Cristóbal, a 16-year-old Honduran refugee fleeing a drug gang that wants to kill him, has never heard of anyone named Barack Obama. Neither can he name the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
But Cristóbal, along with many others, could end up being murdered because of these two presidents he is unaware of. Obama and Peña Nieto have cooperated for two years to intercept desperate Central American refugees in southern Mexico, long before they can reach the U.S. border. These refugees are then typically deported to their home countries — which can be a death sentence.
“If I’m sent back, they will kill me,” says Cristóbal, who is staying temporarily at a shelter for unaccompanied migrant kids in Mexico. He says he was forced to work for the gang as a cocaine courier beginning at age 14 — a gun was held to his head, and he was told he would be shot if he declined. He finally quit and fled after he witnessed gang members murder two of his friends. Now the gang is looking for him, he says, and it already sent a hit team to his home.
Yet he may well be sent back under a policy backed by Obama and Peña Nieto. I admire much about the Obama administration, including its fine words about refugees, but this policy is rank with deadly hypocrisy.
In effect, we have pressured and bribed Mexico to do our dirty work, detaining and deporting people fleeing gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This solved a political crisis Obama faced with refugees in 2014, but it betrays some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The American-Mexican collusion began in 2014 after a surge of Central Americans crossed into the U.S., including 50,000 unaccompanied children. Obama spoke with Peña Nieto “to develop concrete proposals” to address the flow. This turned out to be a plan to intercept Central Americans near Mexico’s southern border and send them home.
Washington committed $86 million to support the program. Although Obama portrayed his action as an effort to address a humanitarian crisis, he made the crisis worse. The old routes minors took across Mexico were perilous, but the new ones adopted to avoid checkpoints are even more dangerous.
The victims of this policy, deported in some cases to their deaths, are refugees like Carlos, a 13-year-old with a scar on his forehead from the time a gang member threw him to the ground in the course of executing his uncle. I met Carlos in Mexico after he had fled — on his own — from Honduras to save his life.
“In my hometown, I was asked to join a gang,” Carlos told me. “They wanted me to be a lookout. They said if I didn’t, they would kill me and my brother.” His brother is just 6 years old.
Two of Carlos’ classmates, both 14, were also asked to join the gang but refused. Their corpses were found with the number 13 carved in their chests, a reference to the gang’s name. Another classmate, Alan, 13, was invited to join the gang and accepted. Carlos said Alan’s first assignment was to murder three men.
Here on the Mexican-Guatemalan border I’ve heard many stories like Carlos’ and Cristóbal’s. The details are typically impossible to confirm, but I approached the youths rather than the other way around, and Carlos was initially reluctant to share the story; at one point he cried when he spoke of the murder threat against his brother.
It’s unconscionable to put refugees like Carlos and Cristóbal back into mortal peril, yet that’s what is happening. In the last five years, Mexico and the U.S. have deported 800,000 people to Central America, including 40,000 children, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Last year, Mexico deported more than five times as many unaccompanied children as it had five years earlier, and the Obama administration heralds this as a success.
“It’s been a good thing, because it’s discouraging people from making a very dangerous trip,” said a senior State Department official who would speak only anonymously.
It’s true that the old system, of refugees undertaking a dangerous journey across Mexico, was awful. But we took a deplorable situation and made it more appalling.
So what should the U.S. do? Most important, it must work at the highest levels with Honduras and El Salvador to address the chaos in those countries, particularly because the U.S. bears some responsibility for the problems: The Central American street gangs were born in the United States and traveled with deportees to countries like El Salvador.
Instead, as with Syria, Obama has been disengaged. The U.S. could also do more to encourage Mexico to screen refugees rigorously and provide asylum to those who deserve it; instead, according to Human Rights Watch, less than 1 percent of Central American children in Mexico receive refugee status or formal protection.
I asked Salva Lacruz, coordinator of a human rights center in Tapachula, about Obama’s eloquent speeches on refugees and immigration. “It’s just words,” he scoffed. “A lot of hypocrisy.”
Carlos has no doubt what will happen if Mexico, encouraged by the U.S., returns him to Honduras: “They will kill me for sure.”
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.