Fight Poverty, Not Immigrants: an ATD View from South of the US Border

Matt Davies is ATD Fourth World’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Carribbean. He has worked for ATD Fourth World for over 15 years, and is currently based in Mexico City. This article originally appeared on the blog Together In Dignity. You can learn more about our work in Latin America on the international website, and donate to support ATD teams there.

News of President Obama’s call for more federal funding to tackle the “humanitarian crisis” of child migrants has attracted a lot of media attention. The US Department of Homeland Security has apprehended 52,000 unaccompanied child migrants crossing the border since last October. What seems to have driven the recent increase in children attempting to cross into the United States is a recent spike in the effects of violence and gang activity, as well as the ever-present extreme poverty, in the countries of origin of the majority of the children: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

When you speak to people in Mexico and Central America, nearly everyone has a tale to tell about someone who has “gone north” to try and build a new and better life in the United States. They speak of a parent, an uncle, a sibling or their own child. The journey simply to make it to the border, let alone the crossing itself, is fraught with danger from traffickers, gangs and even the police. Films such as “Sin Nombre” (Without Name) or the recent “Jaula de Oro” (The Golden Dream), as well as documentaries dramatically depict what children and adults face who set out to travel north. But the promise of reaching their goal, as well as the misinformation put out by the criminal gangs that minors are allowed free passage across the border, has done nothing to quell the arrival of children at the border. Nor has news of those who do not make it across. A recent news story highlighted the tragic story of Gilberto Ramos, a 15 year old boy whose decomposed body was found in the Texan desert. He had left his Guatemalan village in order to try and make a better life for his family, particularly for his sick mother for whom the family could not afford medicines for her epilepsy condition.

The Obama administration is seeking to fast track the deportation of children back to Central American countries without carrying out hearings, a move which child rights groups have criticized as undermining children’s fundamental rights to be protected from violence. It is this physical violence, as well as the violence of extreme poverty they face in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador, which must be addressed. When a teenager growing up in an informal settlement in Tegucigalpa is told you either join our gang or we will kill your brother, as young people have recounted to ATD Fourth World volunteers who run projects in their neighborhoods, it is easy to see why they may look to face the perils of traveling north as the lesser of two evils. When a young person in Guatemala City sees his or her parents and neighbors continuously humiliated by their employers or the authorities in their attempts to seek out a livelihood, as a recent report on dignified work by the ATD Fourth World team in Guatemala has shown, the humiliation they may face in journeying north is relative.

Unless efforts to tackle effectively extreme poverty, by the countries themselves, as well as through international aid, is made a priority, tragedies such as that of Gilberto Ramos, or those portrayed in the Jaula de Oro, will continue to befall too many young people in Central America.