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Simon Waxman: "Tens of thousands of young people are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala thanks to America’s war on drugs." Pictured: Students walk after school in the community of San Jose Las Flores in the northern Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. In this small community, Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez was born, a Guatemalan boy whose decomposed body was found in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The number of unaccompanied immigrant children picked up along the border has been rising for three years as they flee pervasive gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. (Luis Soto/AP)

If my hometown of Newton, Mass., had the same murder rate as Honduras, there would be roughly 86 homicides annually. Boston would have 636. As it stands, there were 40 homicides in Boston last year and none in Newton.

Before the state descends into NIMBY-ism with respect to the relocation of child immigrants from the southern border, we should take note of these numbers — and not only the numbers, but also the explanations behind them.

Important questions remain about Massachusetts’ relocation plan. Not least is why rich towns like Newton aren’t on the list of transfer sites. But while we hash out the particulars, let’s do so in a spirit of constructiveness and with one hand on the welcome mat. Because receiving these refugees is less a matter of choice than of obligation. It is America’s fault that Central American children are knocking down our doors.

…receiving these refugees is less a matter of choice than of obligation. It is America’s fault that Central American children are knocking down our doors.

Tens of thousands of young people are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala thanks to America’s war on drugs. The immediate source of the violence these children are escaping is U.S. drug prohibition, which creates a lucrative market for criminal gangs that have moved south, thanks to the closure of the Caribbean drug corridor and Mexico’s military crackdown on its own cartels.

Violence in Central America is not new, and neither is the American hand in it. It is important to recognize the history and take responsibility for conditions we created.

The story goes back a long way, but 1954 is a convenient starting point. That’s when a CIA-backed coup overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, after he ordered the redistribution of farmland to peasants. Decades of U.S.-supported dictatorship followed.

In the 1960s, U.S. “advisors” trained Guatemalan death squads that went on to terrorize civilians and wage a vicious counterinsurgency against leftist guerrillas.

Later, in the 1980s, much of the killing was led by President José Efraín Ríos Montt, with the backing of the Reagan administration.

Throughout that same decade, El Salvador’s U.S.-funded military was engaged in a pitched battle with leftist opponents of its own. Neither side in that war comported itself honorably, but of 22,000 complaints about the violence gathered by a United Nations truth commission, 85 percent condemned the actions of the U.S.-backed forces.

And as war raged in El Salvador, the CIA and the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., were training Honduran government assassins bent on eliminating political opponents of the anti-Communist regime. The goal was to maintain Honduras as a reliable U.S. outpost in otherwise-restive Central America.

These bitter conflicts laid the foundation for the refugee challenge we now face. Persistent violence and poverty have left large portions of Central America ungovernable and, therefore, ripe for an influx of drug pushers.

Prohibition arms these pushers with guns and money. The black market raises prices, which raises the stakes, begets violence and corrupts government and law enforcement. These forces, in which American responsibility is clear, are driving children to our borders.

Many Americans sympathetic to the plight of child refugees still don’t want them in this country, let alone in their hometowns. They argue that there is strife to spare in the world, and no one nation can repair that. This is true. However, when it comes to Central American refugees, the choice for the United States is not whether to help a neighbor to whom one owes no special obligation, but whether to pay off a heavy debt.

It’s not about turning children back at our borders or deporting them once they are here; it is about improving conditions in their countries of origin…

There are also those who claim that accepting refugees — indeed, any immigrants — encourages more to come and overwhelms America’s legal and logistical capacities to integrate them. Some in this country have sought to alleviate this by making America an inhospitable place. Hence we have paramilitary operations on the southern border and harsh legislation at the state level.

These nativist and rule-of-law anxieties are both unfounded and self-destructive. They also miss the point: It’s not about turning children back at our borders or deporting them once they are here; it is about improving conditions in their countries of origin so that they and their parents deem it less risky to stay than to flee.

To do so, we must start by ending the war on drugs. This means decriminalizing all illegal narcotics and disbanding related law enforcement operations. Drug addicts should get therapy, not prison time. Drug sales should be regulated, but not so heavily that they breed a new black market. This is the only way to undermine, finally, the drug gangs raining violence on our own cities and in those in Mexico and Central America.

