Thousands of Children Incarcerated along the US Southern Border: A New and Emerging Humanitarian Immigration Crisis?

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Several major media outlets are reporting on an “emerging” immigration crisis along the US southern border.  The Huffington Post and the New York Times are touting the discovery of a shocking “humanitarian” crisis that involves thousands of women and children fleeing from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—all crossing the border into the US, only to be detained and incarcerated by federal law enforcement agents.  According to the Huffington Post report, “Disturbing images of children warehoused along the border by the federal government… show haunting pictures … [of] a system overwhelmed by children and families detained by Customs and Border Protection, reflecting a growing “humanitarian” crisis as women and children flee from poverty and violence (Grim and Bendery, 2014).

According to another report by the New York Times nearly 50,000 children have been detained crossing the border without their parents (Prestonjune, 2014).  Of course, our political leaders are very concerned about this humanitarian crisis. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) is quoted as saying:

“I am terribly concerned about the deplorable conditions in which these children are being held. I am troubled by the fact         that the photos show children’s faces, especially since many of these children may be victims of trafficking or other serious crimes. Still, these are important photos, and they tell a tragic story: our country is facing a child migration crisis, she said. Tens of thousands of Central American children are arriving at our southwest border having fled life-threatening conditions in their home countries. On their way to the United States, many of these vulnerable young people are being physically abused or sexually assaulted. When they reach our border, our government has a moral responsibility to treat them with care and compassion. That is why I’m pleased President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Johnson have made this crisis a top priority (italics added).”

Well, the situation has certainly become a “humanitarian” crisis and I’m very relieved to see that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to assist these children, but what exactly is the administration doing?  This is, after all, the administration that is waging a domestic war on undocumented people, quietly incarcerating and deporting immigrants in greater numbers than any previous administration.

It also looks like they are incarcerating as many of these children as they possibly can and are planning on the detention of even more children in federally controlled facilities, which include moving kids from federal “holding cells” to a Naval Base in Ventura County in Oxnard, California and another “special shelter” at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

While the Obama administration is making this crisis “a top priority” and avoiding discussion of how its own foreign and economic-trade polices contributed to the crisis, it also seems journalists are making it a top priority to avoid calling this a “criminal justice crisis” that is a direct consequence of decades of US interventionist policy in South America; policies that are resulting in the deliberate incarceration of women and children by the federal government. So what set the stage for this so called ‘new and emerging’ crisis?

For decades, critical criminologists, social justice scholars, and political activists have been trying to call attention to the fact that US interventionist foreign policy profoundly shapes domestic issues of crime and justice as well as state responses to the very problems these policies create.

Let me explain, it is no accident that this humanitarian crisis flows from three particular South American countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  What do these countries and the US have in common?  For one thing, US intervention in the political and economic affairs of these nations has been significant and bloody.  Lest we forget, just a few years ago the Honduran military launched a coup against the democratically elected, leftist President Zelaya and his government, kidnapping him and whisking him out of his own country.  According to Mark Weisbrot (2012):

“The Obama administration, according to its own conversations with the press, knew about the coup in advance. But the first statement from the White House – unlike those from the rest of the world – did not condemn the coup. That sent a message to the Honduran dictatorship, and to the diplomatic community: the US government supported this coup and would do what it could to make sure it succeeded.”

Weisbrot goes on to write that US policy has turned Honduras “into a nightmare, with the highest homicide rate in the world.  Political repression is among the worst in the hemisphere: journalists, opposition activists, campesinos fighting for land reform, and LGBT activists have been murdered with impunity.”  Small wonder women and children are fleeing Honduras.

And then there is the troubling history of US involvement in Guatemala.  In the 1980s, the US backed, genocidal Dictator, Jose Efraín Ríos Montt, slaughtered as many as 200,000 indigenous people after a purge of the political left.  According to the United Nation’s investigation of the massacre “the United States bore much responsibility for advising, training, arming and financing the troops, even teaching torture, as part of the Reagan administration’s campaign against communism” (Opinion, 2013; Navarro, 1999).  It is not hard to see why Guatemala might be a place people would want to leave.

Finally, there is El Salvador, which both the Huffington Post and the New York Times covered extensively, but whose history they never saw fit to link to the emerging child immigration crisis along the US border.  In 2009, Jon Santiago, a Huffington Post writer, remarked that:

“Over the course of three days in January 1981, approximately 1000 people, almost the entire population of Mozote, were tortured and slaughtered. Men, women, children, and the elderly were separated in groups around the town plaza.  Men were tortured and shot.  Women were tortured and shot.  Young women were taken up a hill, raped, and then shot.  146 children, ranging from the ages of 3 days to 14 years, were brutally murdered.”

And how was the US involved in this massacre?  Well, the United States provided the political right with massive support in the form of weapons and money both before, and for over a decade after, the massacre.  “Furthermore, examinations of exhumed remains are consistent with accounts of the brutality of the killings. Despite strong evidence of mass torture and senseless murder, America stood by El Salvador´s military leaders.  While not unique, this example of our indirect support of crimes against humanity is timely.”  People continue to flee El Salvador.  Really?

But let’s take note of a few of the South American counties where people don’t seem to have an urgent desire to flee because of growing poverty or state-sponsored fascist, violence.  There are the nation members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, which include: the Castro brother’s Cuba, Nicolás Maduro and the late Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Evo Morales’ Bolivia and Rafael Correa’s Ecuador.  It makes one wonder what these countries have in common.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
College of Justice and Safety
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Ryan Grim and Jennifer Bendery (2014). “Shocking Photos Of Humanitarian Crisis On U.S. Border Emerge.” Huffington Post, June 6, 2014.

Julia Prestonjune (2014). “New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants.” New York Times, June 6, 2014.

Mark Weisbrot (2012). Latin America: how the US has allied with the forces of reaction.” The Guardian, June 29, 2012.

Opinion (2013). “What Guilt Does the U.S. Bear in Guatemala?” New York Times, April 5, 2013.

Mireya Navarro (1999). “Guatemalan Army Waged ‘Genocide,’ New Report Finds.” New York Times, February 26, 1999.

Jon Santiago (2009). “Revisiting American Involvement in El Salvador: The Massacre at El Mozote.” Huffington Post, March 26, 2009.

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