The U.S. Is Making Things More Dangerous In Central America, Again.

By Katie Sizemore

In January, El Salvador's Foreign Minister, Hugo Martínez, greeted Cuban migrants passing through one of his country's airports after having been stranded for three months in Costa Rica on their way to the United States. Martínez attributed the situation to a double standard in U.S. immigration policy, which welcomes some Latin American immigrants with open arms while subjecting others to a seemingly discriminatory system.

Although political relations between the United States and Cuba have recently thawed, immigration policies between the two countries still reflect a rivalry rooted in Cold War-era policies. As part of the strategy to destabilize Castro's regime, the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966 permits Cubans emigrating from the island, historically fleeing a restrictive economy and a politically repressive police state, to obtain asylum relatively easily in the United States as compared with other immigrants from Latin America. Even in cases of illegal entry, unauthorized Cubans arriving by land are allowed to apply for green cards after one year.

Due in part to these policies, Cubans now account for the third largest Latino population in the country. Two Cuban-Americans are currently competing in this year's presidential election.i

The 2014 normalization of relations between Washington and Havana triggered a surge in migration amid fears of changes to the CAA. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released records from 2015 showing a 78 percent increase in Cuban entries to the United States over the previous year. In the last few months of 2015, thousands of Cubans attempted the journey via Ecuador, before continuing toward Central America and Mexico, hoping to eventually pass through the land borders of the southwestern United States. When Nicaragua began denying visas in November 2015, nearly 8,000 migrants were stranded in Costa Rica and Panama. Described as refugees, the group received significant media attention until Central American governments eventually reached a "humanitarian transfer" agreement. By mid-January of this year, the first wave of 180 arrived in the United States.

Compare that to the situation of immigrants from Central America, a region that also has a complex historical relationship with the United States. In the 1980s and 90s, the United States was intimately involved in the civil wars of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Through strong U.S. support and intervention, these became protracted, proxy wars characteristic of the Cold War era, which had lasting and devastating economic, political, and social consequences. Decades of U.S. deportations of gang-affiliated youth and young men followed and significantly contribute to a cycle of violence in the Central American region today.

The effects of these policies can continue to be felt as the region faces the highest homicide and femicide rates in the world, especially in El Salvador (103 homicides per 100,000) and Honduras (57 homicides per 100,000). Since 2014, large numbers of unaccompanied minors and families have fled to the United States in hopes of claiming asylum. Citing the violence in the country, the Department of State has issued numerous travel advisories. In January, the Peace Corps removed its volunteers from the region, and President Obama even alluded to the alarming situation in his most recent State of the Union address.

Yet, the official U.S. response to Central American migrants has been contradictory, as the Obama administration continues to rely on heavy-handed enforcement. Raids planned for the purpose of tracking down unauthorized immigrants are set to increase, and have thus far ignored Obama's 2014 call for focusing on "felons, not families." The Congressional Hispanic Caucus criticized the January detention of 121 mothers and their children who have legitimate asylum requests according to U.S. precedence, but who were not advised on their rights or the availability of legal representation while also being denied the opportunity to present their cases in hearings.ii Obama's policy rationale has been to increase detentions and raids in hopes of discouraging people from coming illegally. Yet, a policy of deterrence does little to discourage the flow of migrants who are trying to escape rape, torture, forced gang recruitment, or death. It merely raises the risk.

The different attitudes towards Cubans and Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. illustrate policy inconsistencies that are having deadly consequences. Chilling reports reveal that in at least three cases, Honduran deportees were murdered back in their home countries shortly after their removal from the United States. A longer-term study to be released by social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy reveals that as many as 83 deported Central Americans have been murdered upon their return in the past two years alone.

Before Congress concluded its work in 2015, it approved a $750 million aid package for Central America, which includes development, security, and economic assistance. The bill involves a 150 percent increase in security funding to support efforts to crack down on gang violence, a continuation of mano dura or "iron fist" policies which have failed to reduce violence since 2003.iii In fact, heavy-handed enforcement and U.S. deportation of convicted criminals, with sentences of one year or more, directly contributes to the spread of violence as gangs use deportation to expand their networks, in turn causing more families to emigrate.

Regarding fears of changes to the CAA, the highest-ranking Cuban-American in the Obama administration, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said there are no plans to change it during his trip to Havana in October 2015. With the exception of the recent surge, Cuban migration has slowed since 2000. Central American nationalities account for 2 percent or less of those immigrants who obtain lawful permanent residence, while around 80 percent of Cuban migrants who apply obtain it. As the CAA applies to a smaller number of people than a similar law would for Central Americans, it is both more politically and logistically convenient. While the situation of Central American migrants is a separate issue and does not directly merit a change to the CAA, the preferential treatment should be revisited, and potentially revised, given the conditions faced in their home countries.

It's time to take stock of policy inconsistencies and re-evaluate how U.S. foreign policy responds to, and may actually perpetuate, violence in Central America through its current deportation policies, while preserving antiquated special immigration treatment for political convenience.

___________________________________________________________ For a more in-depth look at the effects of current deportation policies, see An American Dream Deferred, The Almost Americans, and The Deported.

Katie Sizemore is a conflict management professional focusing on Latin America and criminal justice issues. She currently works as a Project Officer at the Organization of American States (OAS) and is a 2016 Latin America Fellow at YPFP.

iMarco Rubio and Ted Cruz in fact oppose the CAA in its current form.

iiUnlike "unaccompanied minors" who arrived in 2014, children who arrived with their mothers are not automatically entitled to a full hearing before an Immigration Judge, often facing expedited removal, unless credible fear can be demonstrated.

iiiIn fact, studies here, here, and here show it actually strengthened gangs without addressing underlying causes for their prevalence.