The United States must invest in Central American institutions of commerce, education and governance. To the extent that handling a tide of illegal immigrants is a challenge and an expense for this country, shoring up the states south of us will be to our benefit.

By helping our Central American neighbors to be more like the United States — an imperfect nation, to be sure, but a desirable place to live — we will go some way stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into our country. And we have the power to halt the arrival of drug war refugees, in particular. But until we exercise it, they are our responsibility.

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Tags: Human rights, Law

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  • Todd

    Individuals pay debts. Nations almost never pay theirs. Germany after the Holocaust is an exception, but America still hasn’t paid enough to American Indians and has never paid anything to blacks. I just hope we’ll do better in the future. Thanks for the article. Many interesting links.

    • fun bobby

      we can help African Americans and the rest of the hemisphere by ending the prohibition of drugs. 1/3 if African Americans have felony convictions preventing them from exercising their civil rights and making getting out of poverty exceedingly difficult.

  • fun bobby

    Yup, its about time someone on this blog finally wrote something that makes sense. Kudos Simon

  • Geheran1958

    As it nearly always is, America’s left default position on just about every national and international ill is to proclaim “It’s America’s fault”. As with the disinformation of the USSR era, a small measure of truth is intermingled with lies. The unvarnished truth is that the US is the most welcoming nation on the planet to immigration – bar none. It is a fundamental reason for this Nation’s greatness. What this WH and the left seem to ignore is that we also have laws and processes that govern immigration designed, among other things, to protect its citizens from the undesirable consequences of unregulated and illegal breaches of our borders. The “hard choices” made during the Cold War era that made it necessary for the US to choose between the lesser of two evils – a totalitarian ideology whose stated intent was to overthrow Western democracies – in favor of pro-Western dictatorships does not constitute an obligation to accept blame for today’s gang violence, corruption and incompetent governance any more than compensating Irish immigrants for the 900 years of oppression coupled with a bigoted WASF society that greeted Irish Immigrants with “Help wanted, no Irish need apply” or Africans abducted by mostly Muslim slave traders for transport to the Americas 90% of whom were sold to areas other than Her Majesty’s colonies. With respect to the question of illegal drugs,

    • Geheran1958

      On the question illegal drugs, it is unthinkable to imagine what the US would look like today were it not for the “failure” of the “War on Drugs”. Mexico? Honduras? Just like the violent jihadists in today’s ME, the drug cartels are a cancer that must be excised wherever they exist.

      • Todd

        If you want to eliminate the the drug cartels, decriminalize drugs. Simple as that.

    • gossipy

      Agree completely. Thank you.

  • rickrabin

    The US has been invading and interfering in other countries since long before the Cold War. Haiti, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, Philipines, Puerto Rico, Mexico and others suffered from US interference long before the Soviet Union was a threat or even an entity. So let’s not blame the fear of Communism – US imperialism has a very long history.

  • markgood1090

    I disagree with the cause of the violence. The gangs in Central America are our fault, but not because of drugs. For the past 6 years of President Obama’s “get tough” deportation policy, the US has been steadily deporting (flying) juvenile delinquents from California directly to the capital cities of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. But those teenagers’ families still live in Callfornia.
    Because they have no famiies in those countries, they have banded together and formed the violent gangs in order to survive.. They engage in kidnapping and extortion of middle class families who own businesses. They try to recruit children from schools and threaten to kill them and their families if they don’t join. We need to stop deporting California juveniles to those countries to stop feeding the gangs more members.

    • jimmy

      Hey markgood1090, these hoodlums are not US Citizens; many of them and their so-called “parents” came here ILLEGALLY to begin with. Do you propose that we make our charges, our problem to deal with? They violated our laws, our sovereignty to get here, then they choose to become thugs. Off with their heads! Or else send them all to live with you and you be made responsible for their behavior.

      • markgood1090

        Jimmy,

        You re saying “off with their heads” about children? They may not be citizens, but they are human beings. What law do you think they violated? What makes you think these children are “thugs?”

        • PaulD

          You’re the one who asserted they’re violent and a major cause of all these problems. He’s talking about the illegal aliens that you say we’re deporting and are causing these problems when they get back to their home countries.

