The Children Who Cross the Border...
and Crimes of the U.S.

June 16, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Thousands of desperate youths from Central America continue to be detained and taken into U.S. government custody in South Texas. (See part 1 of this series, "Tens of Thousands of Immigrant Youth Brutally Imprisoned—In the USA.") The suffering these children are enduring is a tragedy and a catastrophe. And unnecessary! It is a product—in many different ways—of the capitalist-imperialist system. And it is a burning testament to the need to make revolution as soon as possible, and put an end to the system that perpetrates such abominations.

Young Mexican boy watches Border Patrol on New Mexico side of border fence, December 2013. Photo: AP

The number of youths crossing the border is rising daily. Most of these young people are unaccompanied by adults. On Monday, June 9, the Obama administration announced that it is seeking an additional $1.57 billion to fund its efforts to deal with what is an increasingly difficult and potentially damaging crisis for the U.S. By Thursday the Attorney General of Texas demanded an additional $30 million from the federal government to "fill enforcement gaps" along the border with state police. Later that same day, Jeh Johnson, Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, announced a "90 day surge" of federal investigators going to Texas, and said that people taken into custody at the border, including children, are "priorities for removal"—meaning they will probably be deported.

Most of the Central American teenagers and children trying to come to the U.S. are picked up by the Border Patrol and other U.S. authorities in South Texas. Many have been warehoused in detention centers in the Rio Grande Valley—El Valle—the southernmost tip of Texas. But the authorities have run out of room for the children in the frigid holding cells known by immigrants as hieleras (ice boxes) and other heavily guarded detention centers along the border. In the last week alone, the U.S. has set up makeshift detention centers for the young people on military bases in Texas, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma. Yet every day, hundreds more children continue to try to make their way across the Rio Grande.

Two young women from the city of San Salvador described to Revolution the frightening horrors they and their family members experienced when they were children in that city. "You can get killed anytime, just for being there. It happened to two of my cousins. They were both just shot down in the street. One of them was just walking down the street when something happened and he was shot. A few weeks later it happened to another cousin in the middle of the afternoon. My mother wanted to get us out of there before it happened to us."

Both of them described seeing bodies in the street, hearing gun battles ring out through the night while they lay on the floor. "Sometimes gangs get kids to work for them," one said, "even little kids. And everybody's so poor, the kids think they're rich if they get a phone, they get a little money maybe and at least they can eat. Plus maybe they could get killed if they don't go along. So lots of times kids start doing little things for a gang, and they get friends but they also get enemies. And a lot of people get caught in the middle."

These horrors pose urgent questions: What is driving the violence in Central America? Why is it happening now on such a horrific scale? And even beyond that, what is compelling children as young as five to set out on an unimaginably arduous and frightening journey towards "El Norte"?

Let's start with the source of the gang violence that racks Central America.

The Gangs of Central America and the Godfather of El Norte

The rulers of the U.S. and their media mouthpieces portray the influx of youths from Central America as if they are bringing some alien culture and danger of gang violence into the U.S. The reality is basically the opposite: the terrible gang situation in Central America is more than anything else a product of the workings of U.S. imperialism.

How so? The 1980s was a period of great social transition and global turmoil. An enormous growth in gang activity, throughout the U.S. but especially in Los Angeles and Southern California, was one outcome. In a very real way this was caused by the workings of the capitalist system itself: Inner cities were emptied of worthwhile jobs but flooded with cocaine, some of which was used to fund pro-U.S. terrorists in Nicaragua. Hundreds of thousands of people in Central America were driven from their homes and homelands to U.S. cities by U.S.-backed wars. And when they got to the U.S., the putrid values and "every man for himself" morality of capitalism all came together to create a desperate situation for millions of people.

In the U.S., massive immigration from Mexico and Central America was transforming cities across the country, especially in the Southwest. Great economic and social changes were underway as well. There were few good jobs—the industrial base of the cities was largely being moved to suburbs and "exurbs," or out of the U.S. altogether. The revolutionary and radical upsurges of the 1960s and early '70s that had influenced and given meaning to the lives of so many Black and Latino youths had largely subsided. Harsh and brutal repression, in the name of the "war on gangs" and the "war on drugs," had become a daily reality for the lives of millions of youths. A program of mass criminalization and incarceration of Black and Latino youth was initiated.

The combination of economic, political, and repressive factors touched on above converged and greatly contributed to the growth of gangs and gang culture in the inner cities of the U.S. Then in 1986 the "Immigration Control and Reform Act" provided for the "expedited removal" of immigrants convicted of crimes. By the early 1990s, the U.S. began deporting thousands of Central American youths in the name of the "war on gangs."

These deportations accelerated after rebellion rocked Los Angeles in 1992. These were mainly youths from the inner cities of the U.S., especially LA, who had grown up living in the U.S. with all that means, not in Central America. Youths who had spent their lives being hounded by police and some of whom had been organized into gangs, and now were sent to impoverished, devastated countries they knew barely or not at all. These deportations accelerated in the first decade of this century: almost 130,000 "criminal aliens" were deported to Central America between 2001 and 2010.

