The Beast ( La Bestia ) is a network of freight trains that connects Mexico's southern border with Guatemala and Belize to its northern border with the USAabout 1,500 miles. These trains move slowly, like fat caterpillars, as they haul the types of cargo you would expect freight trains to carry, except for the cargo of people sitting on the roofs of the carsthousands of people. In a recent derailment of only one section of one train in Oaxaca, medics treated 1,300 riders of the Beast.
This human cargo, more and more of which are children, travels without any protection: they are exposed to the elements; preyed upon by criminals and corrupt police; have little food, water or clothing; and suffer, not infrequently, from the dangers of the train ride itselfthe loss of arms and fingers and legs and, at times, life itself. According to the Catholics and Evangelical Christians who run shelters along the freight rail network, eighty percent of those who travel by the Beast are robbed of their possessions; sixty percent of the women, of all ages, are raped. Some of the children are kidnapped and sold into sexual and other forms of slavery.
Yet, most migrants, in the face of such cruel odds, climb back on La Bestia to continue their journey to the USAto the land of hope for a better life.
According to the statistical tables of U.S. Customs and Border Protection ( CBP ), overall illegal immigration into the U.S. has steadily declined since the year 2000 when it reached a peak of around 1,600,000 persons apprehended by a total work force of 7,500 border agents. In 2013 around 420,000 undocumented immigrants were apprehended by a work force of 18,000 border agents. In 2000, more than 100,000 undocumented, unaccompanied children ( ages 0-17 ) were apprehended. In 2013, the number of 'illegal' children was 38,000. For the fiscal year 2014, the estimates are 46,000 to 80,000, well under the benchmark numbers for the year 2000.
In absolute numbers, overall we have fewer illegal immigrants and fewer illegal child migrants crossing our borders today than we did in 2000. So, why all this political hysteria and media feeding frenzy about the invasion of the U.S. by children? And just who are these children who are invading us?
Invasion Of The Children: The Facts
The surge in the numbers of children crossing our southern borders comes from the rapid increase of children13 years old and underfleeing violence caused by gangs fighting over drug profits, turf, and routes in Central American countries, primarily El Salvador and Honduras at this time. Let us consider Honduras: CBP documents 974 unaccompanied minors from Honduras in 2011; 2,997 in 2012; and 6,747 in 2013. Unofficial data for 2014, however, and stronger controls on Mexico's southern borders seem to indicate that the rate of the influx might be slowing down.
These children, some as young as nine years old, are being forced to choose between death and recruitment into a gang, which means death postponed by a few yearsat best.
Without excusing the failures of the governments and societies of these nation-states, we must admit our own responsibility for the deplorable situations that force children to flee such destructive chaos in their native countries. Our government has contributed greatly to this destructive chaos by its repeated interventions into the political and economic life of the nations in Central America. And, of course, our 'war on drugs,' which has failed to control drug use, traffic and violence in our own country, has exported MS 13 and Barrio 18 gangs to El Salvadorgangs formed in Los Angeles drug wars and prisonsand has destabilized one country after another as is now the case in Honduras.
Our Congressby unanimous acclamationpassed and President Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 which requires our border officials to determine whether children from Central American nations are victims of child trafficking or other abuses before they can be deported.
The crisis at our borders is not the lack of border agents but the lack of judges to adjudicate the status of the children processed into our systems.
Between 1960 and 1962, our government gave refugee status to 14,000 Cuban teenagers because of rumors that Castro might force them into military schools.
With one stroke of the pen, President Obama has the power to declare the children crossing our borders to be refugees. In the meantime, these children are entitled by U.S. law to due process. They should be respected as persons in need.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.