The Desperate Choices Behind Child Migration

As someone who just returned from living and working in El Salvador, I’m still having a hard time adjusting to our mainstream media’s never-ending wave of know-nothing commentary on the subject of immigration.  A case in point is the column penned by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Sunday, June 22nd.  Douthat expresses alarm about the “current surge” of “unaccompanied minors from Central America” who are dangerously crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in such unprecedented numbers that the Border Patrol and the courts are now “struggling to care for the children and process their cases.”

What has caused this “children’s migration?”  According to Douthat it is “immigration reform’s open invitation” — “the mere promise of amnesty” that has now worsened “some of the humanitarian problems that reformers say they want to solve.”  Douthat is a conservative but his solution is a familiar, bi-partisan one: “let’s prove that a more effective enforcement system can be built and only then codify an offer of legal status.”

That immigration policy proposal, per usual, totally ignores what’s really driving the big increase in border crossings by impoverished young Central Americans and what the U.S. government could be doing to make staying in Central America a viable choice.

The “Push Factors”

To see things differently, it helps to put yourself in the shoes of others.  Let’s imagine that you are a poor single mother living in Apopa, a dangerous city next door to the capital, San Salvador.

You work cleaning houses for $15 a day.  Your neighborhood is completely gang-dominated.  When you take the bus to the house where you work you are often late because the police check the bus and make all the men disembark for body searches.  There are some mornings when you wake up and send your daughter to the corner store for eggs and she sees dead bodies in the street.  They could be the bodies of a neighbor or a storeowner who refused to pay the extortionate demands of the local gang.  Just a few days ago, walking with your son you were caught in a shootout between two rival gangs.  You could do nothing but duck and cover and try to comfort your wailing child.

Your son is 12 and one of the gangs — let’s say la Mara Salvatrucha (MS), the country’s most violent — is starting to recruit him.  They want to use him as courier to send messages and deliver drugs.  Perhaps more frighteningly, your older daughter, 14 now, is attracting the attention of an MS leader in the neighborhood.  You tell her to reject his overtures, but you know how hard it is for any young woman to spurn such a relationship — or end it, once it has begun.

No Rural Refuge

You think about just packing up and moving to the countryside, but you have heard stories.  Your next-door neighbor, an office worker, faced gang pressure to pay a fifty-dollar-a-month extortion fee.  So she decided to move back to her hometown, a tiny village in rural San Vicente.  But even small towns in El Salvador aren’t safe these days.  After your neighbor moved back home, her nephew, a 16-year-old scholarship student, was killed in the middle of the afternoon in his own front yard, right across the dirt road.  He wasn’t the slightest bit involved in any gang activity.  All he did was date the ex-girlfriend of a gang member.

In Apopa, you try to keep your kids inside as much as possible.  And you worry.  You worry about how you will pay the rent and find the money to send them to high school, let alone college.  And you think about sending them to la Usa.  Your brother lives in Maryland.  Maybe he could cover part of the cost of their journey?  You know the journey is dangerous but what other choices are there?

How many American parents have ever had to weigh such terrible options — the danger of daily life for their children versus the dangers of illegal immigration?  How many have experienced the emotional pain of resulting family separation — first from parents leaving for work in Los Angeles or Maryland, with their children staying behind, and now from the stream of children and teens following the same route north in search of a safer and better life?

Forced to Leave

In February, with my U.S. passport in hand, I left El Salvador and hopped on a plane headed for the U.S. — adios gangs, adios fear, adios poverty.  I left behind many Salvadoran friends who will never be able to do the same thing.  Just a few months later, a bright young man from one rural community I often visited, left to join his father in Washington State.  To me, with a steady job and money in the bank, his beautiful mountainside community seemed like paradise.  But the young man couldn’t gain admittance to the one affordable, public university in El Salvador and couldn’t find a job.  While Douthat bemoans the fact that Border Patrol agents are “neglecting other law enforcement duties” to deal with the influx of child migrants, I am hoping they will be too busy to catch my young friend and that he will reach his destination safely.

The vast majority of Salvadorans, like other Central Americans, don’t want to migrate to the U.S.  They love their families and communities and would much prefer to stay and work or go to school in their own countries.  Creating stricter immigration rules and deporting more children will not stop this wave of forced migrants; only giving them the chance to survive and prosper at home will.

U.S. Policy Impact

The U.S. government could do a lot to make life better in El Salvador and Honduras.  But right now they are doing just the opposite.  In El Salvador, the Obama administration is currently undercutting efforts by the Salvadoran government to support sustainable, small-scale farming.  The U.S. Ambassador has threatened to deny a multimillion-dollar aid package if the FMLN government continues to buy seeds from local farmers, rather than from foreign companies like Monsanto, as part of their highly successful Family Agriculture program.

Meanwhile in Honduras, since the military takeover of June 2009 the U.S. has been supporting a corrupt, illegitimate regime responsible for increased economic inequality and violence.  I have participated in a number of human rights and electoral observation delegations to Honduras and heard from community leaders about the hundreds of murders of women, gay people, activists, and union leaders that have occurred under the watch of the post-coup regime.  If I were Honduran, watching right-wing hard liner Juan Orlando Hernandez “win” the presidential election through blatant fraud and intimidation would have been the last straw for me.  I would have left too.

I am no Harvard-trained political analyst like Ross Douthat, but I know that only a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy will help change conditions in Central America and ease the humanitarian crisis at our border.  The U.S. government must stop pushing free trade and privatization and start funding social programs.  But most of all it must stand up for human rights.  And these include the right not to migrate but to stay, study, work, speak out, and live happily in your own home country.

Alexandra Early worked for four years in El Salvador as a Coordinator for U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities (  She can be reached at