No Childhood Here: Why Central American Children are Fleeing Their Homes
Introduction and Summary
Over a decade before President Barack Obama described the influx of unaccompanied child migrants to the United States as an “urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated Federal response,” child and refugee advocates warned that children who shared experiences of years-long family separation, widespread violence in home countries, and higher rates of neglect and abuse were fleeing from South of our border in alarming numbers. Then as now, over 95 percent were from Mexico and the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. When these children were apprehended in the U.S., the Trafficking and Victim’s Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) required agents to ask limited and straightforward abuse questions. If the child was determined to be without a parent or legal guardian, s/he had to be transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) care within 72 hours.
Yet, even though 8,000 to 40,000 unaccompanied child migrants were apprehended annually between 2003 and 2011, only 4,800 to 8,300 entered ORR’s care each year. A 2011 report by the Appleseed Foundation documented that most Mexican child migrants did not receive TVPRA screening and thus could not transition to ORR care. Instead, per an agreement between the Mexican and U.S. governments that Obama would like emulated among Central American countries, Mexican children were quickly deported. Nonetheless, those from indigenous areas or areas with high levels of drug violence were able to receive the “Unaccompanied Alien Child” (UAC) designation, alongside thousands from the three countries that make up the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America. In 2012, nearly 14,000 UAC entered ORR care, with 88 percent from the Northern Triangle. In 2013, over 24,000 arrived, with 93 percent from the same three nations. This year, as many as 60,000 could arrive, and while numbers from Mexico have declined, numbers from the Northern Triangle continue rising.
What drives these children to flee their homes? What causes their parents to put them and their life’s savings in the hands of smugglers? What happens if they fail to reach the U.S.? Since October 2013, with funding from a Fulbright Fellowship, I have lived in El Salvador and worked toward answering these questions through my research into the causes of child migration and the effects of child deportation (see appendix).
Based on the evidence I collected and analyzed to date, violence, extreme poverty, and family reunification play important roles in pushing kids to leave their country of origin. In particular, crime, gang threats, or violence appear to be the strongest determinants for children’s decision to emigrate. When asked why they left their home, 59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list one of those factors as a reason for their emigration. In some areas of El Salvador, however, extreme poverty is the most common reason why children decide to leave. This is particularly true for adolescent males, who hope to work half the day and study the other half in order to remit money to their families and help them move forward in life. In addition, one in three children cites family reunification as a primary reason for leaving home. Interestingly, over 90 percent of the children I interviewed have a family member in the US, with just over 50 percent having one or both parents there. Most referenced fear of crime and violence as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future. Seemingly, the children and their families had decided they must leave and chose to go to where they had family, rather than chose to leave because they had family elsewhere. Essentially, if their family had been in Belize, Costa Rica, or another country, they would be going there instead.
Organized crime, gangs and violence are driving children from their homes
When asked why they left their home, 59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups. While over half of Salvadoran children list more than one reason for migrating, nearly 100 list only this fear.
Of the 322 minors I interviewed, 145 have at least one gang in their neighborhood, and about half of these live in a contested gang territory. They report hearing gunshots nightly and are often afraid to walk even two or three blocks from their home since they fear crossing an always changing boundary. Those who did not note a gang presence often followed their response with “Gracias a Dios [Thank God]” or “todavía [yet]” and frequently indicated that they expect one to arrive soon. When sharing these concerns, they often mentioned either strangers arriving to where they live or criminal groups coming to their neighborhoods on an irregular basis in order to scout its potential. Three families told of their neighborhoods being taken over in exactly this manner over the past year. Another 130 said they attend a school with a nearby gang presence. This usually means that the gang either congregates in a park across the street or waits on the streets to and from the school at start and end times. One hundred attend a school with gangs inside, with marijuana or other drugs often present and school directors or teachers occasionally helping gangs recruit students. One hundred and nine have been pressured to join the gang, 22 of whom were assaulted after refusing. Seventy have quit school. While most minimize their time on the streets, saying they go only to and from school, work, or church, more than 30 said they have made themselves prisoners in their own homes; some do not even go to church. One described himself as “paralyzed with fear,” as he began crying. Another’s mom told me that he had a psychological breakdown when she tried to get him to leave the home. She had to take him to the emergency room to calm him, and the doctor recommended that she get him out of the country as soon as possible. Four families told how their children now find numerous tasks to do around the house to excuse themselves from family outings. Another told me: “people are always dying. I never feel safe.” Then, a girl stated that she felt “trapped.” She is afraid to enter other neighborhoods, and her father explained that even if the gangs do not harm her, the police or military in their neighborhood could because they “shoot [their firearms] freely, and sometimes innocent people are killed in the crossfire.”
