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  • Central American Child Migration:Militarization and Tourism
  • Laura Briggs (bio)

In 2014 about sixty-eight thousand children migrated from Central America to the United States unaccompanied by an adult, and that many again came with a parent, generally infants and toddlers with their mothers.1 They walked across the border, often after a grueling journey of being smuggled in cars, avoiding attention on buses, a few older ones on tops of trains—risking robbery, kidnapping, accidents, and extortion. Some of the worst dangers of the journey involved the risk of falling into the hands of the police in southern Mexico; the San Fernando massacre of 2010, in which seventy-two Central American migrants were murdered by the Zetas and buried in a mass grave, began when police pulled them off intercity buses and turned them over to the cartel.2 Central American families paid as much as $7,000 for a pollito, a smuggler, to take them to the border of the United States, mostly to pay off authorities and the Zetas. There—in a carefully scripted series of events—they crossed the border, sought out a Border Patrol enforcement official, and asked to be taken into custody to be considered for refugee status.3

The number of Central American child migrants in 2014 was double the number in 2013. US conservatives called this a “surge” and made it a signature issue, claiming that “loose” immigration policies by the Obama administration had caused it, even organizing antichild demonstrations in California and Arizona.4 Democrats also called for policies to “crack down” on child migrants, but blamed a “culture of violence” in Central America—gangs and domestic violence—for the influx and called for more money for police and militaries (despite evidence that these entities were a significant part of the violence problem). The Obama administration was at the rightward edge of the Democratic response, planning for expedited hearings to deport child migrants without determining if they were eligible for asylum—which is to say, without asking if they would likely be killed if they returned, as at least some them, in fact, were.5 As a deterrent to future migrants, the administration put children and mothers in detention, saying that a 1997 agreement that prevented immigrant detention for children would prevent Homeland [End Page 573] Security from “protecting the public safety and enforcing U.S. immigration laws,” although they failed to specify how, exactly, five-year-olds menaced the public. A year later, there was still legal wrangling about whether mothers and small child refugees could be held in detention, which is just a prettier word for prisons, or if we wanted to underscore the echoes of Japanese American or Haitian internment camps—although Homeland Security applied for a license to call them “day care centers.” At least one woman had won a case in which her experience of domestic violence—and fear that her husband would kill her if she returned—was considered a reason to grant asylum because the state had failed to protect her (although we might note cynically that the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the state has no such obligation in the United States).6

That same summer of 2014, about a hundred children born in Guatemala but adopted by US families visited Guatemala on heritage tours. If they traveled, for example, with the Ties Program, an adoptive family travel agency based in Wisconsin, they flew to Guatemala City, where they were met at the airport and transported to a first-class hotel. “Traveling to your birth country is like weaving together all the threads of your life into a beautiful tapestry,” said the promotional literature. In a carefully scripted series of events, they went to the Museo Ixchel to learn about Mayan textiles, toured the city, and were given the opportunity to “eat scrumptious Guatemalan cuisine, and yes, shop,” in the words of the website. They visited favorite tourist destinations—Panajachel, Antigua, the rain forest, Lake Atitlán, the colorful open-air market in Chichicastenango, colonial-era churches—and hiked the volcanoes. They also enjoyed special cultural activities: cooking tortillas, weaving, learning local dances, playing with children in an NGO-sponsored afterschool...


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