It began with one busload of children arriving at Naval Base Ventura County over a month ago. One bus became two, and so on, and after the first month of operation, roughly 1,330 immigrant teenagers, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have come and gone. Most were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol and are now awaiting their fate at military bases across the country. As the children wait for answers, many in the U.S. are asking why they’re here in the first place.
The answer to why they’re here, according to the Department of Homeland Security, is violence. The two countries from which most of the unaccompanied minors are arriving, Honduras and El Salvador, are considered the No. 1 and No. 4 most violent countries in the world.
Honduras, with a population of a little less than 8 million, had a homicide rate of 90.2 per 100,000 citizens in 2012, the highest in the world according to data gathered from the Department of Homeland Security by Pew Research. San Pedro Sula, one of Honduras’ major cities, is the murder capital of the world with 187 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Behind Honduras in murders per capita is El Salvador, population 6.2 million, which at 41.2 murders per 100,000 residents is the fourth most violent country in the world, with only Belize and Venezuela in between.
By comparison, New York City, with a population of 8.3 million, recorded a murder rate of 3.8 per 100,000 in the year 2012.
Compounding the violence is the general poverty of the countries involved. Children from Guatemala, for example, are more likely to be traveling due to economic hardship rather than violence in their home country.
Since 2010, the U.S. Border Patrol has intercepted record numbers of children, often traveling alone, along the Mexican border in Texas and Arizona. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of migrant children taken into custody doubled — and that number doubled once again from 2012 to 2013.
In 2013, the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted 24,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. From the beginning of 2014 to May, that number had nearly doubled to 47,000. After arrival, the Department of Homeland Security transfers the minors to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operate the facilities on military bases across the country.
Honduras: Murder Capital of the World
John LaBarge of Thousand Oaks has visited Honduras with wife Kristy since 2002 as a missionary, generally staying for a month or so. In 2010, he stayed for over a year with The Scripture Union, working with local schools to meet a government-set requirement that students be given one hour a week for “moral or ethical value” lessons.
Stationed in the city of Siguatepeque, settled in between the metropolitan San Pedro Sula and the capital city Tegucigalpa, John traveled the country and witnessed firsthand the unrest that he believes has spawned the increase in violence that has children fleeing alone to the United States.
In 2009, a presidential coup sent the country into a downward spiral economically and civilly. As the rest of the world reeled from the financial crisis taking effect, the Latin American Union ousted Honduras from the organization due to the coup against President Manuel Zelaya.
Due to its geography and centralized location between Nicaragua and Guatemala, both of which are known for smuggling cocaine from Colombia, Honduras is a bridge over which drug trafficking occurs on a regular basis. Coupled with a never-ending gang war over control that goes as deep as warring over specific blocks in neighborhoods, Honduras is in the midst of an out-of-control melee of violence that coincides with the nation’s government being on the brink of total collapse.
In 2009, Honduras established its reputation as the country with the most intentional murders in the world, with 70.7 murders per 100,000 that year. But those numbers increased to 90.4 in 2012, according to the United Nations office of Drugs and Crime. The United States, by comparison, had 4.8.
“They are absolutely scared,” said John of the children he and his wife taught. “We were doing a teaching at one point and Kristy asked them, ‘When are you scared?’ as part of an exercise. One of the kids’ responses was, ‘whenever I’m outside.’ ”
LaBarge says that a “fundamental flaw” creating the cycle of violence in the country is that the fathers in many Honduran families leave to find work in the United States or elsewhere due to a lack of opportunities at home. It’s common to find a family separated yet receiving money from the father working in the U.S., says LaBarge, who believes that the 2009 coup spurred an increase in fathers migrating to find work.
In 2010, LaBarge and his wife traveled with 30 others back to Honduras. During that time, the group experienced the violence firsthand as one of the members was kidnapped, surviving only by jumping out of a moving vehicle, causing a brain injury that required surgery, while another member was robbed at gunpoint. While walking alone in downtown Siguatepeque, another member was murdered.
“One of our members was gunned down in the street, shot eight times. … We couldn’t really figure out why,” said LaBarge. Siguatepeque, he says, is known as one of the safer cities in the country.
In 2013, another member, working as a taxi driver, was kidnapped and has been missing ever since. The case remains unsolved.
“You look a couple years into the future and there’s no reason to believe that it’s going to be better,” said John, who himself has a young son. Before traveling to Honduras again in 2013, the LaBarges discussed whether or not they should return to the country ripped apart by violence.
“Are you familiar with the story of Moses?” asked LaBarge. “Moses is born and the Pharaoh makes an edict that all newborns must be killed. His mother tries to hide him for several months and then realizes that it’s not possible. She decides to put the baby in a basket and throw him in the Nile, hoping that something good happens to the baby — and that’s kind of what the mothers in Honduras in some way are doing.”
The story in El Salvador
Three weeks ago, Rabbi Laurie Coskey, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice in San Diego, made a journey to El Salvador with a nongovernmental organization known as EcoViva. Coskey was made to stay within the confines of her hotel and only allowed to leave with a security escort.
“When we were in the city of San Salvador, we were not allowed to walk across the street,” said Coskey. “We never left the indoors. . . . If we had left as individuals, we would have had to hire a car and a bodyguard.”
El Salvador is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the U.S. Department of State (USDS). The nature of crimes in El Salvador is “unpredictable, gang-centric and characterized by violence directed against both known associates and targets of opportunity,” says the USDS. A travel warning was issued in January of 2013 for Americans traveling to El Salvador. It has not been lifted as of today. Police statistics show that there were an average of seven murders and three carjackings reported daily in the city of San Salvador alone.
“The weekend I was in El Salvador, there were 47 murders [in the country],” said Coskey.
Coskey says that after witnessing the conditions in which children live in El Salvador, she cannot blame parents, especially mothers, for sending their children alone to the U.S. border.
Rabbi Laurie Coskey met this mother and her child while visiting El Salvador in June.
“Your choices are, you join a gang or you die; or you join a gang and two years later you die; or you leave,” said Coskey. “Delinquency, gang violence and poverty; it’s a trifecta. It’s safer to risk your life than to stay there.”
In San Diego, where Coskey works to reunite immigrant families, 240 people were brought to her organization during the second week of July, and 90 percent of them have been reunited with their families. Coskey says that between 10 and 15 families present themselves at the San Ysidro facility as asylum seekers daily, most of them are coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“I sat with mothers who would send their children here in a heartbeat, and a mother only does that because they don’t believe there’s any hope,” said Coskey. “You would never send your child away if you believed there was hope. It’s not about making a buck. It’s about really living.”
Coskey says that there is no doubt that those coming from these countries are refugees, and that causes a humanitarian crisis. The Obama administration has been careful about whether or not to label the children as refugees, instead referring to the migration as a humanitarian crisis.
“I certainly think that the parents who are sending their children, or the adult families who are coming, are the same as in any era, the families who tried to flee to this country believing that if they didn’t they would lose their lives,” said Coskey.
The fate of the children at Naval Base Ventura County is still up in the air. The Obama administration has proposed $3.7 billion toward expediting the hearing process for the individuals, but according to immigration attorney Vanessa Frank, who is also a board chairwoman of Ventura County Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, there is a lack of immigration attorneys and judges who can hear the cases, which is causing a long queue for the children. According to the Department of Justice, there are more than 375,000 immigration cases waiting to be heard and only 243 judges available to hear them.
To make matters worse, the Obama administration has directed the Department of Homeland Security to place the children at the beginning of the immigration queue, sending those who have waited, sometimes years, for a hearing to wait even longer.
“We have programs for refugees for people escaping horrendous situations in their home countries, and we have what we call special immigrant juveniles, which is essentially a refugee program for minors,” says Frank. “We are hoping that children will not be summarily removed from the United States until they have had an opportunity to bring any claims, or any defenses, to removal.”
The children at Naval Base Ventura County will come and go, and as the Obama administration attempts to expedite the process, as local organizations attempt to gather clothing, supplies and toys for the children who await their trials, the children are left in limbo, not knowing if the trip they have made to arrive in the United States was worth the effort.
“If I was a parent [in Honduras], I would do what these people are doing,” said Coskey, who paused for a moment to consider if she would send her children alone. “I would hope that I had the courage.”
Out in support
Area activists rally for migrant children rights at Naval Base Ventura County
Members of CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy)
join in a chant of “all children matter, our kids are staying here.”
by Kimberly Rivers
Approximately 200 people gathered at the Pleasant Valley Road entrance to Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme on July 8 to rally and voice support for the children being housed there. The children came across the U.S.-Mexico border from several countries farther south to flee violence and poverty. The U.S. government will help many of them locate and go live with family members in the U.S., but about 15 percent will be deported back to the countries where they are from because no family members will be located. Once the government hands them off to the family members in the U.S., the family has the sole responsibility of navigating the complex immigration process for the children.
The event may have had its roots with groups in Los Angeles, but Ventura County organizations and residents recognized the value and need to speak up and support the children.
“The United States is built on immigrants,” said Robert Cruz, a lifelong resident of Oxnard and a dual-branch veteran. Cruz served in both the Navy and the Army, and raised high the large American flag he brought to the rally. “Our forefathers were all immigrants,” he said.
Standing next to Cruz, holding a sign that read, “Who would Jesus deport?” was Marcos Oliva, a resident of the city of Bell. They joined the crowd in a rallying cry of “No Papers No Fear, our kids are staying here.”
“These children are fleeing extreme violence,” said Juana Tapia, executive director with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) of Ventura County. She said most of the children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where active gangs threaten children and their families with injury and murder unless they join the gangs. “They have no choice,” said Tapia. CLUE will be working with other groups, both religious and secular, to act as a watchdog organization ensuring the rights of the children on the base are upheld.
Vanessa Frank, chair of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE)
of Ventura County speaks to the crowd outside of Naval Base Ventura County.
“The people of Ventura County are here to express their support of these kids,” said Vanessa Frank, local immigration attorney and chair of CLUE’s board of directors, looking out at the diverse crowd that came to support the migrant children. “I am really proud of Ventura County. The moms see these kids and think, ‘What if it was my kid?’ This is what the United States is about; it is America at its best.”
Frank also spoke of the responsibility of all levels of government in the United States. “We are also calling on our political leadership to follow their conscience and ensure that refugee children are provided with the care they deserve while they are in shelters and we ask that they are provided with consistent and competent immigration attorneys as they navigate the often byzantine world of immigration law.” She said it is important that they be fully aware of their rights, and not “unjustly returned to the insecurity and harsh conditions they so recently, and at great cost, escaped.”
“These children are refugees of violence and poverty,” said Ana Garcia, spokeswoman with CARECEN of Los Angeles, an organization working since 1983 to assist immigrants from South and Central America in achieving legal immigration status. CARECEN is one of the organizations that coordinated the caravan from Los Angeles which sparked the rally.
Members of the delegation who were allowed to enter the base reported back to the crowd at the rally. They told the crowd they were “satisfied” the children were being well looked after. The children have clean, comfortable living and sleeping places. A schedule is created each day with time for education (including English classes) as well as playing soccer, basketball, and they even watched some of the World Cup games. Some speakers commented that they will be working with elected officials at all levels of government so that these children do not need to fear returning to the violence they escaped.
“This is life and death. It is not about amnesty, it is about survival,” said Martha Arevalo, executive director of CARECEN.