Vida En El Valle: California lawmakers conclude July 14-23, fact-finding mission

August 05, 2014

By: Cynthia Moreno

SACRAMENTO — Central American leaders are not oblivious to the tide of young children and their mothers who paid up to $10,000 to risk a perilous, two-week journey in an effort to avoid gang beatings and killings in their home countries.

While most in Congress have joined President Obama in finding out how to quickly deport the estimated 57,000 minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, six California lawmakers (all Democrats— visited those Central American countries to see what the state can do to meet the humanitarian challenge.

"It was a very eye-opening experience," said Assemblymember Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.

Alejo — who was joined by state Sens. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Ellen Corbett of the East Bay; and, Assemblymembers V. Manuel Pérez of Coachella, Henry T. Perea of Fresno, and, José Medina of Riverside — confirmed the migration was due to crime and safety, and not for education or work.

"It was certainly true that many cities in El Salvador — 19 to be exact — are facing serious gang problems and a lot of violence, but that is not true for most of the country," said Alejo.

"However, the majority of minors who are leaving those 19 cities are also the ones leaving the country," he said.

Sexual violence and human trafficking, gangs and other types of violence are the reason so many children are leaving El Salvador.

"Those who stay in these communities face one of two things: either join the gangs or become a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault," said Alejo.

The July 14-23 fact-finding mission has been in the works before the refugee crisis erupted last month.

"We were interested in meeting with the leaders of those countries and discussing economic development, water, energy, and trade and of course, immigration," said Pérez. "However, it was immigration that became front and center."

El Salvador looking for solutions

The delegation's first stop was El Salvador, where the group spoke to President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The leader who said his country was aware of the migration, and pointed to the efforts being made to address issues like violence and poverty.

The Salvadoran government has been and is addressing efforts to minimize the violence and making "great strides" in helping their country meet the needs of its citizens, said Alejo.

"In the last five years, El Salvador created a first breakfast program in schools for children, has implemented the use of school uniforms, has created a system to grant small grants and loans to farmers with the hope of reinvigorating efforts to export corn, beans and rice; and they have implemented after-school programs to keep children out of violence," said Alejo.

Cerén, said Alejo, recognizes there is more work to be done. The government has hired more police officers and has implemented new training procedures to minimize violence. Officials are working with the U.S. to solve the gang problems. Legislation has been passed to prevent political corruption.

"They have started to build medical clinics in rural areas so that those who are underserved have more access and opportunities. They want to expand public education which is really important," said Pérez. "Overall, the leadership in El Salvador is making great progress in making their country a better place."

El Salvador wants the voiceless to have a voice.

"The country wants a better, more peaceful future and they are taking all the steps necessary to ensure they can carry out their goals for the country. However, they do need the support of the United States," said Alejo.

The situation in Guatemala is in sharp contrast, said the lawmakers.

"There is political corruption at the highest of levels," said Pérez. "About 25 families control the economy of the country and there is no left-leaning political party for people to vote for.

"Not a single party exists that represents the voice of the people, the vulnerable or the indigenous."

Additionally, Guatemala has no tax system. Most of the countries elite, who own the majority of the land, pay no property taxes. There are also high levels of poverty in the highlands region of Guatemala, where a majority of indigenous groups, like the Mayas, continue to live.

"Most of the people, who are leaving Guatemala, are the indigenous from these communities, especially the young children because they do not have access to an education and there is extreme poverty," said Alejo. "They come to America because there is hope that they can at least get an education and have something to eat."

Honduras worse off

Honduras has a more difficult situation, according to the lawmakers.

"It faces the toughest situation. It's somewhat of a nation-state where there are a lot of criminal gangs, a lack of opportunities and a lot of violence against women," said Pérez.

"Both the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala recognize that Honduras is in a much more challenging position to move forward," he said.

The migration problem, said Pérez, can be solved if the U.S. can get comprehensive immigration reform.

"The No. 1 reason why so many children are coming to our borders is because of family reunification," said Pérez. "Many of the children who find themselves in a position where they are old enough to travel, have had family members who left them a few years ago to make a life for themselves in the United States and now that they have saved enough money, they are hiring coyotes and other smugglers to bring their children across."

Coyotes and other smugglers charge exorbitant fees — between $5,000 and $10,000 — with the promise of getting their children into the U.S. Abuse by police and even death can await the children, but families are often desperate to reunite with their children.

Of the Central American children who have arrived at the U.S. border, few have been deported back to their country of origin. Those who have, do so out of choice.

"Most of them have no relatives in the United States or are weary of leaving their children in the hands of the U.S. government so they return with their children," said Alejo.

"But what is waiting for them when they get back? Absolutely nothing. There are no social services in Guatemala, no job opportunities, nothing. They go back to the same conditions and the reason why they first fled in the first place."

Immigration reform needed

Migration to the United States will continue said both state lawmakers, so long as the United States does not take a proactive approach in both recognizing that the reason for so many of the troubles that plague Central American countries has been a direct result of American intervention during the early 1980s and 1990s that left the countries in long and bloody civil wars.

"We have a responsibility, in my opinion, to do what we can to build up the economies of these countries by supporting them with resources as we did in the past when we intervened instead of supporting progressive, leftist parties," said Pérez.

"We have to understand that the reason we are facing the humanitarian crisis and the reason why these countries continue to struggle has been a direct result of our interventions and when we acknowledge and accept that, then can we take a more proactive approach in helping these countries achieve economic, political and social stability," said Pérez.

"They want to change, they want to provide better opportunities for their people, but they need our help."

For those reasons, will migration come to a standstill. Otherwise, "those who are deported will continue to find a way back to the United States," said Alejo.

However, Central American countries are trying to keep people from migrating because of the dangers.

"They are beginning a public campaign to discourage people from making the trip to the U.S. and are presenting public service announcements highlighting the dangers. The El Salvadorian government understands the key to stopping the migration is to provide better educational opportunities, jobs for their people, and security," said Assembly member Henry T. Perez, D-Fresno.

Why? Because the United States-in the eyes of so many Central American's-continues to be "the land of opportunity and fulfilling the American Dream," said Perez.

Addressing the humanitarian crisis

The delegation wants to find solutions. When the Legislature convenes this month, lawmakers plan to introduce bills that will help the Central American countries.

"We have a few pieces of legislation brewing, but first and foremost we have to ensure fair treatment of the children who are already here; that they are treated with dignity and respect and are allowed due process and access to a lawyer and the courts," said Pérez.

A few days ago, Steinberg, the state Senate leader, announced his office would provide pro bono legal representation to undocumented and unaccompanied children arriving in California from Central América.

His policy director Anthony Williams and senior policy consultant Margie Estrada will participate in the Los Ángeles County Bar Association's Legal Assistance Project in conjunction with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Southern California Chapter.

"These children face a daunting immigration process in a foreign legal system without any legal representation. A kid is a kid, and should be shown compassion regardless of where they were born," said Steinberg in a statement.


Contact: Cynthia Moreno /