Central American Refugees and Migration Policies

May 11, 2018 (Analysis) Migration across borders is a messy issue. Especially when it is clouded by misconceptions and misrepresentations by those in the receiving country. The *Via Crucis* by Central American refugees through Mexico is the most recent example. There are a slew of ideas that are wrong and speak to the biases on all sides of the issue. They range from what Mexico is doing, or not doing, to the intent of refugees, or how dangerous these refugees could be.

A well known race-based talking point is that this is a menacing group engaged in a quiet invasion of the United States. It betrays both bias and status loss fear that is very dark and palpable. Status-loss happens when a dominant group in a society loses dominance over the economic and cultural life. Most of the time it is a perception, but it is a powerful motivator. In this context, those who are outside the group are seen as a clear and present danger. Even when in this case these are mostly children and mothers, who are fleeing both poverty and constant violence, or threats of such. In this case, it is fear of gangs that have taken over many neighborhoods in the cities and towns El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, chiefly, but other Central American countries as well.

The reality is that these gangs are very dangerous. The United Nations recognizes this area as a conflict zone because of it. The emigration from the Golden Triangle in Central America to the United States, and a very limited number from Mexico, is recognized by the international body as a refugee crisis. It is in their eyes, not unlike the better known Syrian refugee crisis, and it is part of a global mass migration.

The United Nations High Committee for Refugees (UNHCR) writes the following:

Over the last few years, increasing numbers of individuals fleeing gang violence in Central America, and specifically El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, have fled to the United States in search of protection. UNHCR has worked to understand this refugee crisis, publishing reports in 2014 and 2015 examining why children and women are fleeing the region. These reports, Children on the Run, Uprooted and Women on the Run, all found that individuals fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras (a region collectively referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (“NTCA”)), and Mexico faced startling degrees of violence presenting a clear need for international protection.

Migration from Mexico to the United States is at a net zero, and it is the lowest since 1972, there is a larger refugee flow from Central America. There are reasons why Mexicans are not looking north as a way to make a living any more. The population curve is starting to age, and wages have gone up over the last thirty years. They are not equal to the United States, but the differential is no longer an average of a ten to one. Pew has solid research, which draws from Government data, where they make this clear:

More non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended at U.S. borders in fiscal year 2016 for the second time on record (the first was in fiscal 2014.) In fiscal 2016, 192,969 Mexicans were apprehended, a sharp drop from a peak of 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000. The decline in apprehensions reflects the decrease in the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S.

We are seeing traffic north, though Mexico to the United States by mostly mothers and children. The UNHCR found this to be the case, and the flow in 2015 of unaccompanied children was precisely this. It took US officials by surprise, but perhaps it should not have. The American government is aware of the situation in the Golden Triangle. At a policy level we also know the role American policies have in poverty and gang violence. The latter is partly due to drugs, that flow to the United States, where the demand remains high.

There is another problem. Gang violence is usually not classified by state actors as civil war. Never mind that those gangs are acting like streets thugs, maintaining actual territory that government officials do not control. This is not unlike a civil war. Neither the United States or the Mexican government have recognized the conflict in Central America as rising to that level. This is why Mexico is not hosting refugee camps on its southern border, like it did in the 1980s. It is a humanitarian crisis, however.

Yet, migration across Mexico, and into Mexico has become an important policy issue. According to the Migration Policy Institute:

For the first time ever, transit migration from Central America to the United States is a significant policy priority in Mexico today — both from a security and human-rights standpoint. Prior to 2010, mention of migration into Mexico or of transit migration through the country was relatively marginal. But the Mexican government’s adoption of a new migration law in 2011 was a ground-breaking recognition not only of the scale of transit migration but also of government accountability to ensure migrants’ rights, including those of transmigrants. Nevertheless, implementation of this law may prove to be a significant challenge, and managing migration that comes from the south, whether temporary or permanent, has become increasingly hazardous and a source of regional tension.

Mexico’s relations with the United States, where roughly one in ten of its citizens currently resides — more than half in unauthorized status — have evolved somewhat as well. Border enforcement, deportations, and migrant deaths dominated Mexico’s migration agenda with the United States in the years immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, putting strain on the bilateral relationship. While those irritants remain in to an extent, new political realities have emerged. Chief among them: the prospect of U.S. immigration reform, which stalled earlier this decade, was back on the table in Congress in a serious way in spring 2013, holding the potential to bring an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, including approximately 6.8 million from Mexico, out of the shadows and into the mainstream of U.S. life

What has happened is that while Mexico is trying to adjust to a new reality, and international treaty obligations, we are in the process of rejecting these same obligations.

The talk of an invasion is popular with the nationalist American right, which is also mostly white and Christian. It is coming from a well understood sense of status loss, and demographic changes that are frightening to the majority. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatens to separate children from their parents, he is about to break international law. He is also engaging tribal thinking.