To date, I have randomly selected at least one child’s story from each department (similar to states in the U.S.) and searched local news reports to see whether what they said could be verified. In all 14 cases, news articles supported the high crime rates they described and included names of friends and family members they mentioned as victims. For example, one girl said that her father and cousin had been killed five years apart and that three murders had taken place in her neighborhood in the past year. All three elements of her story had been reported in both La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy. Another father told me that eight murders, two of which involved children, took place in his neighborhood and the one next to it. Again, press supported his accounts.
While I believed that gang violence was primarily an urban problem before arriving to El Salvador, I have found that this violence is widespread, with children from rural and urban areas of 11 of 14 of El Salvador’s departments most likely to list this as the primary cause of their emigration. In Cuscatlán and Usulután, over 85 percent flee for this reason, and in the following departments more than 50 percent flee for this reason: La Libertad (53.8%), La Paz (64.7%), La Union (67.6%), Morazán (52.6%), San Miguel (67.6%), San Salvador (65.9%), San Vicente (61.1%), Santa Ana (58.8%), and Sonsonate (67.7%).
In rural areas, extreme poverty motivates some to seek work
The exception to this trend occurs in three of the most rural and impoverished departments in El Salvador—Ahuachapán, Cabañas, and Chalatenango. While children from these areas cite violence as their reason for leaving over 30 percent of the time, more actually cite the desire for an improved life. Over 40 percent of the children, predominantly adolescent males, hope to work half the day and study the other half in order to remit money to their families and help them move forward in life. This desire for a better life is hardly surprising, given that many of these children began working in the fields at age 12 or younger and live in large families, often surviving on less than U$150 a month.
Only 1 in 3 children cites family reunification as a primary reason for leaving home
Over 90 percent of the children I interviewed have a family member in the U.S., with just over 50 percent having one or both parents there. Despite these high numbers, only 35 percent list reunification as a reason for their emigration, although girls and younger children are more likely to list this reason. Whenever children note a family member in the U.S., we ask them why they wish to see this person now instead of a few years ago or several years in the future. The responses to these questions more often than not referenced fear of crime and violence as the underlying motive. The children and their families had decided they must leave and chose to go where they had family, rather than chose to leave because they had family elsewhere. Essentially, they would be going to another country like Belize or Costa Rica if their family was there instead of in the U.S.
Parents and guardians typically express great distress about weighing the risks of an incredibly dangerous journey to the U.S. versus an incredibly dangerous childhood and adolescence in El Salvador. Over and over again, I have heard that “there is no childhood here,” and that “it is a crime to be young in El Salvador today.” One father said he never wanted to be away from his son, but after a string of murders in their town, he worried all the time. He felt he was being selfish to keep him here longer, especially since his mother in the U.S. has been asking for him for nearly a decade. Two single mothers shared that gangs were forcibly using their homes as passageways to escape from one neighborhood to another and to stash drugs. They believed they were targeted because no adult males lived with them, and they feared that they and their teenage sons would be arrested as gang members if they reported the events, because each knew a community member who had been. Grandparents feel they are too old to fend off gang threats for their grandchildren. One grandmother stopped working in order to be better able to protect her granddaughter at home, but she felt that the gang knew they could enter her home by force to take her granddaughter at any moment. An aunt worried that keeping her nephew put her own children at risk. In all these cases, the family decided that long-term safety in the U.S. was worth the short-term—and high—risk of migrating.
