The Other Refugee Crisis: Why the US Can’t Turn Its Back on Central America

By Elsa Augustine

Recently, global attention has been focused on the humanitarian disaster of the Syrian refugee crisis. This deserves our attention as the world grapples with handling the placement of millions of refugees fleeing civil war. However, it is important that in the process we don’t forget the crisis that continues on our own southwestern border as Central American migrants continue to enter the US at alarming rates that attest to deteriorating circumstances in Central America and the insufficiency of our response to this continued crisis.

In the summer of 2014, thousands of Central Americans – mainly unaccompanied children and parents with minors from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – crossed Mexico into the US. The arrivals made headlines as a humanitarian crisis and the United Nations designated these migrants refugees fleeing an armed crisis, while the arrivals overflowed the US’s infrastructure and created a years-long backlog in the country’s immigration courts. By the end of FY2014, Border Patrol had apprehended over 68,000 UACs and another 68,000 family units.

In response, the US, Mexican, and Central American governments responded with policies focused on strengthening borders (Honduras andMexico) and dissuading future migrants (El Salvador and Guatemala), while the US pledged support for the $1 billion Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity targeting economic development and improved security in the Northern Triangle and announced an in-country refugee processing program intended to award eligible Central American children asylum before they make the dangerous journey to the US.

In the past year, results of these programs have been questionable. However, when the number of migrants crossing into the US in FY 2015 dipped, governments praised themselves and one another and attention paid to our border and  southern neighbors dropped precipitously. This year, numbers of migrants are back up, but attention remains low.

This October and November there was a more than 100% increase in apprehensions at our southern border over the same months last year, violating the trend of winter months seeing low numbers as US Border Patrol took almost 11,000 unaccompanied children into custody. While these figures don’t meet the record set in June 2014 when Border Patrol apprehended 10,631 unaccompanied children, these past months are a bad omen for the coming year if the trend of winters being slow in terms of the rate migrants cross during theses months holds true. This year threatens to be another record-breaker, a further strain on US infrastructure and legal systems, and most importantly a grim insight into the situation in Central America.

What’s going on that’s keeping numbers so high? No single factor can take all the credit, but recent occurrences include a public corruption scandal involving the President and Vice President of Guatemala which ended with the President’s resignation and arrest and the subsequentelection of a former comedian to the country’s top post. Simultaneously, gang violence continues to spiral out of control in El Salvador; the country is on track to have its most deadly year since the civil war ended in 1992 with almost 5,500 homicides in the first 10 months of 2015. And it’s not just push factors – the Latin American economy is stagnating and remittances to Central America have been growing, reaching over $60 billion in 2014 and making up over 16% of Honduras and El Salvador’s GDPs and 10% of Guatemala’s.

Meanwhile, legislation for comprehensive immigration reform in the US has a very slim chance of passing in the coming years and American xenophobia grows more and more. Whatever the causes, the US can’t ignore the serious humanitarian crisis that doesn’t seem to be slowing—and is happening very close to home.

Elsa Augustine is an MPP Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Elsa is also a former Peace Corps volunteer, having completed a term of service in El Salvador, and most recently served as a paralegal for the South Texas ProBAR Children’s Project in Harlingen, Texas.