Children on Our Doorstep
A local angle on the Central American refugee crisis.
Central American children, adolescents, and mothers are still sifting through the porous border into south Texas and giving themselves up to the Border Patrol.
The callow faces of the children as they enter this country on their own, along with the stories of the hellacious world of murder, extortion and sex trafficking that they have fled, have moved a lot of Americans to want to help them. It's made other Americans huff and puff about the "invasion" of Central Americans into the US.
A couple hundred of the refugees have spent a day or two at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Las Cruces. They've been bused from Annunciation House in El Paso and continue on to go live with their families elsewhere in the US.
The press hasn't so far been allowed to talk to them, but I went over to see what I could see one evening in early July. I parked my car in the parking lot, in sight of some kids on playground equipment.
I thought the church volunteer might be protective of the immigrants and get mad at me. But I walked over to the playground and nothing happened.
There I found the tiniest little tots you ever saw tearing around and sliding down a big metal slide over and over, talking and giggling.
A young Filipino woman who was watching over them was friendly and open with me. The kids looked like Guatemalan Indians, but she said they spoke Spanish, not a Mayan language.
It would not have been the time to interview them about the hardships of their trip or their life back home. They were having too much fun.
(I was in Guatemala for six months in the late 1980s and fell in love with the people with their cheer and their palpably warm hearts in the midst of the poverty and violence.)
David McNeil, deacon of the church, knew what I was talking about.
"They come off the bus looking confused and scared," he said. "But after we give them some food, some clothes, and a shower, there's a transformative moment. They know someone cares." They kind of cut loose after that point.
The amount of activity in New Mexico in relation to the Central American migrants is small but not insignificant.
A woman in Deming whose husband works for the Border Patrol told me in early July that a bus or two of Central Americans was recently brought to Deming. She wasn't sure where they were housed, but thought probably at the Border Patrol Station. She had heard that some of them were sick.
I spoke to a man in Palomas who says he's seen a few individuals from Central America crossing the border in the past couple of years. He recognizes them by their accent or the clothes they wear. Central Americans in small numbers have always crossed there.
About 40 Central Americans who had stayed a few days at the facility in Artesia were flown from Roswell to Honduras on July 14.
It's hard to see how anybody could conscientiously send a planeload of families back to Honduras.
At the height of the violence in Juarez, when it was considered by some analysts to be the murder capital of the world, San Pedro Sula in Honduras was usually running neck and neck with it.
In Juarez the murder rate has subsided dramatically, but Honduras is still number one. El Salvador and Guatemala are numbers four and five.
Rep. Steve Pearce was one member of a seven-member US House of Representatives trip to Honduras and Guatemala in mid-July. Pearce came back saying there "aren't very many" Central Americans who are migrating out of fear of violence.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that "Pearce said he and the rest of the House delegation that visited Honduras and Guatemala did not venture from their hotel very often because of the dangers." They were guarded as if it were a war zone.
The question is left floating: If US Congressmen need to stay holed up in their hotel, how can you expect 14-year-old or 9-year-old Hondurans to feel safe?
The degree of danger in Central America, especially in Honduras, where most of the violence is, will be debated for years.
I was watching Fox News when the refugee surge was breaking into the US media. The violence and extortions of innocent people in Central America were never mentioned.
The elderly woman I was staying with wept when I told her about the forced recruitment of children into drug gangs and the rides on "La Bestia," the dangerous train they ride through Mexico. She had never heard of these things.
On the other hand, Americas Program, a left-leaning organization supporting social change in Latin America, gives the impression that all Central American migrants are in danger of being killed.
On June 25, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso testified to the House Judiciary Committee in Washington that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had
"recently found 58% of unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico have some sort of international protection claim." In 2006, just before the drug war started, they had found only 13%.
Adrienne Pine, a professor of anthropology at American University, recently spent a whole year teaching in Honduras. "You live in a constant embodied state of terror in Honduras," she said to Pacifica news service. "And it's hard to exaggerate it. Because everybody is always afraid."
It's obvious this is a real refugee situation, with a special emphasis on the abuse of minors. An eight-year-old boy was killed because he refused to be a look-out for a drug gang. Eleven-year-old girls are kidnapped into the sex trade. Similar stories abound.
Some people are saying the UN should get involved. It might be able to set up "safe zones" in Panama, Costa Rica or Belize. Meanwhile, there are many open arms here in the US to take care of migrants.
There's a need for competent legal professionals to interview families, so justice is done.
The US has a special responsibility in this situation because the drug war is our war. We at least set the ball rolling. We've also supported the militaristic governments in the countries affected.
One reason children aren't fleeing Nicaragua is that they have an enlightened, community-oriented police force and judiciary that resolves 79 out of 100 murders. In the countries the children are fleeing, there is almost complete impunity for crime. Nicaragua was the enemy we were fighting in the 1980s.
Seeing the efficient, inconspicuous way the migrants are being taken care of so far in the US, maybe the situation isn't as much of a crisis as was first thought.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.