Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How did I miss the unaccompanied minors story?

One of the many things that has bothered me about the crisis of unaccompanied minors on the border is that I totally missed the story as the number of young people from Central America exploded over the last two-plus years. President Obama was warned over a year ago and frankly others have been warning about the number of children and Central Americans for quite some time yet the story wasn't on my radar.

One of the reasons is that I don't focus on immigration and the border very often. When I do write about immigration, I tend to focus on Temporary Protected Status for Guatemalans, support for comprehensive immigration reform, and the record number of undocumented immigrants that the US have been deported under President Obama.

Overall immigration apprehensions have been down and even some of the estimates from El Salvador that I would hear showed the same trend. People used to say that 800 people were leaving each day but more recently I would hear that only 500 people were leaving each day.

Second, while the Northern Triangle remains a very violent region, homicides rates have decreased in each country the last two years, four in Guatemala. It is possible that Guatemala finishes 2014 with a rate of 30 per 100,000 which would put its rate on a level with every one's success story - Colombia.

But there's a lack of trust in homicide rates and an understanding that violence is much more than homicides. So I decided to look through LAPOP's survey results from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These are from 2012 surveys so we don't have 2013 or 2014 here.

Salvadorans have high levels of insecurity but perceptions of insecurity improved from 2010 to 2012. El Salvador has intermediate levels of crime victimization for the entire region. Seventeen percent of Salvadorans surveyed were direct victims of crime, while 28.5% of households reported some person who was victimized within the past year - about the regional average. Self-reported levels of personal victimization also improved between 2010 and 2012.

Self-reported crime victimization also decreased in Guatemala over the same two-year period - 23% to 21% for personal victimization - although the change is not statistically significant. Even optimism about the economy improved from 41.6 to 45.3!

In Honduras, perceptions of insecurity improved perceptions of insecurity improved from 34 to 32.1 between 2010 and 2012 - at exactly the same time that the murder rate was taking off.
What can explain the reduction in the perception of insecurity in spite of the increase of crime in the country? A possible reason is reflected in the changes in principal problems of the country identified by Hondurans. In Figure 66 we can see that between 2008 and 2010 the economic crisis dominated the perceptions of Hondurans as the most serious problem facing the country. The political crisis of 2009 and the political and institutional problems that were the root of the crisis are what received most mentions in 2012. Therefore, despite the elevated levels of crime, political and economic problems are those that were emphasized with most frequency by Hondurans. We think that this distribution of problems can explain why levels of perception of insecurity has decreased and is below countries with lower levels of violence. 
However, unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, crime victimization worsened in Honduras between 2010 and 2012 from 14% to 18.9%. It is interesting to note that self-reported crime victimization is still below its height in 2006 when it reached 19.2% (probably no statistical difference but...).

Crime and the economy are motivating people from Central America to leave the region and, in most cases, go to the US. However, the link is not straightforward. And at the same time that murder rates and self-reported victims of crime improved except for Honduras.

It gets even more interesting when you factor in that fewer people stated an intention to leave their country and migrate between 2010 and 2012. If intentions were decreasing into 2012, why did larger numbers of unaccompanied minors and families increase so dramatically later that year and the next one and into 2014? That seems to be where US policy comes into play.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How could family reunification feed youth into gangs, even if both immigrant parents are working?

Middlebury's David Stoll published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the costs and benefits of immigration between Guatemala and the United States last week which I commented on here. He brought up some good points on the downside to remittances and family reunification that often go unmentioned in the press but that are part of the academic conversation that has been taking place. He sent along some comments to my questions which he has generously allowed me to share with you.
Mike, thanks for your observations.  You ask, how could family reunification feed youth into gangs, even if both immigrant parents are working?
My reference to downward mobility could have used a bit more explanation.
The best ethnography I’ve seen on this point is Robert Smith's Mexican New York.  It’s about a Mexican migration stream, from Puebla to the Bronx, with far more legal status than the Guatemalans with whom I work.
While a stateside working couple’s son is still in Mexico, being cared for by his grandparents and receiving remittances in Mexico, he’s at the top of the consumption pyramid for the small town where he lives.  Once reunited with his parents in the Bronx, he’s living in a leaky basement with parents who are too busy working to make ends meet for anything else.  And of course their meager wages-even two wages in New York's heavily informalized service economy- have very little purchasing power.  So that’s downward mobility in terms of what his parents’ wages can buy. Then there's the problem of how the little guy makes it down the street without being challenged by other young neighborhood males.
As for humanitarian advocacy, my objection is that it can be extended to most of the population of the Third World.  If "57,000 helpless children" (to quote the NYT editorial board yesterday) each deserve a lawyer, a court hearing, time to prepare their case, and therefore provisional legal status in the U.S., then so does every other under-18er in Central America whose parents can pay to get him to the U.S. border.   This amounts to a humanitarian rationale for opening the U.S. labor market to any family who is sufficiently desperate or bold to borrow the money needed to pay human smugglers.
This is not to deny the existence of genuine refugees from gang violence who need our help. But how to pick them out of the surge of youth labor migration which, as far as I can see, probably constitute the bulk of the youth surge.
I'd like to thank David for the comments. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Despite U.S. Efforts, Root Causes of Migration Prevail in Central America

