Northern Triangle Migration: They’ll just keep coming

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(3 minute read)

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Immigration policies are on my news feeds, once again.

The ongoing migration story at the US-Mexico border is part of the legacy of Central America’s civil war era. Inadequate strategies and policies to reintegrate Central Americans into their countries gave gangs the arsenal to grow in membership. And, as I’ve written throughout this blog, these gangs have been allowed to grip onto communities and influence public policy (the failed gang truce in El Salvador, for example).

It’s hard to keep this post up-to-date with the current happenings (I’ve made vast changes to it twice since I started a running Word doc). The headline that sparked the current outrage—that kids were being locked into cage-like cells and separated from their families at the US-Mexican border—propelled this issue into the front page of every news organization in the hemisphere.

Its tragic to say the least. Never mind the psychological trauma associated with the separations. The policy was another short-sighted move that fails to curb illegal migration from the Northern Triangle (a group of countries that includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) into the US. The US decided to change its mind on the matter, but the week has shown that (yet again), if we want to make any real inroads into this infamous policy issue, we need to have a real, slogan-less conversation.

Why Journey?

Central America is one of the most unequal economic regions in the world. The search for better economic opportunities has always driven migration, but it isn’t the main driver behind the migrations appearing in recent news stories.

Central Americans are making the journey to escape violence. This isn’t something that is new to the region– throughout cold war/Latin America civil war era 1980s, Central Americans made their way in droves to more peaceful countries (USA, Australia, Italy, and in the case of my parents, Canada, par exemple) to pursue sunny ways. The difference in the 2010s is that rather than escaping conflicts between guerilla groups and the state, Central Americas are escaping gang violence.

I’ve heard first-hand anecdotes of Salvadorans threatened by gangs (notably, MS-13). However, these threats shouldn’t justify “build a wall” kinds of immigation policies at the Mexico-US border.

Yes, gangs are dangerous. They hold Central American communities hostage through extortions. But they’re not nearly as sophisticated as the US administration makes them out to be, and in my opinion, villainizing every migrant at the border in the name of keeping gang members out is a grossly misinformed policy.

While hierarchies exist within MS-13, the gang lacks the structural and economic sophistication of drug cartels or mafia crime families. The truth is that the majority of gang members are young men who are 1) victims of violence themselves, and 2) are looking for camaraderie in societies that have seemingly forgotten about them. Gangs provide shelter and family, albeit in a misinformed fashion.

So, sure: given the number of migrants leaving the northern triangle, there’s a chance gang members might make it to the border, but the fact is they’re more preoccupied with collecting extortions for day to day survival (in their own country. Not up north) than they are finding ways to migrate up north. The key to curbing the migration crisis, then, isn’t to detain every migrant that shows up to the border; a more reasonably approach would be for governments (you can decide which ones) to address the socio-economic issues plaguing streets through evidence-based policy-making.

Migration routes are infested with gang members and cartels. Women and girls are sexually assaulted and raped along the way. Migrants risk being robbed. Even friends turn into enemies, as smugglers (“coyotes”) demand large sums of money to bring migrants from Central America into the US with no guarantee of success– a migrant could be abandoned halfway with no cash. It becomes evident that the journey from the northern triangle into the US is made out of desperation, not out of a desire to spread terrorism.

What to do?

So what about borders? Should everyone be allowed in?

I’ve written before that borders should be respected for a number of reasons. However, this doesn’t mean inhumanely caging asylum seekers, especially now that so many have come knocking on the door. Separating kids from their parents doesn’t address the root cause of the migrations—in a crisis that is 20+ years in the making, we can’t expect it to be resolved overnight. If you’re an avid reader of my blog (thanks!), you’ll know that this isn’t anything I haven’t already expressed in the past.

All this said, if there’s a silver lining to this issue, it’s this: while it’s sad to see the developments of this story on my news feeds, seeing it so visible in the public consciousness brings me hope that it will (finally) be addressed. After all, the current headlines on migration from the northern triangle have existed since before the current US President was in office (in fact, it was during the Obama administration that the instances of child migrations saw incredible increases). I also hope this brings other Latin American migrations crises to light (specifically, the mass migrations occurring out of Venezuela and perhaps Nicaragua).

But the story has taken unpredictable twists and turns this week. Better stay locked into my Twitter feed.

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