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Debunking Myths About Flood of Central American Children

PHOTO: Tens of thousands of children from Central American countries have attempted to cross into the U.S., and a woman who has been in their shoes says violence and economic despair are the root causes. Photo courtesy of Toksave / Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Tens of thousands of children from Central American countries have attempted to cross into the U.S., and a woman who has been in their shoes says violence and economic despair are the root causes. Photo courtesy of Toksave / Wikimedia Commons.
July 15, 2014

MCALLEN, Texas - The seemingly sudden, mass migration of thousands of Central American women and children who set off alone, risking their lives to migrate to the United States, has raised innumerable questions.

One woman who made the journey wants to shed some light on the issue. Kenia Calderon was just 11 years old when her family fled El Salvador nine years ago, after their neighborhood was overrun by gangs, crime and a general feeling of despair.

"The violence was horrible, you just didn't feel safe," she says. "Gang members would kidnap girls and force them into their gangs and make them sex slaves."

Calderon says the economic and political conditions in many Central American countries and Mexico have deteriorated because of the failure of those economies to produce jobs, which in turn fueled hopelessness and violence.

In El Salvador, police report this year's murder rate of children 17 and under is up 77 percent from the same period a year ago, while the United Nations says a city in northwestern Honduras has the world's highest homicide rate.

Calderon rejects the notion these children are being sent to the U.S. by their parents because they believe some sort of window has opened in border enforcement or because of lax oversight. She says children subjected to rampant, daily violence and horrific conditions have been forced to grow up quickly and make tough decisions.

"They're the ones making the decision, and sometimes they just tell their family, 'I'm coming, be ready for me,'" says Calderon, "because they cannot wait for a change. They know nothing's going to change to better their lives."

Calderon says the record-high number of deportations under the Obama administration is well-known in Central America, but desperate youths still feel migration is their best hope. She says children have actually been fleeing countries in Central America and Mexico for several years, a fact that has been well-documented by groups such as the Pew Hispanic Trust.

"A lot of Americans feel like the situation is being exaggerated, and I feel like it's because we lack a sense of curiosity," she says. "I think we need to be a lot more aware of what's going on around the world, not just in the countries that benefit us."

Calderon hopes more Americans will take the time to research what is happening and why, and instead of using the situation for political gain, look for ways to help families reunite, treat immigrants with respect, and take a long look at the policies of the U.S. in the region.

"I feel like we all should be looking for another solution that will help these kids, because this is a cry for help," says Calderon. "Something must be done, not because they want to win the next election - but because we are humans."

This story was made possible in part by the Voqal Fund.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - TX