The adolescents themselves referenced a decreasing risk in migrating related to their bigger and stronger bodies and an increase in danger of staying upon reaching the age of 13. They indicated that since they were more emotionally and physically mature, the risks associated with the dangerous journey to the U.S. were less than they once were, even though they had fairly accurate understanding of what could happen to them. At the same time, they indicated that while some gangs will recruit younger children, most do not recruit intensively until adolescence. Several said they had hoped to never turn 13, and a few mothers indicated that this birthday was celebrated with great sadness. Adolescents thus felt that their risk of staying increased as they aged and would continue to be high until they entered their late twenties. They often said there was nothing here for them and frequently referenced news stories on homicides, in which most victims are in their teens and twenties. They believed that the U.S. would offer them both more opportunities and safety to take advantage of them.
Leaving their country is often a last resort
Importantly, the U.S. is not always the first option. Many move within El Salvador, and there are whole neighborhoods that have been abandoned. According to the Central American University’s Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) 2012 Survey, approximately 130,000 Salvadorans were forced to relocate within the country in 2012. One-third had moved previously, because often, the same threats to life re-surface. For example, one adolescent male who had been beat three times for not joining the gang in his neighborhood has already moved three times, and each time, the same gang has found him. Another adolescent male fleeing his neighborhood’s gang had even greater problems with the rival gang when he arrived to his new neighborhood, because they assumed he was already a rival member. An adolescent girl who witnessed her mom’s, brother’s and boyfriend’s murders by gang members has lived in six different parts of El Salvador—and even Guatemala—and each time, the same gang tracked her down.
Likewise, police who have asked me about my study have shared several related pieces of information. First, they are often required to move every two years because of concerns that gangs will target them for corruption or death. Second, several police and military members have sent their children to the U.S. because they feared for their lives, and the media has indeed documented increased attempts by gangs to murder these agents of the state. Third, two policemen who were threatened by gangs explicitly told me that if threatened, your only option is to flee and hope for the best within the country. They both said that if the gang decided to find you, they could, and you then needed to go abroad if you wanted to survive.
Notably, these children are not just arriving to the U.S. in search of protection. UNHCR documented an increase of 432 percent in asylum requests in the neighboring countries of Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Mexico. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Nicaragua alone saw an increase in asylum requests of 240 percent between 2012 and 2013.
Children and their families do not trust the Salvadoran government to help them
Children and their families do not feel the Salvadoran government can protect them. Press reports and government authorities in various agencies say that the two child protection agencies in El Salvador—the National Council for Childhood and Adolescence (CONNA) and the Salvadoran Institute for Childhood and Adolescence (ISNA)— infrequently respond to reported abuse or parental homicide. Legislation passed in 2009 makes which agency is responsible for what unclear. Neither is adequately funded nor has programs for children persecuted by gangs or for children wanting out of gangs.
There is also little confidence in the police, military, or other government agencies. Only 16 child migrants who said they had experienced insecurity reported it. The police refused to write up a report for eight of those who reported problems; six said nothing happened after they spoke to authorities, and two of the 16 who made reports said they had received increased threats. One’s accused rapist still lives next door.
Fear of authorities is well-founded. Many say gangs have sources of information among police, attorney general offices, and neighborhood residents so that, as several of them told me, “You never know who is who.” Three told stories of youth who made complaints and were then detained as suspected, rival gang members by police. Police beat one youth three times because he worked late and was accused of being a gang member since he was on the streets. Thus, because gangs and, at times, police target young people, a number of children and family members have again told me that El Salvador is “no place for children.”
