Thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed into the United States in recent months in an attempt to escape poverty and violence that has defined daily life in regions of Mexico and Central America run by gangs and cartels.
“There has been an influx of children crossing the border from what I’ve seen,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative with the Department of Homeland Security.
But will Alabama extend some Southern hospitality to these children from further south who were born into violence?
On July 23, Gov. Robert Bentley’s office was notified by the federal government that unaccompanied migrant children may possibly be housed at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery.
Exactly when this will happen and the number of children to be housed remains unclear.
“We haven’t received any more information since we were initially contacted. We were notified by the Department of Defense that this is one of the facilities being considered,” said Jennifer Ardis, communication director with Bentley’s office. Ardis said that the governor’s office was not provided with any information regarding how many children might be housed at Maxwell AFB, or how long they might stay.
Gonzalez said children coming across the border in recent months are often trying to escape the gang violence that has taken hold of many communities throughout Central America. For many of the children, Gonzalez explained, making the treacherous journey to United States is their only option other than being recruited into gangs. It’s not a frivolous matter when these children come to America.
“In my experience,” she said, “the children that I’ve seen are fleeing violence. A lot of times it is within their family or within their neighborhood. I know sometimes that if parents are in the picture and they are sending their kids, it’s because they have a fear that they will be recruited into gang activities or used for the purposes of entertaining gang members. That’s the kind of thing that no parent here would ever want for their child.”
Still, lawmakers in Alabama and elsewhere have been strongly opposed to the idea of Maxwell AFB being used to temporarily house displaced migrant children. Bentley, along with five other governors, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama voicing his opposition.
The letter — which was published in the Montgomery Advertiser — states, “As we were told at the NGA (National Governors Association) meeting, currently nearly half fail to show up for their assigned immigration proceeding. We are concerned that there will be significant numbers who will end up using the public schools, social services and health systems largely funded by the states.
“More importantly, we are concerned that the failure to return the unaccompanied children will send a message that will encourage a much larger movement towards our southern border. We fear that this will put a significant number of children at risk of abuse and neglect on their journey to the United States.”
The letter goes on to say that nearly 57,000 children have crossed the border since October 2013, with that number expected to reach 90,000 in the next few months.
U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Montgomery) said in a statement released on her website that, “Under no circumstances should these detained children be sent to Maxwell-Gunter or any other military installation for that matter. The children must be sent back to their countries. We will do it with the utmost compassion and care, but it has to be done. Allowing them to stay is the least compassionate option because it invites even more children to endure the brutality of this organized trafficking scheme.”
America’s foreign policy
Vince Gawronski, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, published a paper in 2008, before the passage of HB 56, titled The Transnationalization of the Central American Gangs: Penetrating the Deep South. In his paper, Gawronski mentions the “blowback of the United States’ foreign policies in Central America,” and how these factors have influenced the “domestic push-pull migration factors.”
When asked if he believes these residual effects of America’s foreign policies are still a factor today, Gawronski replied, “We are likely to see residual effects for a very long time. The presence of so many Central Americans in the United States and the gang problem are connected to what went on in the 1980s and early 1990s and the legacies that emerged out of those conflicts, including a culture of violence and impunity.”
The United States’ involvement in the 1980s civil wars in Central America, Gawronski noted, has played a big part in the displacement of large numbers of refugees.
“The arrival of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s and early 1990s was a direct result of U.S. military and financial support of the right-wing [Nationalist Republican Alliance] government in El Salvador during the civil war from 1979 to 1992. At least 80,000 Salvadorans were killed or were ‘disappeared’ and one million were left homeless while another million became refugees,” Gawronski said.
During this prolonged conflict, the U.S. provided $7 billion in aid to the Salvadoran government, while both sides sought “an all-out military victory rather than a negotiated settlement,” according to Gawronski. Eventually the conflict ended in a stalemate.
By his estimates, there are about 60,000 Central American children now in U.S. custody, with numbers continuing to rise.
Perhaps another reason that there has been a spike in migrants crossing into the United States is the 2007-2008 financial crisis. As Gawronski put it, “When the United States sneezes, Mexico comes down with a cold, and Central America comes down with pneumonia. The economic crisis from which we are slowly emerging had a profound negative effect on Central America.”
Since HB 56 has essentially been gutted by the court system, Gawronski said, migrants are beginning to return to Alabama seeking the same economic opportunities that were available to them before the bill was passed in 2011.
“Check out the Mi Pueblo Supermarket to get a sense of the Latino presence in the area. I think Alabamians are becoming more tolerant since the HB 56 debacle. Surveys have demonstrated that the more contact Alabamians have with migrants, the more accepting they become,” Gawronski said.
Gonzalez said, however, that in the Deep South, the population has become desensitized to problems that many migrants may face. “I think that they are dehumanized,” she said. “I don’t know if that makes it easier for people or what. I don’t work with numbers. I work with individuals, so I see the children. It makes it hard for me to just assume that a swift removal is the best thing for them. I see them individually and I hear their stories.”
Gonzalez remains skeptical as to how the governor’s office would handle the children being housed at Maxwell AFB. “I’m not going to give Governor Bentley any more credit than he deserves. Given his track record I’m thinking he would fight it. You would think that the fact that these are children we are talking about, that would pull at his heart strings a little and open his eyes. But I think he has the mentality that they are illegals and shouldn’t be welcomed here.”
Gawronski said that if Maxwell AFB is used to temporarily house migrant children, “I’m sure the usual bigots will emerge, but these are children and there are a lot of decent Alabamians who take Christian values and principles seriously. It will be easy to call out the hypocrites. I think if people had a better understanding of the complex reasons why these children are here in the first place, they would be much more compassionate.”
As for the children who are deported, Gonzalez believes they will be targeted by gangs looking to extort money.
“I think life for them would probably be worse in a lot of cases because they’ve shown that they were able to collect thousands of dollars to be able to make it to the U.S. … Oftentimes these are small villages, word travels…It’s going to be worse for a lot of these kids.”