Politics of Poverty

Is the U.S. deporting Central Americans back to their deaths?

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Since October 2015, more than 10,000 migrants - many of them unaccompanied children - have fled over the US-Mexico border. Photo: John Moore / Getty Images

As thousands continue to stream over the US-Mexico border from Central America, the US is planning a massive operation to send them all home, but it’s a poor solution. Migration is only a symptom of the real issues.

Vicki Gass is the Central America Policy Advisor at Oxfam America.

For those of us concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States, President Obama’s Tuesday announcement of an executive order on gun control was surely refreshing.  In his heart-felt address, he said that there was too much pain and sorrow about children, siblings and parents who have been injured or killed by gun violence in recent years. Who could disagree?

Yet, for those of us working for a just and equitable Central America, his emotional address was in stark contrast to his Administration’s Christmas Eve announcement to deport Central American families at the start of the New Year. Already reports are streaming in of children and adults being detained prior to deportation in North Carolina, Texas and Washington, DC.  We know that the reason many are fleeing their homes in the first place is due to the escalating violence and deteriorating living conditions in Central American countries. So one has to ask: Is the Obama Administration sending them back to possible death?

Media coverage on the deportations has largely focused on questions of legality – the legal status of Central Americans who have crossed the border without papers; whether international human rights conventions are being violated; or whether those detained and deported have received due process.  These are valid questions, but much more attention needs to be paid to what is forcing people to leave their homes in such large numbers.

The leading January 6 headline in Salvadoran newspaper, la Prensa Grafica, stated that in the first five days of 2016 alone, there were 130 homicides in El Salvador.  Last year, El Salvador overtook Honduras as the most violent country in the world with over 6,600 people killed (104 per 100,000 people in a population of just over 6 million) – 200 were children and adolescents in the first five months of that year alone.  Colleagues in El Salvador are saying that this level of violence has not been seen since the civil war in which an estimated 70,000 people were killed.

Neighboring countries are experiencing similar levels of violence.

We may assume that those being deported will receive protection from their national police or security forces – but recent events have shown that people are not safe in their charge either.  A local Honduran NGO, Casa Alianza, reported that Honduran soldiers assigned to combat crime, killed at least six civilians – children and youths – in the last few months. On January 2, 2016, for example, a young woman was reported killed by military police in the capital city Tegucigalpa.  Other reports have surfaced of human rights violations committed by the Honduran military police against civilians including torture, rape and the excessive use of force.  So, seeking protection from the “authorities” is not a solution for those being detained, deported and returned by force.

And violence isn’t the only factor forcing Central Americans to leave their homes and families. Corruption, pervasive income inequality, meager job opportunities and limited economic growth present too few options for families to earn a decent living and meet their basic needs. Not to mention, the extreme weather conditions brought on by El Niño continues to exacerbate hunger and destroy livelihoods as the region experiences its worst drought in decades, which has caused record crop losses and left over 2.3 million people food insecure. Moreover, the region’s economies tend to favor strategies of export promotion, which only increases inequality, while governments remain unable or unwilling to implement fairer tax systems to fund essential social programs such as education and healthcare.

With so few viable options for survival, is it any wonder that we’ve seen so many unaccompanied children and families surging across the U.S.-Mexico border since the summer of 2014? President Obama said that the American people cannot be “held hostage” to gun violence. The same can be said of the Central Americans detained and facing deportation. They should also not be held hostage or be deported to face the hunger and violence they are desperately trying to escape.

The Obama Administration and Members of Congress recognize that the region is in crisis. The recently passed Omnibus spending bill approved a $750 million package for Central America, a significant increase from prior years (although less than the White House request). Moreover, aid disbursement is conditioned on whether effective steps to address corruption, human rights and tax collection issues are taken.  These are steps in the right direction, but not enough to address the profound structural poverty and violence that is forcing the exodus.  Until these problems are sufficiently addressed, the Administration’s deportation policy seems un-American, wrong and inhumane.

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