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Responsibility for the Tragedy

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
July 2, 2014
Folha de Sao Paulo


It would be so much easier if there were a villain to blame for the Central America refugee crisis. Oliver North. The Contra. The guerrilla. The death squads. Instead the crisis that brought over 50,000 children and 30,000 adults across the U.S.-Mexico border is the result of a lethal and tragic mix of gang violence, drug wars, weak judiciaries, corrupt security institutions, grinding poverty and inequality, and the failure of the American political system. Let's take the last one first. Failure? Well, yes. We still don't have the comprehensive immigration law Presidents Obama and Bush before him promised. Tea Party Republicans have so weakened the reasonable wing of the GOP that it is unlikely Congress will pass such a law.

Exploitation also plays a role. The black market in child trafficking made immoral use of the word "permiso," to persuade desperate parents that their children would be allowed to stay in the United States if they crossed the border before an immigration law passed. It turns out that the "permiso" is just a subpoena for a deportation hearing in court. Critics blame Obama for last year's decision to allow a number of now young adults to stay in the United States whose parents brought them here before 2007. Reminder: Obama has deported more migrants from the United States -- nearly two million -- than any other president. And still there is not enough money to hire border agents, staff courts, or fund drones to keep people from risking their lives, dividing their families, often permanently.

Most of the new wave of migrants come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Not as poor as the Haitians trafficked into Brazil, but fleeing gang violence, corruption, impunity, and some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2012, per 100,000 inhabitants, Guatemala's murder rate reached 39.9, El Salvador's 41.2 (and that was during the now-defunct gang truce) and Honduras the gut-wrenching 90.4.

The Obama administration is hustling to stop the surge. Joe Biden has been meeting with heads of states, cajoling, imploring for help. Obama himself attacked Republicans and called for more security and humanitarian assistance for the border and Central America. And how about Mexico's role? An unprotected and porous southern border facilitates the flow. See? There are so many culprits I have run out of fingers to point.

I know a woman from El Salvador who in 1987 survived a massacre, crawled out from under dead bodies with her daughter on her shoulders, and escaped to the United States. I understand that history and can name the cast of characters who played a role in her trauma. Success has many fathers, yet failure is an orphan. This tragedy has so many fathers it is impossible to pin blame on any single culprit.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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