U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

NiUnaMenos Gains Momentum

By Brenda Werth* and Fulton Armstrong

marcha_ni_una_menos_1

Protesters gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the NiUnaMenos movement, which has sparked mobilizations across the country and in many other Latin American cities. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Protesters have taken to the streets in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America to raise awareness about violence against women and girls, pushing for an end to machista culture.  News media estimate that a demonstration under the banner of NiUnaMenos – “not one less woman” due to femicide – in Buenos Aires last Wednesday drew tens of thousands of supporters dressed in black, despite freezing rain.  Other banners declared “We want to live” and demanded “No more machista violence.”  The immediate issue driving the protest was the brutal attack earlier this month on a schoolgirl in Mar del Plata – 16-year-old Lucía Pérez – who was drugged, raped, and tortured to the point of suffering cardiac arrest and died from internal injuries.

  • Argentina passed laws between 2008 and 2012 protecting a range of rights relating to human trafficking, violence against women, marriage equality, and gender and sexual identity, creating new space for discussion of the issue. But the Casa del Encuentro, an NGO that helps victims of gender violence, says that data through 2015 indicate that somewhere in Argentina a woman is killed every 30 hours.  The government’s Secretariat of Human Rights says that 19 women and girls were murdered in the first 18 days of October.  Argentine President Macri, challenged since early days of his administration to address the problem, has reiterated pledges to push legislation that would establish a hotline for reporting abuse and create more shelters for abused women as well as better ways of monitoring abusers.

Similar protests were held in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and El Salvador – with thousands of protesters in capital cities demanding an end to the systematic violation of women’s rights.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced last week that she was joining the NiUnaMenos movement.  She condemned the murder of a 10-year-old girl asphyxiated, burned, and buried by her step-father.  Movement organizers cite research showing that violence against women is a serious problem in much of Latin America.  The Mapa da Violencia published by FLACSO Brazil last year shows that seven of the 10 countries with the highest female murder rate are in this region – with El Salvador (8.9 homicides per 100,000 women), Colombia (6.3), Guatemala (6.2), and Brazil (4.8) near the top of the list.

The demonstrations reflect growing global awareness of gender violence as a violation of human rights and that legislation, while helpful, is not enough.  NiUnaMenos and other groups are also rewriting the traditional definition of violence against women as attacks perpetrated by strangers rather than boyfriends, husbands, or family members – just as coverage of femicide in Mexico in the 1990s raised public awareness of gender violence as systematic and deeply structural as opposed to “every-day,” “familial,” and “private.”  NiUnaMenos is challenging “the culture of violence against women” in machista societies and condemning “the men who think that a woman is their property and they have rights over her and can do whatever they want.”  In Argentina, the mainstream media have stimulated much of the backlash, with reporting that exploits private details of victims’ lives and portrays victims in a manner that suggests responsibility for the crimes committed against them.  This recycling of the “algo habrá hecho” logic that circulated freely during the dictatorship coincides with a renewed focus in Argentine society on cases of torture during those years, treating them specifically as acts of sexual violence.  A week or two of protests obviously will not change ingrained culture, but the burgeoning movement highlighted by NiUnaMenos offers hope of continued progress in protecting the fundamental rights of women throughout the hemisphere.

October 24, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

Embed from Getty Images

A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.

Violence in Central American Urban Communities: Challenging Common Perceptions

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

Urban storefront within a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Urban storefront in a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A recent survey on urban violence revealed that several kinds of violence are more serious in Costa Rica than in El Salvador.  Common wisdom, buttressed by homicide rates and other traditional “hard” indicators, is that El Salvador suffers from violence similar to Guatemala and Honduras, while Costa Rica does not. Historical factors stand out as possible explanations. Conflict among Salvadoran elites in the 1930s left the country deeply polarized and politically closed, laying the groundwork for war in the latter half of the century – with violence continuing, albeit in new forms, after the war ended. Costa Rica, on the other hand, emerged democratic, and the Second Republic created a welfare state committed to development. The structural economic adjustments of the 1980s challenged that order, and the growing inequality resulting from “neo-liberalism” has been accompanied by a rise in violence, but violence in Costa Rica did not reach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

A survey conducted by FLACSO specialists in El Salvador and Costa Rica challenges those theses. Polls of families in nine urban communities cast new light on the problem of violence, revealing important differences in the occurrence of three main categories of violence.

  • Members of 15.1 and 18.4 percent of the families in two Costa Rican communities reported suffering from criminal violence against persons, while the highest figure registered in El Salvador – in a community in Sonsonate – was only 11.5 percent.
  • The three Costa Rican communities also reported a higher incidence of violence against personal property (household wealth), with 26 percent of families in Cariari (in Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast) reporting such violations, and only 12.8 percent reporting this kind of violence in El Salvador’s hardest-hit community.
  • Only in the case of domestic violence did Salvadoran respondents report a higher incidence than did their Costa Rican counterparts.

Several hypotheses may explain these findings. Costa Rica’s higher level of socioeconomic development may be a factor in its higher rate of crimes against property even in less-affluent communities. Another possible explanation is that violence is a relatively recent phenomenon there and has not yet induced attitudes of resignation and acceptance of crime as something natural, leading to more accurate reporting.  In the case of Cariari, where the highest levels of violence in Costa Rica are reported, the existence of a local awareness program may be prompting residents to be more forthcoming in expressing concerns about violence. In El Salvador, on the other hand, the existence of youth gangs – maras – and the government’s abandonment of these communities have given rise to an institutionalization of their role in violence. The maras don’t permit the presence of other actors, and some of their actions may be perceived by communities as legitimate (for example, extortion could be interpreted as an act of protection). In addition, it’s noteworthy that the poll was conducted during the truce among the gangs, which at least until recently appears to have reduced violence. FLACSO will explore these explanations more deeply in the next phase of our research, which is being supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

*  Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC. For a description of the project please click here.