Collectively we can do better. Nearly every week, we read a new tragic headline and story of unaccompanied children and youth from Central America meeting some horrific end while attempting to immigrate to the US. In the previous few months alone, there have been reports of mass abductions, a deadly fire at a Mexican migrant detention center, heat stroke deaths in abandoned cargo boxes and videos of tiny children being left at the border wall by smugglers called “Coyotes.”
As a leader of a major project aimed at identifying causation and potential solutions to this challenge, there are two obvious truths we must face. One, the national conversations we are having about this challenge are shaped by wildly inaccurate rhetoric that is frankly not helping. And secondly, the major efforts by both faith-based and government agencies alike are insufficient, dated and in need of fresh and more sophisticated approaches to the challenge.
According to the US border patrol website, US officials intercepted approximately 152,000 children and youth unaccompanied by any adult family member at the Southern Border in 2022. Nearly every year is the latest record number surpassing the previous year’s highs. Of course, this is just a count of the kids that were caught. We have no idea the volume of young people who made it through undetected or, worse, the untold number of kids who were abducted, trafficked, ransomed, died, or murdered along the perilous journey.
Why are our policies and philanthropic and faith-based efforts not bearing fruit, and what should the Christian community do to improve the outcomes we are working toward?
To begin, we must reject oversimplified narratives spun by politicians, partisan media, or even church missions’ packets. Almost none of the finger-pointing and political ping-pong around “Biden’s crisis at the border” or Trump’s “children in cages” rhetoric is accurate, sincere, or helpful. Additionally, we need to adopt data-informed approaches that factor in cultural attitude changes. This means we must ask the affected population better questions and leverage breakthroughs in technology and social sciences to test solutions.
For nearly two years, our team at MWI, in partnership with a large Honduran evangelical church network, has engaged multiple technology companies and local school districts to collect extensive research and data. We have conducted student surveys, focus groups and interviews, including that of teachers, guidance counselors, parents, pastors and more. We are piloting new innovative programs that will both fail and succeed rapidly. Currently, we are developing machine-learning predictive models for youth immigration and school desertion based on data collected in March from nearly 10,000 public school students. Our preliminary findings are fascinating and, at times, confounding.
One of the primary goals of our research is to separate or substantiate truth from narrative without regard for any particular agenda. That said, let’s dispel some of the mythology. Contrary to political narratives, the affected youth and families are largely unaware of or rarely take advantage of the differing border policies from the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. With the lone exception being COVID-19 policies, blaming increased numbers of youth attempting to immigrate on the welcoming or deterrence policies of one administration over the other is largely false. Though still inconclusive, the increased rates in youth immigration more closely parallels smartphone and social media penetration in Central America than changes in border policy. Another factor that is overstated is gang violence. While it is prevalent in many cities, few interviewed students, list escaping gangs as a primary motivator to immigrate. While we are at it, other narratives about large numbers of youth immigrating for reasons including access to abortions, gender-affirming medical care, LGBTQ social acceptance, or because they are being paid to smuggle drugs or become Soros-funded political activists are, at best, statistically insignificant but more likely misleading at their sources.
Then there are the narratives we tell our churches about infrastructure needs to raise money for missionaries and project teams to dig wells and build schools, churches, hospitals, and orphanages. Unlike political talking points, at least these pitches have some validity and are sincerely rooted in compassion. One of our surveys indicated that 43 percent of students and their families often go hungry. Admittedly, food insecurity is certainly an access or infrastructure factor in youth immigration, but it isn’t a silver bullet. The millions of dollars spent by churches and aid organizations for access to clean water, nutrition, medicine, education, and more are necessary and appreciated throughout Central America, but they fail to create a cultural desire to stay and build a thriving society in their home nations. In fact, many students with all major physical and societal access needs met, according to our surveys, still desire to immigrate at the first opportunity. Only 21 percent of surveyed students in public school plan to stay in Honduras when they can leave. These statistics indicate that the problem is more than basic needs. It’s also about cultural belief systems.
When we asked Honduran adolescents why they wanted to immigrate to the US, even the best students gave us one of three answers:
- “Nothing good can happen to me here.”
- “I want US dollars.”
- “My mom or dad is in the States.”
The focus groups were instrumental in understanding these statements. The first is a common belief that their nation will never produce a good future for themselves. This seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and likely a significant factor in causation. The second reason is for U.S. dollars to spend on sufficient food and status items like clothes, shoes, electronics, vehicles, and family celebrations. For those who study impoverished communities, this is not a new phenomenon, though it is likely made worse by social media. And the third reason is understandably to reunite with their parents. It is common for parents to leave their children in the care of relatives while they find employment in the States to send back financial support called “migrant remittances.” Often parents and children miss each other so much that they eventually make the dangerous choice to hire smugglers to bring their kids to themselves.
Child and youth immigration is a complex issue that will require honesty and sophisticated approaches. The faith-based community has an opportunity to lead both the discussion and the development of solutions. Most of our churches send funds or people to the region out of genuine compassion. It’s time we also require data-based discussions and reject political narratives, as well as demand partnerships with local Central American churches and governments who are willing to think beyond brick-and-mortar projects or evangelism campaigns. It will require innovation and honesty, but the lives and future of the region’s young people are worth the discomfort of change. We can do better.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Cloverphoto
Mark Haywood co-founded (MWI) Marvelous Ways International with his wife, Christin Haywood. MWI is an innovation NGO that finds solutions for young people in dangerous communities around the globe. Mark has more than 15 years of experience in International and urban community development, leading community and faith-based projects in the US, Kenya, Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica and beyond. Mark also serves in leadership at Crossover Church in Tampa, FL, and is a licensed minister through the Abundant Life Ministerial Association in Syracuse, NY. Mark holds B.S. and M.A. degrees from Nyack College & Alliance Theological Seminary.