Politics of Poverty

Does the US have a role in the violence and poverty causing the humanitarian border crisis?

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Mi mama y hermano en Los Angeles. Foto: Gloria Jimenez.

An Oxfam staffer shares her family’s escape from violence in Central America.

(Para leer en español haz clic aquí.)

Gloria Jimenez is the Extractive Industries Campaign Coordinator at Oxfam America.  

There is something missing in the conversation about the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the US-Mexico Border. What media pundits and politicians neglect to understand, let alone consider, are the push and pull factors that lead to these dangerous border crossings and the role the US has in the violence that creates them. The current polarizing conversations about undocumented immigration do not at all reflect my own family’s journey.

Though I was born in Mexico, my Salvadoran mother was in her late 20s when the civil war started in El Salvador. My mom says she does not remember much about that period, except that the violence was out in the open and people were disappearing; friends and neighbors were never to be heard from again. When soldiers started moving into her town of Cabañas, my grandfather made the decision that my mom, aunts, and uncles had to leave the country to escape recruitment as soldiers.

Luckily, my mom was able to get a work visa and come legally to the US, where she worked in Los Angeles until she finally had enough money to send for my older brother, Edgar, who she had to leave behind. Edgar would take the dangerous trip through Mexico with my uncle. They were almost to the US until unfortunately for them, they were detained by immigration at the US-Mexico border.

My uncle was sent to the men’s jail. My then 7-year-old brother was sent to a women’s correctional facility for a couple of months until my mom could scrape together the few thousand dollars needed for bail, which she did with a loan from her employer. When I ask my brother, “What was that like being in jail?”, he laughs it off saying only, “It was fine. The women loved me. They gave me candy all the time.”  I imagine the women in that jail, lonely and filled with pain from being separated, shooting at my brother a firehouse of love they could not give to their own families. I also try not to think about the things he does not tell me, hopefully buried in his memory.

After my mom and brother were reunited, my mother met my father and this time they were once again crossing borders into Mexico to take care of my ailing grandmother. But after their failed attempts at making a living in Mexico—although my mom did every thinkable job a woman with little education could do—we returned as a larger family, myself now included but too young to remember crossing the border, to the land of promise and the country that had jailed my brother, now a Stanford-educated doctor working in an underserved community, as a young child.

A report from the UN Refugee Agency estimates that nearly 60 percent of the recently-arrived, unaccompanied children were forcibly displaced due to insecurity. In my work prior to joining the Extractives Industries team at Oxfam America, I also saw this type of insecurity in Thailand and Uganda, where vulnerable community members’ lives were suddenly uprooted when a mining company or oil and gas project came to their community. These types of projects have a long history of displacing people, creating few or no jobs (or jobs of low quality, or temporary, unsafe jobs), threatening livelihoods, and often bypassing or failing to benefit local economies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, extractive industry projects often also create violence and instability in communities, as they have recently in Guatemala where a Tahoe Resources (Goldcorp) mine security guard killed a 16-year-old girl, Topacio Reynoso, during a peaceful protest against the mine in April of this year.

There is no research to prove that economic struggles and conflicts in the natural-resource-rich communities in Central America are playing a significant role in this current border crisis, although the negative impacts of extractive industries are well documented. For example, despite having committed human rights abuses, the mining company PacificRim/Oceana Gold wants to operate in my mom’s home of Cabañas in El Salvador. The company is now suing the government of El Salvador for being denied the permit to operate the El Dorado mine. They are asking for $301 million even though the community is asking the company to leave.

Here are the questions about the alarming exodus of unaccompanied youth from Central America that must enter the border crisis discussion: Should we make criminals of economic refugees whose livelihoods are destroyed when we subsidize US companies and undercut local prices, or ship US food aid to favor the maritime industry, or fail to regulate extractive industries? Should we make criminals of refugees from conflict when the US may have contributed to the surge of violence in Central America through the US’ war on drugs or by deporting convicted immigrants (even for petty crimes) from Los Angeles so that we would not have to deal with them?

Regardless of the contributing factors to the crisis, Oxfam America is calling on the US government to ensure these vulnerable kids’ human rights are protected and that they have access to legal process and protection…something which my family knows all too well.

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