Overwhelmed by all the news about the unaccompanied minors? Well, we have you covered. For the past few weeks the media have been reporting on a surge in unaccompanied minors who are crossing the border "illegally", bringing attention to the latest immigration crisis. The reality of the situation is far more complicated.Over the past 6 months or so I have been working as an expert witness for various asylum cases some of which involved unaccompanied minors. The community of advocates that I work with have first hand knowledge that I hope to share. My intention in this post is to synthesize some of the information out there and point you, the reader, to appropriate sources for further exploration. I will also offer my own assessment of what has happened in Guatemala that has led to the unprecedented increases of minors leaving central america. Those of us that have worked on these cases would argue that while this sudden burst of youth fleeing central america may be a surprise to the media we have seen the numbers increase for quite some time under increasingly violent and inhospitable conditions. The info graphic below produced by the Department of Homeland Security shows were the concentration of youth are coming from.
Major Points to Keep in Mind1. Despite what the right wing media would like you to believe, the vast majority of these minors are not coming believing that they can easily get a “free pass” to become a US citizen. They are fleeing escalating political and economic destabilization leading to increased violence in their respective home countries.2. In the cases I have worked on and heard of it is highly likely that many of these youth will be killed or hurt if they are returned to their home countries, consequently, we would argue that these youth are refugees that deserve some sort of protected status. For a great commentary on this subject clock here. 3. Much of the political instability reported by minors in Central America is associated with gang violence. Transnational gangs such as MS-13 have proliferated for some time largely as a consequence of recruiting happening while eventual members were incarcerated, hardened and socialized into gang violence in US custody. Upon being deported they brought those patterns into their home countries and grew exponentially. These gangs heavily recruiter minors. Another great piece about the ties between US foreign policy and gang proliferation.4) The vast majority of unaccompanied minors are able to find parents or relatives to connect with in the United States and be safe5) Different than criminal proceedings the minors are not entitled to legal representation and therefore have to navigate the judicial process on their own, in some cases with the help of non-profit or pro bono lawyers. A small minority are able to afford their own lawyers. 6) Many migrants only speak their indigenous language, translators are not available further complicating the dynamics inside the detention centers. See this New York Times Article On the Media reporter Brooke Gladstone talks with veteran Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega about what's really happening on the border.
More on Detention CentersBelow is a first hand account of life in the detention centerst: "Before migrant children are placed in detention, they’re processed in holding facilities. It is here that many complain of what they call hieleras, or iceboxes—rooms so cold, they feel like they’re freezing. Customs and Border Protection denies the use of hieleras. But according to lawsuits, they’re too often the norm. Colorlines spoke with one migrant from Honduras, Mayeli Hernández. Along with her 8-year-old sister, she crossed into the United States last year when she was just 11 years old. Here, she talks about what her experience in the hielera was like." From ColorLines
The Experience on the Ground: Ventura CountyAttorney Vanessa Frank explained that in Ventura County California there are aslo many unaccompanied indigenous Mixtec minors from Oaxaca Mexico. Generally speaking, “they are looking to meet with their parents or relatives who fled to the United States during the economic collapse in the countryside," associated with the 1994 NAFTA agreement among other factors. About 500-600 Mexican and Central America youth, 13-17, have been moved from Lackland Air Force base in Texas to Port Hueneme in Ventura where, according to Mrs. Frank, they have been treated well. The youth that are arriving are deemed in “good condition” meaning they do not need dedicated medical care. While the media tends to focus on those that would send these children back there is a growing movement of supporters. In Ventura groups of concerned citizens have emerged https://www.facebook.com/groups/KidsHousedAtBase/. They spend their time organizing materials and supplies for the youth. Some Background on GuatemalaMy status as an expert witness for asylum cases is derived from having worked on a PhD for the last seven years and most recently writing a dissertation on contemporary Guatemalan history examining ethnic change in relation to the 36 armed conflict (1960-1996) between marxist guerrillas and an eventually genocidal Guatemalan state. The aslyum cases I have worked on range from an indigenous man having his life threatened after his mother was allegedly killed for her political activity, a middle aged Maya man whose friend was killed and he himself was beaten by police and drug traffickers after refusing to sell their drugs in his shop and finally an unaccompanied minor fleeing the threat of gang violence.Guatemala has suffered a particulary high degree of violence. Truth commission reports indicate that the Guatemalan