Holistic approach to the youth migration crisis

By Jillian Slutzker

August 29, 2014

Pervasive gang violence, organized crime, and sweeping poverty are driving tens of thousands of Central American children to flee their homes countries and risk their lives, unaccompanied, on a multi-country journey to the U.S., causing a youth migration crisis of unseen proportions on both sides of the border.

International development partners and host communities in the U.S. are reevaluating strategies to mitigate the push factors driving this migration and address the needs of young migrants arriving daily.

“We have a lot of questions about how we need to think about this work so it does work,” says Guillermo Cespedes, former Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles for Gangs and Violence Prevention and current Crime and Violence Prevention Advisor at Creative Associates International, speaking at a recent roundtable called “Pushed & Pulled: Central America and the Youth Migration Crisis.”

The meeting of experts and practitioners in international development, violence prevention and youth migration was convened on Aug. 26 by the Alliance for International Youth Development, a community of practice and advocacy platform for U.S.-based youth and community development organizations.

Cespedes says that in order to effectively target the multifaceted and interrelated push factors affecting these Central American communities, in-country interventions must be place-based, family-centered, integrated and multi-systemic.

In the most at-risk areas that governments cannot access, community outreach centers can help stem the drivers of migration by providing education and employment training and opportunities, anti-violence programming, health services and accurate information on immigration procedures to counter misinformation from smugglers, with a focus on the most vulnerable families and youth. Through its more than 130 outreach centers across Central America, Creative has already reached more than 43,136 young people with critical anti-gang violence programming.  By the end of September, Creative will inaugurate new outreach centers in communities across Central America, bringing the total to 192.

Building on these place-based, family-centered, integrated and multi-systemic initiatives in-country, Humberto Lopez, Country Director for Central America at the World Bank, calls for a coordinated donor approach to address the transnational criminal networks behind this instability.  “The development part has to come hand-in-hand with crime prevention…. In order to do this you are going to need people at different levels.”

In recent years, violence levels have soared in the three main Central American source countries of youth migrants to the U.S. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world and is home to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate outside of a war zone.  Not far behind, El Salvador and Guatemala rank 4th and 5th respectively in highest murder rates per capita globally. For young people in the most violent and poor communities, often facing personal threats on their lives, immigration is seen as the way out.

As unaccompanied children continue to risk their lives, fleeing instability at home for an unknown, and hopefully brighter, future in the U.S., families are increasingly fragmented transnationally.

“We are stuck with families that will continue to live on both sides of the border,” says Cespedes. “The question is,‘can we continue to develop a model that will strengthen families on both side of the border?’”

For those children who have already crossed the border into the U.S. and are in need of critical education, health, psychosocial and legal resources, host communities, often with limited capacity and funds, are working to amass the resources to cope with this humanitarian crisis. Stuck in an immigration limbo, these young migrants will be placed in foster families or with relatives in the U.S. while they await an appointment and decision on their status from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In fiscal year 2013, 24,668 unaccompanied children immigrated to the United States. The government predicts this number could climb to more than 60,000 in fiscal year 2014.

“There doesn’t at this point seem to be any real solution,” says Lori Kaplan, President and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C. “The challenge here­, for all of us as a community, is to step up in the ways we can at the local level and at the national level.”

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