(Hi everyone. Thanks for welcoming me to the BMG community. For my first post I wanted to share a few takeaways from my trip to Central America earlier this month. Would love to hear your thoughts and look forward to joining this conversation. – Joe)
Gunfire at work. Death threats at home. Vicious gangs demanding you pay them a ‘war tax’ or your 7-year-old son’s life is on the line.
For Margarita and her son Darling, this was their daily reality in Lempira, Honduras. And last November it finally forced Margarita – terrified and desperate – to leave her home, pack up what few belongings she could, and flee the country with Darling by her side, moving north to a country whose golden door has long been a refuge for the oppressed and afraid.
They were not alone. Since last October, nearly 60,000 children and families have arrived at our border asking to be let in. Many were fleeing similar danger as Margarita and Darling. Some were seeking economic opportunity. Others were trying to reunite with family. But all cascaded on our border asking for help. For several months – even as the numbers pouring in have steadied — our country has struggled to respond.
With this in mind, I traveled to Central America over Labor Day Weekend with a bipartisan group of my colleagues, trying to understand what fueled the surge in migration. We talked to religious leaders in El Salvador about how they protect their communities from violence in the absence of a reliable police force. We visited an outreach center for Honduran youth where the first thing you see when you walk in is a wall filled with pictures of local children who have lost their lives to gang violence. We toured a shelter for victims of sex trafficking in Guatemala City, speaking to girls no more than 14 and 15 years old.
That life, raw and real, opened our eyes to the circumstances so many of these families are desperate to leave behind. This is not a problem for the United States to solve on its own. But there is no question there are areas where we can help. We need to work with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to crack down on the human smugglers (known locally as coyotes), address poverty, assist local development and restore faith in civic institutions. We have to clean up our own system, pass comprehensive immigration reform and make a strong, clear statement about what US policy is – and isn’t. And we need additional judges, lawyers and legal resources in our system to speed up the process for assessing whether people arriving in this country have a legitimate claim to asylum or not.
But there was a lesson that resonated through our experience above all else. Fueling the instability and violence wreaking havoc on Central American communities is one thing: the United States’ deep, painful and persistent addiction to narcotics.
This is a plight we here in Massachusetts know far too well. From Taunton to Springfield, families across our Commonwealth have been coping with this heartbreaking epidemic. But the human cost of our country’s addiction extends beyond our borders. At the heart of the poverty, crime and lack of opportunity driving desperate children and adults to American soil are drug cartels that have systemically undermined civil society, rule of law and economic justice. The impunity of these cartels is protected by the US drug trade. By the billions of dollars that flow into their pockets from the rock bottom of the American drug culture.
Which is why this country needs to confront its addiction crisis head-on, as the public health emergency that it is, rather than the law enforcement problem it has become. The DEA estimates that the heroin trade with Mexico alone is well over $40 billion per year; the gross domestic product of Honduras is only $18 billion. There is no chance we can arrest our way out of this problem. We need to invest more resources into education, treatment and prevention. Combatting drug abuse will require a comprehensive approach, ensuring we have enough providers, making sure dosing guidelines reflect the realities of addiction, holding insurance companies accountable for their role in helping to improve access to care, and guaranteeing that those with addiction get the long-term health care they deserve for what is a chronic condition.
There is no easy answer to the crisis of drugs, violence and economic opportunity that continues to drive thousands to our doorstep. At every repatriation center we visited on the trip, I asked the individuals there why they’d left; why they’d risked everything on a dangerous journey with no guarantee of success. The answer was simple: promise of a life free of fear and violence. Promise of a country that doesn’t turn its back on the hungry, the persecuted or the abused.
As the United States works to address this issue and reform our broken, backwards immigration system, it is that promise that must light our way. Because few American families would be here today were it not for that golden door. Mine certainly wouldn’t.