I have a new briefing in the World Politics Review this morning entitled Despite U.S. Efforts, Root Causes of Migration Crisis Prevail in Central America (I would add U.S. and Central American Efforts). Here's the conclusion
While investing more resources in the region might reduce the number of individuals traveling to the U.S., it is unclear that this will be enough to significantly alter the pressures that are compelling people to leave. Approximately 4 million people of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan descent live in the U.S., and the remittances they send home comprise 15-20 percent of each country’s GDP and help millions avoid or survive poverty. Not too long ago, the goal of many of them was to earn enough money in the U.S. to be able to one day return home, buy a house, start a business and retire somewhat comfortably. It seems that might no longer be the case. The poor economic and security conditions have deterred many from returning. Instead, parents living in the U.S. are paying for their children and spouses to travel north for family reunification.
Economic and family reunification pressures are not going to become any less important over the coming years, as drug trafficking, gang violence and organized crime continue to overwhelm the already weak and corrupt police forces and governments in all three countries. Citizens can trust neither the criminals nor the state. Sending their children on the dangerous journey north might not be their first choice, but the alternatives are no less daunting.
The US and our Central American partners have been working for decades to improve conditions in the region. However, it is clear that the resources that we have committed have not been enough (money, people, high-level attention) and some have been counterproductive (mano dura, perhaps DR-CAFTA, an escalation of the drug war, failure to reverse the 2009 coup).

Some see improving conditions as a moral issue to make up for past US involvement; others to stem the flow of immigration; and and others to tackle the root causes of violence - but I am not sure that there are many people who are not interested in improving the region's conditions. Obviously, though, there is a lot of disagreement over how to improve those conditions.

We need to work together to strengthen democracy, emphasize job creation and sustainable development, increase investment in basic social needs, make illicit drug consumption less violent, and provide a reasonable, safe way for people to come and go between the US and the Northern Triangle for family and work reasons.

You can read the Briefing here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

US could grant Temporary Protected Status to Guatemalans

President Obama is scheduled to meet with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the White House this week. They are obviously going to discuss the recent flood of unaccompanied minors and families leaving the region for the United States. Vice President Biden is hosting them for lunch. Perhaps they are going to announce some new initiative but who knows.

President Obama could ask the Department of Homeland Security to move forward on granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to nationals of Guatemala. If we look at the map of where migrants are coming from in Guatemala, a large percentage are coming from the Western Highlands.


Gang violence is not as much as an issue there (though drug trafficking is) which is part of the reason why US officials claim that most Guatemalan migrants are leaving for economic reasons. The heavily indigenous highlands have some of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in the entire country.

This area of the country has been hit hard by earthquakes in September 2011, November 2012, and July 2014. If he does not want to extend TPS to all Guatemalans (which he could easily justify because of other natural disasters affecting the entire country), perhaps he could offer it to those migrants who are departing the western regions like San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quiche, Totonicapan, and Quetzaltenango.

TPS for Guatemala does not help El Salvador and Honduras (many of whose citizens in the US already have TPS) and probably won't make a dent in the number of migrants leaving the region (that requires long-term structural changes) but The United States should grant TPS for Guatemala.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Belize's money laundering regime

Grace Kranstover and Ragini Chatterjee, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, take a look at The State's Secret: Belize's Money Laundering Regime.
Nestled on the northeastern coast of Central America, Belize is often named one of Central America’s most beautiful vacation destinations. With its ornate coral reefs and rainforest, the small English-speaking country has plenty to offer for tourists looking for tropical adventures. Yet, Belize is rapidly becoming known to the international community for attracting many drug trafficking organizations known for transporting marijuana and cocaine into North America. Since the country’s currency is conveniently pegged to the U.S. dollar, Belize also offers nonresidents the opportunity to run offshore accounts. Money laundering has become a prime form of funding for many criminal organizations. As a result, the United States Department of State has recently named Belize one of the world’s “major money laundering countries.”[1]
But it's not just about money laundering. Take a look at what Julie Lopez wrote last year with Organized Crime and Insecurity in Belize. I provided a few comments as well that will show up in Belize's 2013 Freedom in the World Report.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Should the US deport unaccompanied minors?

I have a new post up at Al Jazeera on Should the US deport unaccompanied minors? Let's just say that I answer "no" and that we should look to big picture items to manage the flow of people between Central American and the United States. Here's the concluding paragraph:
The problems in Central America are immense. We need to consider deepening our already close economic relations, craft policies that facilitate migration between the US and the region, jointly invest billions of dollars in development projects, and enact drug policy reforms. I am afraid reforms short of these will probably just help at the margins. 
Basically, I went with more freedom. The US and Central America, as well as Mexico, should look to policies that give Central Americans more freedom to move in search of labor. We should design policies that allow people to move more freely in search of family. Approximately four million people of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran descent live in the US while only thirty million remain in the region. Economic and family reunification pressures are not going to become any less important over the coming years. Finally, we need to tackle regional drug policy and give people more freedom to access what is today an ultra-violent, multi-billion dollar corrosive industry.

I don't see all these reforms happening overnight but I do see the US, Mexico, and Central America becoming more fully integrated in the future, let's say by 2050 or 2100.

It was a difficult op-ed to write. There were so many ways to go addressing the current crisis. At one point, my submission was over 1,800 words before I managed to bring it back to 1,203. Obviously, there was a lot of material left on the cutting wrong floor.