In Latin America, we know who is to blame for our child migrant crisis
… and it’s not the children. The US met Central American leaders recently to discuss the issue. Here, the president of Guatemala says the US shares responsibility because of its approach to the cold war and the drugs war
A section of the US-Mexico border fence. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
Guatemala is a beautiful country blessed with a temperate climate, impressive landscapes, rich soils and plenty of water. Indeed, geography seems to have been a blessing for Guatemalans over thousands of years.
However, this does not seem to have been the case in the last six decades. On the one hand, the so-called cold war had one of its hot spots in Guatemala. Communist and anti-communist ideologies created in Guatemala one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin America, with weapons and money mostly from countries outside the region. More damaging was that for decades governments diverted resources from social and economic programmes to security and defence. After 36 years of conflict, and after the end of the cold war, Guatemalans were able to live in peace and we started to invest limited public funding in bridging the social and economic gaps that prevented many families, Mayans in particular, from escaping poverty and social deprivation.
Nonetheless, after the curse of the cold war, we faced another war: the war on drugs. Again based on ideological motivations, this new war diverted scarce funding from policies to foster education, health and employment to programmes to block the flow of drugs from producer countries in South America to the consumer countries in the north. The failure of the war on drugs is widely recognised today, both for its limited capacity to stop drug flow, and its terrible consequences, expanding violence, corrupting institutions and weakening the rule of law.
In the last two months, there has been a media focus on what some call the "child migrants crisis". I am surprised that most narratives explaining why Central American children are migrating to the US quickly forget the cold war and the war on drugs as structural factors that explain why countries such as Guatemala have not been able to expand social services and economic opportunities to all. If the money and weapons invested in both wars had been invested in education, health and jobs, things would look different today. So, yes, there are structural factors that explain long-term trends of migration from Guatemala to the US. And, yes, these factors are related to lack of social opportunities and violence. But those who demand in the north more governmental responsibility in Central America should perhaps reflect on their ideological and material contribution to fostering political conflict and social violence in the isthmus over the last decades, using the cold war and the war on drugs as their most important policy vehicles. As a soldier, I fought in both wars, and believe me, the most important fight I have been in so far is neither of them (for the record: fighting malnutrition in Guatemala is the most important one).
The other factor that is often forgotten when explaining the child migrants crisis is markets. And by these I mean labour markets in particular. In this regard, we should not forget that one of the most important reasons why most people migrate is the need to get better paid jobs. Guatemalans are no exception.
The US has been a haven for economic migrants during its two centuries of existence. In the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, many people migrated from Europe to the US in search for a better standard of living. From 1890 through to 1910 almost 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic, raising the population of the US by 2.5% annually.
Something similar has happened from 1980 until today. Almost 25 million arrived in the US over those years. The vast majority – almost 12 million – came from Mexico. After Mexico, the top five contributor countries are China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. Guatemalans are a fraction of the migrants coming from Asian nations.
Most Guatemalans, like most migrants, have found jobs in the US because there is growing demand for them in the labour market. Agriculture, agro-industry, services and construction lead the demand for migrant workers. The average US citizen benefits from the products they produce, the services they provide and the buildings they erect. The upper classes even host some of them for domestic services.
The demand for migrant workers is a reality nobody can deny. And Guatemalans feel attracted to the US labour market because it is a reality that exists just two hours away by plane. For many of them, the perfect solution would be to work legally in the US for six months and then spend the other six in Guatemala with their relatives. Such a scenario is a perfect solution for both supply and demand of the US labour market. However, it is a market solution that regulations block completely. As in the case of drug policy, migration is treated as a law-enforcement issue, while it should be considered a market problem and therefore be solved through market solutions and better regulations.
Finally, let me say a few words about Central American migrant children. First, they are not criminals or a threat to the US. This should be obvious, but apparently in the US there are some people who think otherwise. Child migrants are victims of human smuggling networks that fooled their relatives by telling them that they could get a legal residence in the US just by crossing the Rio Grande. The fact that it takes such a long time to get a hearing with a migration judge (there are almost 350,000 pending cases waiting for a hearing with 250 judges) created the illusion that children could stay legally in the US forever. It is not true and those who said the contrary did it to make money out of innocent people. We need to co-ordinate actions to stop these traffickers.
The main responsibility of governments towards children is to protect them as subjects with human rights. The US, Mexico and Central America have agreed to do so and I thank President Obama for understanding the humanitarian responsibilities we have as governments towards children. Family reunification by legal means should be one of our top priorities.
Let me write a few final words to my fellow citizens in the US (almost 800,000 are already US citizens out of the 1.5 million Guatemalans living there): please reflect on your vote this November in the legislative elections. Use the power of democracy to favour candidates who defend your families and your communities. I have met well-meaning US politicians, both Republicans and Democrats. I have enjoyed talking to those of them who understand your rights and are ready to continue building a US where people looking for a decent job can get it in a legal manner. And by all means let us remind everybody that our children are victims, not criminals.