Osservatore Romano / Reuters

Pope Francis challenges the US from across the border

Pontiff’s plea for compassion for refugees will likely fall on deaf ears in Washington

February 20, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Christmas Day last year, 13-year-old Digna Hernández Turcios was at home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when three men rushed into her family’s home and shot her uncle dead for refusing to join Barrio 18, a transnational gang. The group and its rival, Mara Salvatrucha 13, have wreaked havoc across Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The assassination was payback for not cooperating. 

Digna’s story is a common one. Every Central American making the perilous journey in search of asylum in Mexico or the United States seems to have his or her own story of murder, rape or extortion. So when Pope Francis visited Ciudad Juárez on Wednesday, refugees were high on his agenda. He has long empathized with the struggles of all those who are “in movement,” as he calls them, and has said that refugees have an “inalienable dignity, which is theirs as a child of God.” In Juárez he lamented “the human tragedy that is forced migration.”

But the pope’s plea for empathy and compassion will likely fall on deaf ears in Washington, where decades of harsh immigration policies and partisan politics have helped create the very refugee crisis Central America now faces.

Francis didn’t stop at words to relay his message of empathy and hope. Before holding a cross-border Mass attended by 50,000 people on the U.S. side and 200,000 on the Mexican side, he visited CERESO Estatal 3 (State Prison No. 3), a notoriously violent prison in Juárez where gangs once exerted total control inside its walls. There was speculation that he would make good on his desire to cross the Mexico-U.S. border in a show of solidarity with migrants, but he stopped just short, ascending a ramp to a specially built platform overlooking the border, where he blessed those gathered a stone’s throw away on the U.S. side.

The turf wars tearing apart Central America began in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when thousands of refugees from El Salvador’s civil war arrived and settled in some of the city’s poorest — and roughest — neighborhoods. Their children formed MS-13 and the Barrio 18 to protect themselves from the entrenched Mexican-American and black gangs. 

In the early 1990s, with tough-on-crime policies being advanced across the country, the United States responded to the gangs by clamping down on immigration. The 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the accompanying Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act broadened the definition of an aggravated felony under immigration law, making more petty crimes, like shoplifting and even missing a court date, deportable offenses while reducing the list of forms of relief available to noncitizens. The combination was catastrophic.

As a result of those acts, scores of young gang members were deported to El Salvador and Honduras, and they took their LA street gang affiliations with them.

The numbers are astounding. El Salvador’s murder rate in 2015 surged to its highest level since the country’s civil war ended in 1992. At 104 murders per 100,000 people — a 70 percent spike over 2014 — the country’s murder rate is the highest in the world outside of war zones. A comparable rate in New York City would mean almost 9,000 murders per year. (The city had 208 murders in 2015 — a 9 percent increase from the previous year — sparking public outcry.)

The pope’s hope is that all refugees and migrants have some agency over their fates. But for now, U.S. policy is making those choices for them.

In neighboring Honduras, the official murder rate dropped below 70 per 100,000 in 2015 — a notable decline, which critics attribute to fancy accounting rather than an actual improvement. That number is a national average that include pockets where the rate is much higher. In the country’s most violent city, San Pedro Sula, for example, the murder rate was 169 per 100,000. In New York City that would be over 14,000 murders a year.

Today, Barack Obama’s administration is again struggling to craft a sensible immigration policy. But as the White House tries to strike a balance between the competing demands of law enforcement and humanitarian considerations, it has alienated immigration opponents and advocates alike.  

Under Obama’s watch, the Department of Homeland Security has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants and shows no signs of slowing. In January the DHS kicked off 2016 with a series of raids targeting families in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Despite DHS claims that its emphasis is on deporting felons, not families, the raids resulted in 77 deported mothers and children with outstanding deportation orders. Lawyers familiar with the cases say many of the deported families didn’t get adequate guidance and opportunity to complete the asylum application process.

Conversely, Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this month that the United States would expand its refugee program for Central Americans fleeing violence. Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. plans to screen applicants in their home countries to help them avoid the perilous trip north, during which they are vulnerable to a litany of violent crimes, including rape and human trafficking, at the hands of gangs, cartels and corrupt government officials. 

The new program follows a similar one that has so far disappointed. The Central American Minors In-Country Refugee Resettlement/Parole Program, introduced in 2014, allows Central American parents living legally in the U.S. to apply to have their children still living in their home country declared refugees and taken to the United States. As of October 2015, of 4,600 applicants, only 88 were accepted. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 39,940 unaccompanied children along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. 

In the 1990s, deportees returning to El Salvador who had grown up in the United States and who had very little connection to their home country fell back on what they knew, their gangs. The mass deportations effectively exported MS-13 and Barrio 18 to El Salvador and Honduras, paving the way for their meteoric rise from Los Angeles street gangs to major transnational criminal organizations with branches in 42 U.S. states and a toxic grasp on every level of Central American society. And that in turn is spawning ever-larger waves of refugees heading to the United States.

With a new generation of young people who grew up in the U.S. being deported, they are returning to isolation and marginalization in their home countries, adding to the ranks of MS-13 and Barrio 18 and the skyrocketing body count. “Injustice,” Francis says, “is radicalized in the young. They are cannon fodder, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”

“Youth in LA have a choice. You choose to join a gang. You choose to be a skater or a punk rock kid. In El Salvador, it’s ‘You either join the gang or we kill you,’” says a volunteer at a nonprofit in Los Angeles working with at-risk Central American youth. 

The pope’s hope is that all refugees and migrants have some agency over their fates. But for now, U.S. policy is making those choices for them. 

Jonathan Levinson is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. He spent five years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, where his research focused on non-state and hybrid actors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter