We’re Helping Deport Kids to Die

Jul 20, 2016 by

Nicholas Kristof   NYTIMES

Nicholas Kristof nduras told Elena to be his girlfriend, even though she was only 11, she knew better than to reject him. Credit Nicole Salazar/Show of Force — Humanity on the Move

TAPACHULA, Mexico — Elena was 11 years old when a gang member in her home country, Honduras, told her to be his girlfriend.

“I had to say yes,” Elena, now 14, explained. “If I had said no, they would have killed my entire family.”

Elena knew the risks because one of her friends, Jenesis, was also asked to be a gang member’s girlfriend, and declined. Elena happened to see the aftermath, as Jenesis staggered naked and bleeding away from gang members.

“She had been raped and shot in the stomach,” Elena recalled in the blank tone of a child who has seen far too much. She paused and then added: “We don’t know if she survived. Someone said she died at the hospital.”

As for Elena, she said her duties as a gang member’s girlfriend entailed working as a drug courier and a lookout, as well as intimacies that she didn’t want to discuss. At this point in our conversation, her mother and younger sister began crying.

After years of such brutality, Elena and her family finally fled this year when the gang threatened to kill them so as to seize their home. “I just want to keep my children safe,” the mother, Brenda, 39, explained, speaking here where they are staying near the Guatemalan border.
Elena, second from left, and her family fled Honduras but were stopped by Mexican authorities. They are now in a temporary home in Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

Yet they aren’t safe, in part because of a policy backed by President Obama and the Mexican authorities to return vast numbers of desperate refugees to the countries from which they fled. In the last five years, the U.S. and Mexico have returned 800,000 refugees to Central America, including 40,000 children.

If other countries were forcibly returning people to their deaths, we would protest. But because we Americans worry about refugees swarming across our borders, we help pay for Mexico to intercept them along its southern border and send them — even children like Elena — back home, where they may well be raped or killed.

I’m mostly a fan of the Obama administration, but this is just plain immoral.

As I’ve written previously, the policy was crafted after the United States was swamped by a surge of Central American refugees in early 2014. Obama spoke with the Mexican president to discuss how to address the flow, and Mexico obligingly imposed a crackdown to stop these refugees long before they could reach the United States. Mexico deports a great majority of them to their home countries, and the United States is thus complicit when they are terrorized, raped and murdered.

Immigration is among the knottiest of challenges, and there is a real risk that welcoming some children creates an incentive that results in other children endangering their lives by undertaking a perilous journey north.

I’m not arguing that the U.S. should open its doors wide to all Central Americans, and Obama in any case is constrained by Congress. But historically, Central Americans had a refuge in southern Mexico, and it is unnecessary and cruel now for the U.S. to take the initiative and work so diligently to cut off that safe haven.

It’s not that Honduras or El Salvador are tyrannical regimes; rather, the problem is that criminal gangs are out of control. The homicide rate in El Salvador last year, more than 100 killings per 100,000 people, represents a mortality rate of roughly the same magnitude as during the country’s brutal civil war in the 1980s (although more recently there has been a drop in murders).

One rural farmer, Guillermo, 58, told me that all he and his family had wanted to do was stay on their farm in El Salvador, growing fruits and vegetables. Then two gangs moved in and began taking over the land — and killing those who got in the way.

On a neighboring farm, five people were massacred, including an 8-month-old baby, the baby’s mother and a grandfather visiting from the United States. Then the gang called Guillermo’s daughter, telling the family members to clear out or be slaughtered. They left, with Guillermo grazed by a bullet as he fled, and after a terrifying journey they are now in southern Mexico.

I can’t confirm the details of Guillermo’s story, or those of the other refugees I spoke with. But their accounts are consistent and mesh with those of human rights organizations.
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These are not primarily economic migrants. These are refugees, deserving protection. Instead, the United States and Mexico are colluding to send people like them back to the gangs that want to kill them. (Guillermo may get lucky: He seems to be the exception who is on track to get asylum to stay in Mexico, because of help from a human rights center.)

Another man, Emilio, 23, showed me threats he is still getting from the gangs. Emilio fled El Salvador, leaving his clothing business behind, when gang members barged into his home, held his family at gunpoint and said they would kill his two small children unless he paid protection money. So now Emilio is hiding in Mexico with his wife and two children, and getting death threats.
“We know where you are with your bitch and your kids. We sent the homeboys there, traitor. You understand, for not giving us the money, you four are dead.” The second message reads, “Look faggot, you left with the bullshit that you were going to send money back. You can’t play around with the neighborhood.”

“We know where you are with your bitch and your kids,” read one Facebook message he received from a gang member. “We sent the homeboys there, traitor. You understand, for not giving us the money, you four are dead.”

Yet Mexico doesn’t seriously screen most people for refugee status before sending them back. In the U.S. in 2014, only 3 percent of minors detained were deported; in Mexico it was 77 percent, according to the Migration Policy Institute. “Less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees or receive other formal protection in Mexico,” notes Human Rights Watch. And as Mexico sharply increased its pace of detentions and deportations, there was no commensurate increase in budget for processing asylum applications.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been murdered or raped after deportation because of this American-Mexican policy, but there’s no doubt many have been. I heard of one Salvadoran man who was shot by a gang within hours of being deported by Mexico. Indeed, by some accounts, the gangs keep an eye on the buses arriving in San Salvador and unloading deportees, who become sitting ducks.

Secretary of State John Kerry rightfully criticized Kenya’s plans to close its Daadab refugee camp and return refugees to Somalia, but the U.S. does something parallel when it works with Mexico to deport refugees to Honduras and El Salvador.

I met a 15-year-old boy, Alex, a lawyer’s son from a well-off family, who came to Mexico on his own after a gang tried to recruit him as he went to and from school. Alex was a good student — his favorite subject was English — and he politely tried to decline, because the last thing he aspired to become was a gangster.

That’s when the gang knifed him in the stomach and broke his nose. After that, Alex didn’t dare attend school any more, and he quickly arranged to take a bus north to safety in Mexico. Except that Mexico may not be safe, because the U.S. is trying to solve a political crisis on our border in ways that only increase the risk to children like Alex.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 17, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Deporting Kids to Die. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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