These deportations have had a huge impact on the small and impoverished countries of Central America. El Salvador is the most densely populated country in the Americas, with a population of about six million people. About 300 "criminal aliens" are deported there every month. "Gang culture" that began in the U.S. has been taken to and taken root in the impoverished and economically barren landscape of teeming Central American barrios.

Beyond the economic impoverishment of Central America created by U.S. imperialism, the social and economic terrain in these countries was profoundly framed by devastating counter-revolutionary wars waged by the U.S. and its local allies and enforcers throughout the 1980s.

By the late '80s resistance to U.S. domination that had surged throughout Central America had been drowned in rivers of blood. (See sidebar to this article.) People were traumatized, and many were demoralized by the defeat of these upsurges, which though not real revolutions to liberate the people in these countries, had once been the source of hope to many people, especially the youth. Much of the countryside had been laid to waste. The movements and organizations that had led resistance and guerrilla wars against U.S. domination had been defeated and/or incorporated into the ruling apparatus of society. The economies of these countries, in particular the ability of the basic people to make a living, had been ruined.

Horrific gang-related violence, including battles among and involving different sections of the police and armed forces allied with different gangs, is a scourge on the people in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But think about it for just a minute. People from Central America fled their homelands in the 1970s and '80s because U.S.-backed wars had made life impossible in their native countries. They came to the U.S. where they worked shit jobs at low pay. They had the threat of raids by La Migra and deportation hanging over their heads constantly. Their children, including many born in the U.S., were hounded and persecuted, often beaten and killed, by the police, and some of them were organized into gangs. Tens of thousands of these youths were deported and forced to begin their lives over again in a place where there was no possibility for an education or to earn a living.

Think about it, then ask yourself—did these "gang members" create the conditions of despair, poverty, violence, and repression in which they and others were forced to live? The violence people of Central America are fleeing today has its ultimate source in the capitalist-imperialist system that has feasted on them for a century. It is the utmost hypocrisy for U.S. politicians and journalists to talk of the violence ripping at these countries, and to feign sympathy with its young victims, without addressing at all the economic, social, and political roots of the conditions ensnaring people.

Now, let's speak to the bigger picture. Children are not just fleeing from gang violence.

Trapped by Imperialism in a Burning House

Children and others fleeing Central America now are trapped in conditions that offer no future, no prospect of a decent life. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Children are brutally exploited in El Salvador, one of the worst places in the world to be a child. Between 8,000 and 9,000 children in El Salvador work harvesting sugar cane and coffee. For years Coca-Cola has been a major purchaser of sugar harvested in El Salvador, where up to one-third of the cane workers are children under the age of 18. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor said that "these children are exposed to the elements, toxic substances, long workdays, and injuries from machetes and long knives. These children cut, plant, and pick crops, and they carry heavy loads."

Children in El Salvador also make fireworks, work on fishing boats, and scavenge for garbage. Many more try to somehow earn a living from the informal economy on the streets of El Salvador's cities and villages. Many are forced into working for drug gangs at very young ages. Many are "trafficked internally and internationally, some for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation; girls from poor communities ages 12 to 18 are at the greatest risk."

Many articles in the U.S. media, and some politicians, claim that, as the New York Times wrote on June 4, many young immigrants are going north "because they believe that the United States treats migrant children traveling alone and women with their children more leniently than adult illegal immigrants with no children." As if—if such a policy actually existed—it would be some kind of gracious act of kindheartedness on the part of a system that has made these children's lives hell on earth.

But any expectation that U.S. policy towards unaccompanied children or women with children has somehow become more lenient under Obama is a heartbreakingly cruel illusion. Deportations under Obama have in fact far surpassed those under George W. Bush and all other previous U.S. presidents. Countless families have been torn apart. In 2012 alone, almost 14,000 unaccompanied minors were sent back from the U.S. to Mexico.

Stacy Merkt was a courageous religious activist in the Rio Grande Valley who in the 1980s provided sanctuary to Salvadorans fleeing the U.S.-sponsored bloodbath in El Salvador, only to be hunted down by La Migra if they made it to the U.S. She described U.S. policy then as being as if someone had set a house on fire, and then shot down survivors trying to flee.

That is a true and apt description of what the U.S. is doing today. Barack Obama wants to project a benevolent, "humane" image of this country to the world. The standing of the U.S. as a supposedly compassionate defender of human rights is undermined by the heartless cruelties this system is inflicting on the children of Central America.

A Great Crisis, a Great Challenge

Anyone with a heart has to be filled with anguish and outrage at the great crisis underway in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. But that is not enough.

The seemingly bottomless well of torment this system of capitalism-imperialism draws upon to exploit and oppress people across the world is on display in this crisis. A deeper look reveals some of the smoldering volcano of contradictions the system rests upon—and the potential to overcome them. The tensions created by the ruthless oppression and domination of people across the world are pressing right against the borders of the empire. They reverberate within the imperialist heartland itself.

But the question remains—what will be done about this?

All the youths and children who make it to the U.S. must be treated humanely and compassionately; whenever possible, they must be reunited with family members as soon as possible. They must be given all necessary medical treatment, and put in a caring, loving environment. They must be provided with education, and they must never be deported.

Even more, all those who want to see an end to a world where children—where anyone—gets put through the sadistic torment these youths are subjected to, needs to get with the movement for revolution.



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