Other Voices

August 21, 2014

Immigration ‘crisis’ label distracts from key issues

Central American children have been coming to U.S. for decades.

The “crisis” of Central America migrant children heading to the United States is simply not reality.

Central American children have migrated unaccompanied to the United States by the thousands for decades.

Granted, the numbers increased this summer, but the conditions that have been cited to explain this migration have remained constant during the past decade, so they cannot explain the “surge” we saw recently.

This popular construction of a “crisis,” however, has focused our attention on the violence in the origin countries that contributes to the migration north, but not on the root causes of the violence or how closely it is tied to U.S. actions.

This region has suffered for decades from U.S. military interventions, U.S.-supported dictatorial regimes and ruthless neoliberal policies.

Perhaps no other region was as thoroughly transformed and brutalized to serve U.S. interests during the Cold War as Central America was.

Yet, when the legacy of decades of military intervention and School of the Americas’ training of these countries’ torturers emerges in the form of the highest murder rates in the world, the United States quickly finds distance from those conditions as if this violence sprang up independently.

The depiction of this migratory flow as a crisis also deflects attention from the immigration laws in the United States since the 1990s.

In our research, we have listened to hundreds of deeply worried Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan parents in the U.S. who toil in multiple jobs to support children from whom they have been separated for years if not decades.

These Central American parents are unable to travel to visit their children because, given the militarized southern U.S. border and their uncertain status, they would be unable to make it back.

Separation from children for Central American immigrants is quite common, longer and more uncertain than it is among other immigrants — for instance, Mexicans.

Under these circumstances, and with their kids facing everyday violence at home, the parents feel pressured to send for the kids.

In the absence of a new immigration law to regularize their immigration status, sending for them, even if it is a dangerous enterprise, appears to be the only chance these parents have at family reunification.

As long as millions of immigrants live in the United States separated from their children back home for lack of an immigration policy to address their irregular status, the ebb and flow of child migration from Central America to the United States will continue.

Mislabeling social processes like migratory flows as “crises” leads to misplaced responsibility and misdirected and uninformed solutions.

Nestor Rodriguez is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Cecilia Menjívar is a professor of sociology at Arizona State University.

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