As part of its response, the White House announced tens of millions of dollars in new spending in those countries, aimed at stopping the flow of unaccompanied kids and the crime driving them from home.
The “NewsHour”‘s P.J. Tobia takes a look at those U.S.-funded programs and the children they are supposed to be helping.
P.J. TOBIA: In Central America, this is the front line of the Obama administration’s fight to keep children from joining gangs or making the dangerous journey to the United States.
It’s the opening of a new community center Usulutan, a violent El Salvadoran city controlled by the Mara 18; 140 of these U.S. government-funded centers are spread between Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. There are plans to double that number.
They offer sports, skills training, and computer literacy. It’s a response to the flood of children trying to make their way to the U.S. border.
One of them was 10-year-old Brando. The “NewsHour” has agreed to conceal his and his grandmother’s faces for their safety. Brando’s grandmother was desperate to get him out of the country after a violent drug gang tried to extort the family.
WOMAN (through interpreter): Things here are awful. Here, they take kids. They return them in pieces.
P.J. TOBIA: She sent Brando north over land with an uncle. It was a grueling journey.
BOY (through interpreter): We slept where the cows are.
WOMAN (through interpreter): In a barn. There were days they slept in a barn. When they left here, they went to Guatemala. When they crossed, Mexican immigration caught them.
P.J. TOBIA: After that, Brando was brought back to El Salvador. Like most people here, he and his grandmother don’t leave the house after 6:00 p.m., for fear of the gangs.
WOMAN (through interpreter): I can’t sleep. When I’m able to sleep, I wake up. I only sleep one or two hours when I hear the gunshots during the night. It will be some time before I can send the child to school.
P.J. TOBIA: Brando says he’d still like to try and make it to the U.S., but, his grandmother says, they can’t afford another attempt.
Elizabeth Kennedy has spent last year in El Salvador on a Fulbright scholarship. She’s interviewed more than 30 children like Brando who have tried and failed to make it to the United States.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY, Child Migrant Researcher: In June, there was one day that we got 300 kids deported from Mexico in one day.
P.J. TOBIA: In Mexico, the detained children are sent to a facility in Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border. Then they’re sent back home.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: So, we had one 12-year-old boy who came here who had been robbed and beaten inside of the Siglo XXI detention center in Tapachula. He didn’t have any shoes. He was crying.
P.J. TOBIA: Once back in El Salvador, there’s little the government can do for them.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: There’s no follow-up services at the moment for those who are afraid for their lives. They’re probably going to try again within two months.
P.J. TOBIA: That’s where these U.S. government-funded children’s centers come in. This center, just outside of San Salvador, provides a place for children to play and learn computers. For older children, this Bakery is a skills training program.
But Kennedy says that USAID, the government agency behind the centers, doesn’t follow through with long-term funding.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: So I have learned of a number of programs that receive large multimillion-dollar grants. They were supposed to create something that would be sustainable after the money ended at two years. And there’s nothing to show for it two years later, after the money has run out.
P.J. TOBIA: Mark Feierstein is a USAID associate administrator focusing on Latin America. He says it’s up to the local governments to pay the bills when U.S. money runs out.
MARK FEIERSTEIN, U.S. Agency for International Development: Sustainability is vital. And the real key here are the Central American governments themselves. They need to be raising revenue. They need to be energizing their own private sector. So, what the USAID can do and the United States government can do is support the efforts of these Central American governments, but ultimately they need to be raising the revenue.
P.J. TOBIA: Kennedy says that the centers are often located in contested gang territory.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: The reality is, for kids who live in a contested gang territory, for example, crossing the street could be the cause of their death.
MARK FEIERSTEIN: Well, that’s the point. They are in dangerous neighborhoods, and we’re trying to create safe havens for children. And the fact that they’re trying to get to these places speaks to their value.
P.J. TOBIA: Another issue is a controversial USAID policy. The agency won’t fund programs explicitly aimed at current gang members.
Geoff Thale is the program director at the Washington Office on Latin America:
GEOFF THALE, Washington Office On Latin America: I think that’s understandable. I think it’s a mistake.
People aren’t going to leave gangs unless there are alternatives, and somebody has got to work with that population. And then, related to that, the people coming out of prison are going to go back if they don’t have some alternative. And they’re going to go back because they pick up gang life again and they are recidivists, and they go back to extorting people and threatening them and the whole range of that kind of thing.
P.J. TOBIA: Feierstein says that, while there may not be programs aimed directly at current gang members, the youth centers don’t do background checks on those who come for services and training.
MARK FEIERSTEIN: And the youth is welcome there. You know, people are not being filtered — filtered when they — when they arrive there. So if they — if someone, you know, comes to a youth center and wants to participate, wants to get work force training, they’re welcome to do so.
P.J. TOBIA: USAID officials say that the youth centers are only a piece of their effort. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and State Department also play a role through security initiatives and media campaigns, all aimed at convincing Central American children not to leave home in the first place.
But, back in El Salvador, the root causes driving these child migrants persist, even getting worse after they return home.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: And so they explain, you know, to stay is to die. To go is possibly to die, but to possibly have a better future as well.
P.J. TOBIA: It’s a risk that all too many are willing to take.
GWEN IFILL: You can learn more about the State Department’s efforts to train local police in El Salvador. We have the latest in a reporting series from our partners at Fronteras. That’s on our home page at PBS.org/NewsHour.