In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. misses the point on Central American children migrants

 

aoppenheimer@MiamiHerald.com

President Barack Obama’s vow to take executive actions to fix the immigration system and stem the avalanche of Central American children migrants to the United States is good news, but I’m afraid it will only be a Band-Aid approach, which won’t address the key issue: keeping Central American kids in school.

Obama announced that, given the Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ refusal to pass much-needed immigration reform that was approved by the Senate last year, he will move unilaterally in coming weeks.

Obama was pushed to act following the humanitarian crisis triggered by the nearly 50,000 unaccompanied Central American children who crossed the border without immigration papers since Oct. 1. Most of them are fleeing from gang violence and economic hopelessness in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

But, judging from what U.S. officials are saying, Obama’s plan to stop the flow of Central American children is focused on law enforcement measures, such as opening up new detention facilities on the border.

In a June 30 letter to Congress, Obama called for “a border security surge” and “an aggressive deterrence strategy.” The Obama administration has said that it will set aside $161.5 million this year for the Central American Regional Security Initiative to fund the region’s most pressing security and governance challenges.

Will these kinds of measures help stop the flow of Central American children? I seriously doubt it. They will only help marginally, and in the short run.

The ultimate reason why so many unaccompanied kids from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are crossing the U.S. border is that they are school dropouts who are living on the streets, with little choice but to join violent drug gangs or become their victims.

I recently stumbled into a chilling statistic from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB): only 27 percent of youths in Guatemala, 40 percent in Honduras and 41 percent in El Salvador finish high school.

Yes, you read it right: more than 60 percent of Central American teenagers don’t go to school, and are living on the streets in some of the countries with the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.

In some countries, such as Honduras, the problem of the “ni-nis” — as children who neither study nor work are known in Latin America — is growing. The percentage of “ni-nis” in Honduras has risen from 22 percent to 25 percent over the past decade.

Not surprisingly, the parents of many of these children in Central America, fearful of seeing them raped or killed by the drug gangs, push them to flee abroad.

They are not just fleeing to the United States. According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while the number of migrants, including children, from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who sought asylum in the United States rose by 757 percent since 2008, the percentage of migrants from these three countries to other nearby countries, such as Mexico and Panama, rose by 712 percent over the same period.

In addition to the drug gang violence, Central American children are facing economic hopelessness. Their economies are frozen in time, living from a handful of agricultural exports and family remittances from the United States.

In part because of absurd nationalistic fervors that prevent a Central American economic integration that would allow these tiny economies to be more competitive, and because their dismal education levels that keep them from producing more sophisticated goods, Central America’s economic future looks grim.

Gador Manzano, an education specialist with the IADB, says studies in Mexico’s Jalisco state and other places have shown that the longer children remain in school, the less likely they are to migrate.

“Going to school won’t guarantee that Central American children won’t migrate to the United States, but will lessen the possibility of that happening,” Manzano told me. “The more years you spend in school, the more likely you are to become romantically involved with someone, or get a better job and become more attached to your home country.”

My opinion: Obama’s plan to add detention centers at the U.S. border, deport more Central American children migrants and provide more aid to Central American law enforcement agencies may help mitigate the latest immigration crisis, but not by much.

Instead of focusing almost exclusively on beefing up the Central American Security Initiative and other law enforcement efforts, Obama should launch a Central American Education Initiative that would help get children in these countries off the streets, and back to school or into the job market.

Without a push to improve education, the flow of children migrants to the United States will not stop, no matter how many detention centers we build on the border.

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