You Shouldn’t Be Scared of the New Bogeyman in the Immigration Debate

The kids caught in the border crisis aren’t destined to become MS-13 gang members.

A mother and child from El Salvador await transport to a processing center for undocumented immigrants after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in Mission, Texas, on July 24. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Aug 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Two months after the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border became national news, thousands of children are still trapped in crowded detention centers and waiting for help. While states along the border scramble to deal with the issue, partisan fear-mongering by pundits and politicians who warn of “illegals” overrunning the nation, smuggling drugs, and raping women—as Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas said last month—has become all too common. Now a new bogeyman has emerged: gang members.

According to one border agent, Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13), a violent Los Angeles street gang that grew out of the American-sponsored civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, is attempting to recruit members at a detention center in Nogales, Ariz.

“We know it’s happening because agents are telling us,” Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, told Fox News. Moran told the news outlet that gang members are using a Red Cross phone bank to “recruit, enlist and pressure” migrant children into joining the organization.

Moran’s comments quickly spread through the media, which seemed more than willing to warn against MS-13 recruiting kids at the border.

While the story sounds plausible, there’s no evidence to back it up. “I work with kids and families here every day, and I haven’t heard about that,” says Nelson Reyes, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Houston. He says migrant children aren’t getting recruited into gangs in holding facilities; they’re fleeing from gangs back home.

Though elected officials and talking heads are trying to advance the narrative that the migrant children are either gang members or are being swept up into gangs once they cross into the U.S., the violence these children face back home is a direct result of American policies.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the United States funded several military-led crackdowns in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador against guerrilla warriors. Worried about the expansion of communism, the U.S. gave El Salvador’s military millions of dollars in weapons and support. During the violent Salvadoran civil war, approximately 70,000 civilians were killed, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to the U.S. Many of the refugees settled in Los Angeles, and some later formed gangs for protection.

As the appetite for illicit drugs grew in the States and the war on drugs reached a fever pitch, in 1996 the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act triggered a wave of deportations of gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals back to Central America. This set the stage for the problems countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador face today.

“We deported gang members from [the United States] who learned how to organize crime and took it down there. Then the cartels from Mexico expanded to Central America,” says Reyes, explaining how a confluence of events led to the humanitarian crisis we see on the border today. “The only thing they can do is sell whatever they have and put their lives at risk to come here.”

Though he understands that America can’t accept everyone seeking a better life, Reyes argues that the U.S. needs to look out for its closest neighbors. “Central American countries have proved they are friends of the United States. We have almost the same values, religion, and economy,” he says, noting that America has a responsibility to the region it helped destabilize.

As for the current scare tactics, Reyes believes they are being used to encourage Congress to repeal a 2008 law that guarantees due process for youths fleeing noncontiguous countries. “We have to have a common enemy to demonize. For the right wing, terrorism isn’t an issue now, so they want to attach this problem to gang members,” he says.

Meanwhile, Reyes almost daily visits kids stuck in immigration facilities. “I’m amazed at the way we’re treating kids,” he says of the overcrowded and under-resourced facilities. “It amazes me how some try to demonize them.”