state committed genocide against the indigenous Maya as over 200,000 were systematically targeted through mostly mass killings designed by US trained death squads. Out of a population approximately 6 million, 1 million were also internally displaced having fled to Guatemala city to live in shantytowns, refugee camps in Chiapas or making there way to the United States. Whereas the 1996 peace accords signed in 1996 marked a turn from the violence of the armed conflict and a promise of the positive economic improvement in the early 2000s violence reemerged.By 2005 the persistence of state violence in post conflict Guatemala began to be alluded to in newspaper articles concerning violence in Guatemala. The direct linkage between former military and the National Civil Police began to be established, investigated and reported critically in Guatemala in 2005. As early as 2000, the Washington Office on Latin American observed the “recycling” without appropriate retraining of former military officers. What is most striking and that these former military officials were intellectual architects and officers conducting massacres throughout the Armed Conflict. Due to the lack of a productive judicial system and the granting of amnesty following the signing of the peace accords, those formerly in power remain employed and influential.A particularly indicative event that would foreshadow current conditions was the August 31, 2004 massacre at Nueva Linda. An estimated 2,000 police along with private security and backed by heavily armed troops entered the Nueva Linda Finca in order to evict approximately over 200 families. . For over two years the Nueva Linda pro-justice group protested the disappearance and suspected homicide of their friend, leader, and administrator of Nueva Linda Héctor Reyes. According to police records and testimony from the Reyes family, the key suspect was the former head of security of Nueva Linda Victor Chinchilla, who worked under the direction of the landowner Carlos Vidal Fernández. Héctor Reyes was a key figure in a local campesino land redistribution struggle.
The violence resulted in the death of 9 campesinos along with 3 police officers. Over 40 campesinos were injured and several arrested. According to reports from NGOs that surfaced following the massacre, police deaths could be attributed to crossfire from fellow officers. The Human Rights Ombudsmen reported concerns over detention irregularities and the violence resulting in campesino homicides. Specifically, the bodies of 7 campesinos had signs of torture and extrajudicial violence. Campesinos were reportedly killed with baton blows indicating a chilling level of ferociousness.The massacre itself came at a time when campesino land rights organizations throughout the country were protesting the delay in land reform laws prescribed by the 1996 Peace Accords. Amidst mass protests, in May 2004, then President Oscar Berger promised to solve all land disputes within 90 days. The massacre took place a week before the 90th day. Within this context, Nueva Linda is an unsettling foreshadowing of what President Berger felt was a solution. Following the Nueva Linda killings, violent evictions have continued to be the norm when responding to land and environmental rights activism throughout Guatemala. Current violence suggests that tactics deployed by civil defense patrols and soldiers during the worst years of the armed conflict persist. The current killings have a systemic nature to them indicating the potential involvement of those trained in military tactics learned in United States military bases. Those close to the case speculate that investigation would implicate not only current officers but also former military personnel. The involvement of officers explains that lack of a substantive inquiry since military elements remain closely tied to the civilian administration. Continued investigations are pointing to state actors as well. Prosecutions since then have shown that many crimes are connected to organized crime circles that include the National Civil Police and the military.The current President, Otto Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota (PP), was the head of Military Intelligence during the most violent periods of the armed conflict. Most infamously during his time in the Guatemalan Army he served in the special forces (known as the Kaibiles), which had a reputation for brutality. In the months leading up to the September 2007 general elections, violence escalated. The center-left UNE made its sympathies to indigenous communities obvious, as the UNE sought to instill greater protection for indigenous communities and even went so far as to offer reparations. Otto Perez Molina, denied that genocide against the Maya had even occurred during the Armed Conflict.Some analysts have noted ties between PP and drug trafficking. This has become an increasingly troubling issue since the drug violence and wars in Mexico have only served to move the production of drugs and the associated violence into Guatemala. In particular the current president is tied to drug trafficking due to his business associates and revered status among the Kaibiles who have defected from the military and aid drug trafficking organizations. Ultimately, Perez Molina’s heavy handed approach to security has only lead to increased violence against the masses agitating for a better life in the countryside. Furthermore, the Mexican drug wars have pushed drug violence into north eastern Guatemala. Drug syndicates have effectively paid off local authorities leading to their complete impunity in regions of their control.
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