What is all this about? Why, in spite of facts, people afraid of this non-existent wave? Part of it is found in biases and cultural fears. The United States is quickly moving towards a multicultural society, where Christian Whites will no longer be the dominant group. Demographically the country will become a majority-minority country. This alone is triggering deep fears in the United States, that are hardly unprecedented. We saw a similar phenomena with the European migration of the last third of the 19th century.

Then there is the presidency of Barack Obama. There is emerging data that tells us that this led to deep seated fears among this group. Yes, we could call it racism, and in many cases it is exactly that. However, the reality is that African-Americans are an outside group in the United States. This has led to the perception that Christian whites are losing their dominant role in society, and status loss.

The National Academy of Science has found this to be the case about the 2016 election.

A possible explanation is dominant group status threat. When members of a dominant group feel threatened, several well- established reactions help these groups regain a sense of dominance and wellbeing. First, perceived threat makes status quo, hierarchical social and political arrangements more attractive. Thus, conservatism surges along with a nostalgia for the stable hierarchies of the past.

Fear triggers tribal behavior. This is why the border wall is seen as a way to stop a perceived threat by this dominant group. Dehumanizing this marginal group is also part of the dynamic. The separation of parents from children is a way to treat human beings as less than human. So is claiming that a whole group is not able to assimilate, or a group of dangerous thugs. Both are tribal reactions.

Part of the dynamic is to close in from the world, and leave treaty obligations. This is why we have had calls from the present administration for the end of trade deals, and withdrawal from the world. It is an inward look, that avoids the perceived dangers. Yet, there is an ironic twist. This same dominant group is worried about the loss of American leadership in the world. The actions taken to presumably protect that role, are indeed weakening that role.

Activists are always very well meaning. However, most activists do not understand how the laws related to the movement of refugees work. If they seek to be effective, they need to understand two things. The first is why people are afraid, but the second is to understand the rules of the game, and how the bureaucracy, and the people tasked with enforcing it, think and work. Knowing that the United States has obligations under both International and National law is critical. But it is also important to understand how they work and what excuses officials will use to, for example, deny a hearing at the border.

Many in the pro immigrant community do not understand any of these dynamics. It is critical to acknowledge that people in the dominant group do not necessarily like the changes that we are undergoing as a society. It is also important to understand that many of those who have these deep seated fears are not able to tell you what they are afraid off, or why? These are deep fears, in the psyche of people that in some cases lead to a flight or fight reaction.

When you engage in a conversation with people in both camps, people tend to dance around the issues. With those afraid of foreigners, they do not want to be told that they are racists. Opening the conversation at that point is a mistake, and will send people on all sides to a defensive situation. You are activating biases and fears.

But there is another problem. Many local activists refuse to learn how both national and international law works. Or how to ease the process of migration for refugees. Those who work with organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, the UNHCR, or the International Committee of the Red Cross, are aware of the different ways governments try to stop refugee flows into their countries. This is not exclusive to the United States. Immigration from conflict zones is not wanted by many local populations. They see these immigrants as competitors in the job market, and in some cases, vectors for disease. They also see them as a threat to their social status.

In reality the United States (and Mexico) have so far refused to admit the flow north is partly due to intense gang violence. While Mexico is starting to see this as an internal policy matter, it has not opened refugee camps like it did in the 1980s during the Central American civil wars. Partly this is because gang violence is seen as a conflict zone by the UNHCR, but not by national governments. Admitting that non-state actors can trigger refugee flows could be problematic for national governments and international institutions. There is also the matter that Mexico has seen internal displacement due to the same kind of violence that has greatly affected the Golden Triangle. However, it is not to the extent seen in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The United States has argued for years that this refugee flow is exclusively economic in nature. While refugee flows are at times economic, there are also other reasons for people to leave their home. People can make the decision to leave for a multitude of reasons, that include economic well being and fear of violence. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the women who joined the *Via Crucis* north did state in media interviews that they would prefer to reach the United States because of better economic opportunities. They could have applied for refugee status in Mexico, and in fact, many refugees are choosing the Mexican dream over the American Dream. Yet, they also stated they had to flee in the dead of night to protect their children from the gangs, who threatened to kill them. Parents will do what they can to protect their children. This is not a pleasure trip.

It is also critical that activists understand the process leading to an interview with American immigration officers. It is also critical to know why immigration officers may reject people outright. At times, something as simple as a medical emergency, could stop the process in its tracks since Mexico has the ability to tend for those people, and the United States is not the initial country of contact. Therefore, the United States has the luxury of rejecting an interview on the basis of added costs, perceived or real, to the social safety net. Transferring American Citizens during a medical emergency requires proof of citizenship. The same goes for Legal Residents. It is critical to be informed on how the bureocracy works, and how to help people. Moreover, having a lawyer increases the odds greatly.

Ed note. One of the links is in text due to the innability to go hot in text.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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