounded understanding of the drivers behind this crisis. To ignore the conditions that led to the problem in the first place is a sure formula for further violence and more failed policies.

George Gascón was elected San Francisco's first Latino District Attorney in November, 2011 after serving as the city's police chief since 2009. A former Los Angeles police officer, he rose to the rank of Assistant Chief and Director of Operations for the LAPD before leaving in 2006 to become chief of the Mesa AZ police department. He welcomes comments from readers.

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