          • markgood1090

            I didn’t say anything about “illegal aliens.” The people we are deporting from California are legal residents of the United States, with Green Cards. Unless they are citizens, a process that takes years, they can still be deported if they commit crimes. “Secure Communities” takes immigrants who commit crimes off the streets.
            After they serve their jail time, they are flown to the airports of the capitol cities of the countries their families originally came from 20-30 years ago, and are set free.
            In the past six years, these deported California young people have gotten together and formed the violent gangs that are now terrorizing the middle class families in these countries.

          • PaulD

            Getting a green card takes what? 5 years after having been let into the country on a valid, long term visa (which means having had consistent employment, student visas don’t count)? So you’re saying that they’ve come all that way and are still minors, yet we’ve deported them.

            Even if the first part didn’t strain credulity vs. them being here illegally, so what? They’re not citizens and are subject to deportation if they commit crimes. Anyone with a green card should know that.

            I’m willing to believe that there’s some new problem down there that’s causing this. However, there’s no other country in the world that would be expected to not deport violent immigrants.

          • markgood1090

            First of all, who said anything about violent immigrants. They deport all immigrants convicted of any crime, regardless of violence. Drunk driving, drug use, shoplifting,
            can get people deported.

            Secondly, maybe the idea of deporting young men who have committed some crime seems like a good idea. But it fuels the violent gangs that are causing the mass migration to the US of all these children from Central America. If the kids who we deport had citizenship, they would just be sent to jail like any other criminal, but not deported. If you want me to send you more information about the blowback
            we are getting from these deportations, send me your email address.

          • PaulD

            You need to go back and read the progression of your posts. First you said the people we deport are starting/accelerating these gangs in central America. Then you said these are people with green cards, etc, etc. You said it and you said it again in this post. At least be consistent.

            Next, we might deport some immigrants, but recently in MA, an illegal immigrant with a history of drunk driving killed a motorcyclist.

          • markgood1090

            I don’t understand your question. The U.S. deports legal immigrants who have Green Cards but are not yet citizens if they commit a crime. Citizens don’t get deported; they get sent to jail if they commit a crime. Why not just send legal immigrants to jail too if they commit a crime?

          • PaulD

            I didn’t ask a question in the post you’re replying to.

          • markgood1090

            Ok. You said I should be consistent. I didn’t understand your point.

          • pennyroyal

            PaulD seems to be willfully obtuse and blind to boot.

    • PaulD

      So these acts of violence are justified and excused because of their backgrounds? Wow.

      • markgood1090

        I think you misunderstood me. The kids coming here are escaping from these violent gangs. My point was these are not drug gangs, just deported juvenile delinquent gangs. The children coming are trying to escape death.

        • PaulD

          You really think you can differentiate these gangs from drug gangs? I doubt that’s possible.

          Also, where’s your evidence that the California juveniles are a major cause of these problems?

          • markgood1090

            The drug gangs really have no interest in recruiting children. Because the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels have dominated the news for the last 20 years, we think of them when we here the word “gang” connected to Central America.

            I have travelled in that area, and I have also talked with some of the children who escaped from Honduras. The violent gangs targeting these kids is something new and different, and has nothing to do with drugs. It was caused by the recent deportations of juveniles from California whose families came there in the 1980’s to escape the civil wars going on there at the time.

  • PaulD

    So what’s the limit? How many refuges like this should the US accept? Why isn’t the UN helping? The UN has doctrines saying a host country shouldn’t be solely responsible if a flood of refuges show up on a border, so why aren’t they helping with this problem?

    They’re here and that can’t be denied. We therefore have to do something at this point. However, there much also be a limit.

  • Renee Nal

    Physician who treated illegal children: ‘They came based on a rumor’

    “They were not running for their lives, the physician said, but came to America “based on a rumor” that once in America, children and teens would not be turned away.”

    http://www.examiner.com/article/physician-who-treated-illegal-children-they-came-based-on-a-rumor #IllegalImmigration

    • pennyroyal

      No child is illegal just as no child is illegitimate. Clean up your language. They are undocumented. It is immoral AND illegal to send them back without a hearing and investigation as to their claims.

  • noslack2327

    RE:
    “America’s Debt to Children Crossing the Border”
    You mean “America’s Tax Payers’ Debt to Children Crossing the Border.”

    None.

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