Reflections on Poverty, Violence, and Gangs

By Dan Cadman on July 15, 2014

When pressed, both the administration and immigrant advocacy groups have proclaimed loudly and repeatedly that the basis for the ongoing border surge (which includes at least some percentage of unaccompanied minors) is "poverty, violence, and gangs" in the primary source countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

And when confronted with the suggestion that the best way to halt the flow, and to prevent additional minors (accompanied or unaccompanied) from heading north, is through prompt removal, the advocates, including Sen. Dick Durban and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, both Democrats of Illinois, have reacted vigorously by saying that doing so would be to condemn the returnees to further poverty, violence, and gang intimidation.

This has given me pause to reflect. I have no doubt that those things exist in the three countries, sometimes called "the Northern Triangle" of Central America. But I also have no doubt that they have existed for a substantial period of time. The region is, after all, deeply unsettled politically, economically, and even in some ways ethnically, between haves and have-nots.

When such divides exist between a small group of wealthy power elites on the top of the pyramid and the huge group of impoverished and unrepresented (often Amerindians) underneath, with barely any middle-class cushion between, it is of course a recipe for disaster and crime.

But what is the right answer for our country in responding to the surge? Are we prepared to take in virtually anyone and everyone from those countries, provided, of course, that they are willing to put themselves and their children at risk for the trek northward? If so, then why only the dispossessed of those three countries? How far are we willing to stretch our welcome? And, in doing so, what are we telegraphing to the power elites about our amenability toward being used as an escape valve so that they can continue to live their insulated lifestyles while surrounded by illiteracy and near-feudal societies from which they strip off everything worth having?

But there is another fallacy to the argument that they should not be repatriated. Who can say with an honest voice that by permitting relocation and settlement in this country, these persons will not be enmeshed in poverty, violence, and gangs? And who can fail to see the irony of two of Illinois' congressional delegation speaking about foreign poverty, violence, and gangs after a July 4 weekend in Chicago that left 14 dead and dozens wounded?

Here is the reality: After spending a tremendous amount of money to relocate these individuals to communities across the United States, the federal government will apportion token amounts of money to nongovernmental agencies for resettlement, after which the adults and family units will be left to fend for themselves, and the receiving communities left to bear the burden of overcrowded schools and social services.

The minors who truly were unaccompanied, and have no family in the United States to receive them, will be placed into the foster care system. Nearly daily, newspapers throughout the nation carry stories of children who die or are abused by their foster parents. Many foster parents seem to see what they do as a business rather than an act of compassion; take in enough children, and you needn't work. But, like any other business, such parents look at their bottom line and not at the needs of the children, where food, shelter, and mental, educational, and social development are concerned.

Minors who come unaccompanied but have family in the United States (often illegal themselves) will be released into their care. As often as not, those families live at or below the poverty level. Many live in barrios in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, D.C. There, these children will be undereducated and subject to the influence of gangs. There will be a daily feed of violence and intimidation, intermixed with enticements to join the gangs out of peer pressure, or a fear of reprisals against those who don't join.

It is useful to remember that many of the gangs now operating in the Northern Triangle (Mara Salvatrucha, Surenos, etc.) were formed in the United States by aliens living on the margins, usually with no legal status, in major metropolitan areas.

So how, exactly, is a decision not to remove these individuals either more humane or morally acceptable? And how does it deter future waves of aliens from deciding to take the same course? And what will we do when those deciding to vote with their feet and head north expand beyond just Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to the innumerable dispossessed and disaffected individuals in other countries in the region?