Immigrants or Refugees?

In the media barrage over the “flood” of Central American children arriving along the United States’ southern border, the refuge-seekers have been typically labeled as “illegal immigrants” by many media outlets.  

Under the heading “Life for illegal immigrants at FLETC,” a story posted this week on New Mexico news source KOB re-played the dominant news frame as it reported on conditions  at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, where hundreds of Central American children will be detained.

“It’s like an upscale hotel in there,” New Mexico state Representative Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Chaves) was quoted, adding that the children would be supplied with toys, television, “three square meals a day,” medical attention, and education.

Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh questioned security at the southeastern New Mexico facility, noting that it boasted only a chain link fence with no barbed wire. “It’s just not a real barrier to people who have come this far,” Kintigh said.

But Central American migrant advocates have a diametrically opposed take on the crisis, contending that the children on the U.S. border should be considered not as immigrants but refugees meriting international treatment standards, which does not generally include detaining children, according to Human Rights Watch.

In a lengthy statement issued this week, members of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement (MMM) demanded that a refugee crisis be declared, and that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees take the appropriate emergency measures. The MMM cited field evidence its collaborators have been documenting since the last trimester of 2013, when migrant advocates noticed a change in the urgency of Central Americans crossing Mexico en route to the United States.

By February, the crisis was boiling, as more and more unaccompanied minors and women with children younger than 12 years of age were undertaking the dangerous trek north, according to the MMM.

In another unusual development, larger groups of people from ethnic communities like the Garifunas of Central America’s Caribbean Coast have begun showing up along the migrant route, the group said.

According to the MMM, the “LA 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, which is located near Mexico’s southern border, housed 6,192 people from January 1 to May 31 of this year. Of the overall client roll, 1,000 were women with children and 800 unaccompanied minors.

MMM activist Ruben Figueroa reported that 70 percent of the migrants interviewed mentioned experiencing death threats, extortion or the death of at least one family at the hands of gangs or “narcos” back in their homeland.

“(Organized crime) charges for everything, for selling in the street, and it charges all businesses alike-big, medium or small,” the MMM stated. “Extortion is so generalized that it includes the charging of a fee to people who have family members in the U.S.”

Honduras, which has been rated as the country with the highest homicide rate in the world, stands out in the “ships of horrors,” as Central America scholar Dr. Dana Frank describes the order of things in some of the Central American nations.

In addition to crime, corruption and violence, politically-motivated repression against journalists, activists and opponents of the U.S.-backed government is rampant.  An estimated 88 peasant activists have been murdered in the Lower Aguan Valley alone.

“We are facing a phenomenon of forced expulsion in which the actors don’t migrate for traditional reasons in search of better opportunities or family reunification,” the MMM asserted. The migrant activists further contended that the refugee crisis was the product of a “lethal mix” of U.S. border security policies, militarization and “unsustainable economic models” that have dismantled governments and “pushed the governance of peoples to the limit.”

Building up over a long period, the spike in the number of Central Americans pushing northward is increasingly a regional issue involving numerous states and governments.

In Mexico City, about 100 people staged protests this week outside the consulates of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Amnesty International joined Father Alejandro Solalinde and other migrant advocates in criticizing a lack of support from Central American consular staff for their citizens passing through Mexican territory. The protesters also blasted Mexican detention practices which often hold migrants longer than the 15 days permitted by law.

“The Mexican authorities no longer have any excuse in ignoring the fundamental rights of migrants,” said Amnesty International activist Chasel Colorado.

Still, the appearance of child refugees on the U.S. border is not a uniquely North American issue.  “We are seeing a growing number of minors on all routes,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. “We see them in the Mediterranean routes, through Mexico to the U.S…..we see them everywhere.”

According to Guterres’ agency, more than 50 million people had been forcibly displaced in the world by the end of 2013.
Additional Sources: Thom Hartmann show, June 26, 2014., June 25, 2014. Article by Lauren Howard.  Foreign Policy in Focus/Common Dreams, June 25, 2014. Article by Lynn Holland., June 25, 2014. Reuters, June 20, 2014. Article by Stephanie Nebehay. 

(Photo by longislandwins)

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Frontera NorteSur

Frontera NorteSur (FNS) is the online news service of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University. Since the early 1990s, FNS has reported on the borderlands, Mexico and beyond. In addition to publishing FNS, the Center for Latin American and Border Studies sponsors lectures, hosts conferences and promotes graduate and undergraduate courses. FNS Editor Kent Paterson has covered the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and Latin America for more than 30 years as a print and radio journalist.

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