Those who are returned from the U.S. face additional threats of violence
Four families I met were hoping to return to their lives in the United States. All of them had resided with their children there for more than seven years. They elected voluntary departure, and upon arriving to El Salvador, decided to start small businesses. Each of them was extorted for large amounts of money (more than $3,000 per month) within six months of opening. They believed that besides having their businesses, they also stood out because their homes were nicer, and they dressed differently. Unable to pay, and afraid to report the crime to authorities, they were fleeing. They were so afraid that they did not plan to sleep in their homes that evening after being deported from Mexico on their way to the U.S. and were instead looking for a hostel before embarking again the next day.
I also met two men in their early twenties who were fleeing with their adolescent sisters. In both cases, the brothers had received numerous threats in El Salvador and had fled to the U.S. in the previous year. Upon reaching the U.S., they tried to seek asylum. One was told inside the detention center where he was kept that since he was not “black or Muslim,” he could not do so. They both stated they were returned against their will and without every talking to a lawyer. Within days of their return, the gangs began forcibly recruiting their sisters to be “girlfriends”. Where both lived, girls who refused such advances had been kidnapped and never heard from again or found murdered, which I cross referenced with a Twitter site called Angel Desapercido. With their families, they decided to accompany their sisters to the U.S., but neither had much hope for their or their sister’s prospects of obtaining protection.
Within this context, many children report that their parents who had planned to return to El Salvador after paying for their education now fear doing so because of high violence and these kinds of stories. At least once a month, local news report the homicide of a recent deportee from the U.S., and several of the Salvadoran families I have met here indicated that they were extorted because of the remittances they receive from relatives in the U.S.
My study is taking place in El Salvador, but I visited Guatemala and Honduras in October 2013 and know over 100 UAC from each country. The initial findings presented in this piece are common in the other two nations, as is reported in aforementioned publications by KIND, UNHCR, UCCSB, and the WRC. Primarily, while family reunification, poverty, and lack of opportunities are common considerations in UAC’s decision to emigrate, the most common cause of UAC’s exodus from Central America has been and continues to be increasing gang and cartel violence that disproportionately affects them as young people.
As a result, U.S. and regional response must realize that the majority of these children have significant protection needs. Thus, they should continue to receive access to the services and due process guaranteed them in the Flores Settlement Agreement and TVPRA, should have access to free legal counsel, and should await their immigration hearings with family. Whether they remain in the U.S. or return to their home countries, they must have access to services that assist them in transitioning successfully, which would ideally offer them career and educational development and health services alongside mechanisms for better participating in transnational families. Most broadly, in home countries, emphasis must shift from militaristic solutions to those that invest in economic and social development. In doing so, the influence of gangs would likely decrease as they have alternative opportunities, and fewer children will emigrate.
As a final note, I am in contact with 20 UAC who arrived to the U.S. from 2011 to 2013. They now live in different parts of the country, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico and have various legal statuses. Their experiences migrating to the U.S. and transitioning from that journey have deeply affected them and me. Even those who are happy in the U.S. greatly miss their home countries. If they could return and live in them safely, most would. At the same time, they are incredibly motivated and talented youth, and whichever nation gets them should make a minimal front-end investment to maximize the return we get from them.
My subjects have been local, regional, and national government officials; the press; and children and their families, who have told horror stories of violence and despair. I have met hundreds of people fleeing areas where their neighbors, family, or friends have been extorted, threatened, or killed. Many were on their way to the U.S. for the first time, but a few hoped to return to their life in the U.S. since their decision to voluntarily depart in the past year put them and their families in danger within months.
