The unprecedented surge in unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border was preceded by a sharp increase in the number of deportations to Central America of convicts, many of them gang members.
Between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, almost 100,000 convicts were repatriated to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — exceeding the total of criminal deportations in the previous six years.
Immigrant-rights activists say the spike in criminal deportations likely played a key role in spreading gang violence in the three Central American countries — the situation many children cite as a reason for coming to the United States.
“I would say that these deportations are the most important factor behind the spread of criminal violence in our countries, which is the chief reason behind the children coming here,” said Francisco Portillo, president of Miami-based Francisco Morazán Honduran Organization, which assists families who have children at the border.
The timing of the spike in deportations coincides with an increase in crime rates in the region and the surge in unaccompanied children coming across the border.
A November report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border jumped 91 percent from 2011 to 2012 — going from 6,800 to 13,000. It jumped further in 2013, when more than 24,000 unaccompanied children came across the border. More than 60,000 children are expected to arrive by Sept. 30.
No U.S. official has acknowledged a link between the deportations and the exodus of unaccompanied minors. But crime in the three Central American countries to which most of the deportees went increased significantly over the last five to six years. Honduras today is now widely regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
In 2010, the Honduran national police recorded 6,239 murders, or 82.1 per 100,000 people. But in 2012, the rate went up to 90.4 murders per 100,000.
Figures compiled by the United Nations show that El Salvador and Guatemala are also among the five countries with the highest homicide rates in the world.
“Drug cartels and associated street-gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s No. 1, 4 and 5 highest homicide rates, have left near-broken societies in their wake,” Gen. John F. Kelly, head of the Doral-based U.S. Southern Command, said in a recent article in Military Times. “Although there are a number of other countries I work with in Latin America and the Caribbean that are going in the same direction, the so-called Northern Triangle [Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras] is far and away the worst off.”
Ana Vanessa Medina, a 16-year-old who fled Honduras two months ago with her 3-year-old daughter Emily Yailín, said the deportations swelled the ranks of gang organizations in the Honduran towns where she lived.
“Starting in 2011, you really felt the presence of the gangs,” she said at her Miami home on Thursday. “It has gotten so bad with the gangs in Honduras that people don’t go out of their homes after 8 p.m. Those who do often never return. Their bodies are discovered the next day.”
To be sure, not all violence and instability in Central America can be linked to deportations. Experts have cited other factors as well.
One of them is the misconception some undocumented Central American migrants have that once they arrive in the United States they get a permit to stay. This belief stems from notices they receive from immigration authorities summoning them to immigration court for deportation proceedings.
Some experts also say that the intensification of the drug war in Mexico pushed narcotics traffickers into Central America.
Others say that some of the children are coming mainly to reunite with parents who previously entered the United States.
Rep. Joe García, a Cuban-American Democrat from Miami, told el Nuevo Herald last week that Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform played a role in the exodus.
García said many of the parents had been awaiting legalization and turned to migrant smugglers to bring their children across the border when they realized that immigration reform was not going forward.
Others have cited a 2008 law that shields asylum-seeking foreign children from fast-track deportation. While U.S. officials initially favored changing the law to deter the exodus, they have since backpedaled because immigrant-rights activists objected.
Still other experts have blamed as another factor President Barack Obama’s decision in 2012 to grant deportation reprieves to tens of thousands of immigrants brought illegally to the United States by their parents when they were children.
But the activists who blame the criminal deportations say they provide the closest possible link to the spread of gang violence in Central America.
A 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service said increasing U.S. deportations of convicts to Central America might have fueled gang activity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“Policymakers in Central America are concerned that increasing U.S. deportations of individuals with criminal records has worsened the gang and security problems in the region,” the CRS report said.
At the time the report was released, October 2008, the number of convict deportations to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras stood at 13,800 — a 4.5 percent increase over the previous year, but a 49 percent increase over the number of deportations in 2005.
A year after the report was released, in 2009, deportations hit 19,542; then 28,032 in 2010; 30,987 in 2011; and 35,884 in 2012. The figures for 2013 are not available.
Not all of the deportees were gang members who regrouped once they were back in their home countries.
For years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has targeted Central American gang members for arrest and deportation.
One of the biggest anti-gang operations, resulting in 321 arrests, was announced in Miami in August 2008. Not all of the gang members were from Central America, but the news statement said some were from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Among those arrested were members of well-known Central American gangs such as MS-13 and M-18, which originated in the Los Angeles area.
Some Salvadorans who arrived in the United States fleeing a civil war in their country created MS-13 as a way to shield Salvadoran immigrants from established Mexican and African-American gangs in Los Angeles.
“In the last 12 years, U.S. immigration authorities have logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America, including untold numbers of gang members,” the article said. “But a deportation policy aimed in part at breaking up a Los Angeles street gang has backfired and helped spread it across Central America and back into other parts of the United States. Newly organized cells in El Salvador have returned to establish strongholds in metropolitan D.C. and other U.S. cities.”