The Made-in-America Immigration Crisis

Decades of lax policies have produced the latest wave of Central American migrants.
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Migrants on a cargo train destined for the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Terrible violence had spread across Central America. Desperate to escape, thousands sought refuge in the United States. Many arrived illegally. For a long time, they lived in the shadows. But then a bold president coaxed and cajoled Congress into passing a major immigration reform. The Central American migrants at last gained the right to live in the United States legally.

It’s a decades-old story that contains the origin of the present-day border crisis, which has brought thousands of unaccompanied Central American children to the United States in the hopes of gaining residency.

The year of that first amnesty was 1986. The amnesty was followed by various extensions and additions, including a 1997 act specifically aimed at displaced Central Americans. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of Central American immigrants living in the United States jumped from 350,000 to more than 2 million (as of 2010, the total exceeded 3 million). 

This newly settled community included many victims of violence. It also included many perpetrators of violence. Civil wars don’t usually divide neatly between victims and victimizers. Former guerrillas and former soldiers arrived in the slums of Los Angeles—and some of them responded by founding criminal gangs to protect themselves and earn a living. It was Los Angeles, not San Salvador, that gave birth to MS13, famously described as the “world’s most dangerous gang.” InSight Crime offers an overview of the group’s formation:

[T]he war-hardened immigrants quickly organized themselves into competing groups, the strongest of which was called the Mara Salvatrucha.

The gang was initially composed of refugees from El Salvador in the Pico Union neighborhood, which is where the name comes from: “mara” is a Central American term for gang; “salva” refers to El Salvador; “trucha,” which means “trout” in English, is a slang term for “clever” or “sharp.” However, with the concentration of Spanish speakers in Los Angeles, the gang expanded into other nationalities and then into other cities.

In the American melting pot, Central American gangs quickly lost their national distinctiveness. Mara Salvatrucha changed its name to MS13 for the same reason that British Petroleum changed its name to BP—to de-emphasize its local roots and rebrand itself as a global competitor. U.S. law enforcement eventually caught and imprisoned thousands of Central American gangsters. When they were released, they were deported to their countries of origin. Perhaps as many as 20,000 returned home between 2000 and 2004, bringing with them the criminal organizational skills honed in American barrios and prisons.

In a 2005 article for Foreign Affairs, the journalist Ana Arana described what happened next:

[The gangs] have transformed themselves into powerful, cross-border crime networks. With the United States preoccupied elsewhere, the gangs have grown in power and numbers; today, local officials estimate their size at 70,000-100,000 members. The marabuntas, or maras, as they are known (after a deadly species of local ants), now pose the most serious challenge to peace in the region since the end of Central America’s civil wars [in the 1980s].

Central America’s descent into criminality is as much a consequence of the northward migration as it is a cause—and the feedback effects continue.

In the summer of 2012, President Obama announced that he would use executive power to grant provisional legal immigration status to the estimated 800,000 illegal aliens who entered the United States as minors. With this action, Obama unwittingly created powerful new incentives for illegal migration by people under the age of 18. And once a young person established some kind of legal residency in the United States, they might gain additional rights to sponsor family members they had left behind. That’s how things had worked after the 1986 amnesty, after all.

But how to reach the U.S. to take advantage of the new opportunity?

As a review of the literature on human trafficking explains:

Early on, MS-13 established itself on the Mexican-Guatemalan border, where gang members attacked and robbed those migrants heading to the United States who did not hire MS-13-affiliated smugglers, who charged fees of $5,000 to $8,000 for smuggling migrants to the United States.

If you want to migrate to the United States from Central America, you will probably have to seek the aid of a criminal gang. That fact implies a few follow-on facts.

First, for all the talk of the “desperation” of migrants, those who travel here from Central America are not the poorest of the poor. The poorest of the poor can’t afford it. Illegal migrants either have the funds to pay for the journey—or can at least receive credit against their expected future earnings. The traffickers don’t only move people. They also connect them to the illegal labor market in North America, and then act as debt collectors once the migrants have settled in their new homes. Salvadorans in the United States are less likely to be poor than other Hispanics are: illegal migration networks don’t have any use for people who can’t generate an income. On the other hand, Salvadorans are also less likely to own a home—their smugglers have first claim on their earnings.

Second, if these latest migrants gain residency rights in the United States, the gangs who brought them to the country will be enriched and strengthened. Gangs, like any business, ultimately depend on their customers. If too many people find that their $5,000 to $8,000 investments in border-crossing are not paying off, the illegal-migration business will dwindle. If, on the other hand, the gangs succeed in exploiting the opportunity Obama created, they’ll attract more business in the future.

Third, each wave of illegal settlement induces and produces the opportunities for the next. The unaccompanied minors smuggled into the United States this year all have relatives back home. If resettled in the United States, they’ll acquire the wherewithal to pay for the transit of those relatives. And, of course, many of these minors either currently belong to the gangs carrying out the smuggling or will soon be recruited by them. That’s another way to pay the cost of the trip. 

It’s not wrong to describe what is happening on the border as a “humanitarian catastrophe.” But it’s not the particular kind of catastrophe imagined by (most of) those who use the phrase. The Central Americans showing up in Texas are not this hemisphere’s version of Syrian refugees, fleeing a war zone where they would be killed if they stayed. They are people coping with a very ugly set of choices, made worse by America’s past laxity on immigration. If the present surge is not stopped and reversed, those choices will get uglier still.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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