At an immigration center for receiving busloads of deportees returning to El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services' Executive Vice President Joan Rosenhauer spoke with a widowed mother of six children who was awaiting her son.
Rosenhauer said she asked the mother why she had sent her son on the perilous journey through Mexico in an attempt to reach the United States. “There is no hope for him here,” the mother responded, explaining her inability to feed her family and the problem of gangs forcing adolescents into lives of crime.
“It gave me pause,” Rosenhauer said in a telephone interview after returning from a late-August trip to Central America. “Any parent can understand doing whatever you can to protect the lives of your children and make sure that they have food to eat and a decent life.”
The boy being returned home was but one of thousands of children attempting to abandon Central America ― sometimes alone, sometimes with family ― in an effort to escape pervasive poverty and violence. Many also try to reunite with parents, who have spent years working in the United States to support households back home.
Catholic communities in Central America are responding to the crisis. Scalabrini nuns run repatriation programs in Honduras, priests try to keep kids out of gangs in El Salvador, and religious operate shelters for undocumented migrants traveling through Mexico. Rosenhauer said Catholic Relief Services is focusing on supporting these communities as best it can.
“We know that there are successful programs that can address the issue of poverty and can address the issue of gang violence and the issue of domestic violence, too,” she said. “We just need to be able to scale them up.”
She said one program operating in El Salvador provides at-risk youth and some who have left gangs with vocational training and life skills, which allow them to gain employment, start businesses or return to school. Eighty percent were in such activities one year after graduation from the program.
Rosenhauer said she asked “what was the most helpful part of this program, and to a person, they said the life-skills training.”
“That helps (give) them new ways of coping with all of the challenges they face ... with the gangs, learning within their communities to deal with tense situations.”
Catholic Relief Services also works with agricultural and livelihood programs in Central America, especially among coffee growers, who have had crops wiped out by a plague known as coffee rust.
“Agriculture is still a key livelihood for people in Central America. We are looking at helping coffee farmers improve their production and be able to access markets,” Rosenhauer said.
During her trip, she met with Central American public officials, including Ana García de Hernández, first lady of Honduras. She said officials recognize the severity of the situation ― Honduras has a murder rate topping 90 per 100,000 residents, highest in the world, while poverty is rife throughout the region, but resources are lacking.
“They were very anxious to bring these (Catholic Relief Services') programs into their country, but they don’t have the resources to do it,” she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports detaining more than 66,000 unaccompanied minors between October 2013 and August 2014, an 88 percent decrease over its past fiscal year.
The Los Angeles Times reported the number of unaccompanied children being detained in the U.S. dropped by more than two-thirds in August, from a high of 10,600 in June. The reasons remain uncertain, although some CRS staffers suspect few Central Americans wish to try the trip during the heat of the summer months.
Mexican officials also appear to be increasing enforcement efforts in southern Mexico, and the government has said it will stop migrants from climbing aboard the northbound trains known as La Bestia, citing safety reasons.
Rosenhauer, who works with CRS’ U.S. operations, called on Catholics and all Americans to reflect on the circumstances in Central America.
“It’s a complex intersection of causes, but it’s clear to me that the causes are severe enough ... that we will never address the problem we have on our side of the border unless we address the root causes that are leading these children to come to the United States,” she said.
“Whether our government is helping Mexico to do it or we’re doing it ourselves, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of a nation are we if we send children back into extremely dangerous situations without even checking to see what conditions they are returning to?”