By Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
March 18, 2015
The apprehension of over 70,000 unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America along the US-Mexico border during fiscal year 2014, has revived the debate on immigration and the right to asylum in the US.
As part of the official response to the crisis, President Barack Obama announced an executive action on immigration that will allow immigrants whose children are US citizens and legal permanent residents who have been in the US for five years to remain in the country temporarily with the right to work.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has also been expanded so that those who have lived in the US since 2010, rather than 2007 as before, will be eligible. The age limit, previously set at 31, will also be eliminated.
So far, the debate has focused on the intricacies of US immigration policy and whether or not the Central American children arriving at the southern border have the right to request asylum when they are fleeing from conditions of violence in their home countries and there are credible grounds to believe that deportation will put their lives at risk.
The arrival of these unaccompanied minors needs to be analyzed in the context of an exodus of Central Americans of all ages, who are fleeing primarily to the US but also to neighboring countries. The fact that the number of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans requesting asylum in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Belize has increased by 712% from 2008 to 2013.
These figures prove that immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle are fleeing from levels of violence that are currently higher than those experienced during the 1970s and 80s when the region was torn asunder by civil wars. They’re not coming here to chase the “American Dream” or as a result of a “lax immigration policy”, as conservatives have argued.
MIT’s Center for International Studies asked me to deliver a presentation on immigration and conditions of violence in Central America on December 2nd as part of its Myron Weiner series on immigration. It was a great honor to be asked to address this important issue and I hope I was able to make a small contribution to the immigration debate.
My presentation addressed the topic from a broader perspective, including how US foreign policy towards Central America has been largely responsible for exacerbating conditions of violence in the region and how poverty needs to be examined as a structural form of violence.
The fact that Central American garment factory workers earn less than the minimum wage as they struggle to compete in a globalized economy and their countries find themselves shackled to free trade agreements promoted by the US, the impact of climate change on the region’s cyclical drought phenomenon and the impact of monocultures on food security are all issues that need to be factored into the equation when trying to explain why record numbers of Central Americans are fleeing their home countries.
My presentation was well received and I would like to end this blog post by saying a very big thank you to the Center of International Studies for asking me to address this topic, to the people who attended the event and made interesting and thoughtful contributions. I would also like to say a very special thank you to Phiona Lovett, from the Center of International Studies for booking the room, helping with the logistical details and for ordering the delicious Chinese meal that we shared at the end of the event.