To reach the U.S., Central Americans must traverse Mexico, and an increasing number are being detained and deported there before reaching the U.S. border. Children apprehended below Mexico City are deported by bus to San Salvador twice per week; children detained above Mexico City are deported by commercial plane to the international airport in San Luis Talpa on an as-needed basis. When I began interviewing children deported by bus in January, between five and 15 came two days per week, but between 60 and 80 now arrive each of these two days. Through June, I have completed nearly 500 interviews with these children and their waiting family members, over half of whom intended to attempt migrating again. Indeed, in paying the smuggler, each received three chances for that price that was sometimes equivalent to 20 years’ salary. For this piece, I analyzed the 322 interviews I completed between January 27 and May 1, 2014. Within that group of children, 106 (33%) were females, and 216 (67%) were males. Nearly 80 percent (78.5) were between the ages of 13 and 17. The largest numbers come from the departments of San Salvador (41), Santa Ana (34), San Miguel (34), and La Unión (34). The top four destinations in the United States were: New York (39), Los Angeles (38), Houston (38), and Virginia (31).
Through May, I went to the migrant return center on both days that children were deported. There, family members await their children for hours, and I arrived early to talk with them before the bus came. Often, I had the chance to interview the family prior to the bus’s arrival and the child after completing her migration interview. In April, I recruited and trained a Salvadoran assistant due to an increase in arrivals. During these first five months, our goal was to complete interviews with at least half of child migrants if together and with at least one quarter if alone. Starting this June, my assistant goes one day per week, and I go the other day. Our goal now is to interview a statistically representative sample based upon sex, age, and origin, and I have begun follow-up interviews by phone.
Interviews have a mixture of closed and open questions and usually take 10 to 30 minutes to complete. We begin by collecting basic demographic information like age, gender and with whom the child lives (including age and relationship of each person in the home). We then ask where they live and what living there is like, with follow up questions about gang, police and military presence, religious involvement, land ownership, and remittances. Before transitioning to where the child’s mother and father are (which is always sensitive since some have a father who was not active), in what each parent or guardian works, and where and with whom they wanted to live in the U.S., we ask if they ever lived anywhere else. If so, we want to know where and why they moved. Then, we ask if they were actively studying, what grade they last completed, how they performed academically, what type of school they attended, and if not studying, why they quit when they did. We ask a similar set of questions about if they are actively working. After that, we explicitly ask them why they wanted to leave the country, and depending on the reason(s) they give, a series of follow up questions specific to that reason. For example, if they say they fear for their life, we ask them why; whether they, their family or friends have been threatened, and if so, when the threats began and with what frequency they have occurred; how many murders or other crimes have occurred where they live; names of anyone they know who has been killed; and whether or not they reported these crimes. Finally, we ask with whom they traveled (smuggler, family, friends, other, or alone), whether they will try to reach the U.S. again, and what they hope to do in the U.S. if they arrive. At the end, we share with them possible legal options to travel to or stay in the U.S., if any exist, and answer their questions. All are given my contact information and encouraged to follow up with me if they would like. Over 30 have done so.
The interviews have four major limitations. First, we cannot complete interviews with children alone, so our questions about abuse, mistreatment, or negligence likely yield underestimates. Just 3.1 percent report migrating for this reason to us, but upward of 20 percent from El Salvador reported migrating for this reason to KIND and UNHCR in 2013. Second, because we conduct interviews at the migrant return centers, finding privacy can be difficult, and some child migrants and their families are afraid to talk openly. On more than 10 occasions, they have followed up with me by email after leaving the center to share a much more detailed history. Third, the later the busses arrive, the fewer interviews we can complete since migrants and their families are in a hurry to leave before dark. The return center is in a very bad neighborhood (Colonia Quiñonez): it was named one of 10 municipalities in El Salvador where taxis normally will not go in March, and in April, two people were murdered on the only street that can be used to exit. Finally, some speculate that migrants may tell their stories strategically since I am from the U.S. While this may occasionally occur, I have nearly a decade’s experience conducting qualitative interviews with children in the Spanish language (and more experience performing youth work with the same population). I am adept at noticing such things and note when I suspect withholding information. Importantly, when my assistant and I conducted interviews with the same children on her first two days, we received similar responses. Then, my field interviews are consistent with what other groups like KIND, UNHCR, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Women’s Refugee Commission have reported in the last two years—rampant violence has made it unsafe to be a child in Central America.