My first post on this blog told the story of my dear friend Alta Gracias (not her real name), and her experiences of being locked up for three months in an immigrant detention facility after being caught crossing the border without documentation. She was attempting to join her husband here in the U.S., leaving behind two young children.
Fast-forward seven years to 2014, and Alta Gracias is once again in detention, but this time, her children have been locked up with her for two months and counting. Tomorrow, I will go to visit them at the detention facility where they are being held, and I will write about that experience. But today I want to write about the roots of this situation: how did Alta Gracias and her family end up in detention?I last saw Alta Gracias and her children in June of this year, when I traveled to El Salvador for two weeks to visit their rural village where I used to live and volunteer. I was supposed to have been there for several months in Fall of 2013 to conduct my dissertation fieldwork, but the situation in that area of the country had taken a turn for the worse. A thirteen-year old girl in the village was abducted, gang-raped, and brutally murdered; few weeks went by without the report of someone else falling victim to the increasing violence. There has been a longstanding gang presence in this coastal area, but this recent increase in violence seems to involve the incursion of drug cartels and weapons trafficking, perhaps newly profitable in the area thanks to completion of a new coastal highway.
On the third day of my visit in June, a young man from the neighboring village was killed. He had recently started selling bread, rising before dawn to ride his bicycle, laden down with freshly-baked bread, through the villages calling out “pan, pan francés”. On this early Monday morning, he was killed and his body left in the middle of the street at the intersection of the two roads that connect this rural area to nearby towns. Reminiscent of death squad practices during the civil war, this was clearly meant to spread fear to all the many people who had to pass this way as they went to work on Monday morning, during the several hours it took for the body to be removed.The tactic worked, contributing to the atmosphere of palpable fear in the community. In the fourteen years since I first visited this village, it has been through floods and droughts, epidemics and crime waves. But never have I seen the community so afraid: people leave their houses as little as possible, barely speaking to one another in the streets as they rush to do their errands and return home quickly. By five o’clock, almost everyone is at home with their doors double-bolted and the windows closed despite the heat. Teachers told me that school attendance has dropped off sharply, especially in the eighth and ninth grades, the highest levels offered at the village school. Most of the teenagers have fled the village, going to live with relatives in other parts of El Salvador or leaving the country altogether. And gangs are recruiting ever-younger children, some as little as 9 or 10, to serve as lookouts, messengers, and foot soldiers in this bloody territorial conflict.
Alta Gracias’ two oldest children are now nine and ten. Every time we have talked on the phone in the past year, she has worried about what will happen to them, growing up in this environment. She worried that her daughter’s pretty face and her son’s rambunctious spirit would get them into trouble. So she did what any good parent would do: look for a better environment, a brighter future for her children. And because her husband was already in the United States, it seemed like the best option, despite the hazardous journey.
In the past months, the news media has been full of stories like this, stories about horrific gangs targeting vulnerable women and children who then have to flee their homes. The violence is certainly appalling and deserves attention, but it is only part of the story. Although the recent increase of children fleeing Central America has been framed as a crisis, in reality the situation has been years in the making. While Central American governments are responsible for abandoning the well-being of the majority of their citizens, U.S. policy has played a major role in creating the conditions that today leave mothers like Alta Gracias with so few options to provide their children with safe childhoods and hopeful futures.
- Our cold-war era involvement in Central American civil wars originally sparked widespread emigration to the United States
- Restrictive immigration policies made it difficult for these wartime refugees to gain legal status
- Free-trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA have flooded Salvadoran markets with subsidized U.S. grown corn, making it increasingly difficult for people to maintain their rural livelihoods
- The war on drugs and now on terror have led to increasing militarization throughout the region that have only escalated violence
Others have written about the history of this situation much more eloquently than I could ever hope to. Two of my favorite pieces are this one by Danielle Mackey about the history of El Salvador’s gangs and this one by Leisy Abrego, a child of the first major wave of Salvadoran refugees and now a professor.
Looking through the pictures from my trip to El Salvador in June, I found this beautiful photo taken by Alta Gracias’ daughter. Seeing the children so happy and carefree in these pictures, my heart hurts to think about what they have endured since then on their trip north and now during two months in detention. The families and children at our Southern border are the victims of our misguided policies in Central America. And when they come knocking on our door, asking for refuge, we lock them up and then turn them away. As I prepare to visit Alta Gracias and her children tomorrow, I ask myself what has happened to us as a nation that we are locking up children? What has happened to hearts that we refuse to see their humanity?