Skip to main content

Like those children, I too fled Central America

By Pablo Alvarado
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pablo Alvarado and little brother escaped El Salvador and death threats to go north
  • Alvarado: Scared children at border show immigration is a humanitarian crisis
  • He asks: What problems are pushing people north? What hand does U.S. play?
  • Barriers, soldiers not the answer, he says; we must address underlying problems

Editor's note: Pablo Alvarado is the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- A few days after my little brother received death threats, he and I jumped on top of la Bestia -- the Beast -- the train heading north, to escape El Salvador. The country that financed the armed forces seeking to kill our friends and family would be our destination for safety. And like the millions of people forced into migration, I was compelled to leave my home for the uncertainty and waiting unwelcome of the United States.

I left on my last day of college before graduation and dedicated myself to guaranteeing the safety of my brother, still a teen not much older than the unaccompanied minors currently arriving en masse at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although I cannot pretend to know their situation, I can see the faces of those we traveled with in the photos of those children crowded into detention centers.

A family secret that changed his life

Pablo Alvarado
Pablo Alvarado

Right-wing conservatives have fully seized upon this latest turn in the immigration debate to harp upon border security and scoff at troops unable to stop little children. President Barack Obama, who seems to have made it his mission to appease them in his first six years, would now do better to ignore them completely than to continue to step on the gas of his deportation apparatus.

In a debate that has centered on criminalizing migrants and the act of migration, the faces of children, huddled and scared, hoping and vulnerable, defy vilification. Instead, they demonstrate what the President has declared but not yet acted on: Immigration is a humanitarian crisis. It is not to be met with soldiers, jails and handcuffs but with relief and aid.

Opinion: How we can help kids crossing the border

Intractable nativists, unable when confronted by these children to demonize people crossing the border, will turn to their equally favorite target -- demonizing the administration.

One of the mouthpieces of anti-immigrant initiatives in the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, insists on repeating the rumor that it was actually the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the misunderstanding of the prospect of immigration reform that caused the youths' arrival. He would want us to believe that this Congress has made legalization look so promising that children who would have otherwise stayed put are making the journey across a continent to be one of its rumored beneficiaries.

But like any magnet theory, it misses the primary factor of displacement. The push is stronger than any pull. The White House initially tried to dispel the bluster from the right. But the debate has reverted to the most common pattern in immigration policy: hyperbolic denunciations from the right, appeasement from the administration and near silence from the rest of the Beltway.

To have a real conversation about children at the border requires understanding the humanitarian crisis, but it also requires addressing the dynamic among the United States and its neighbors.

We must examine the reason people are being pushed to the north. Exactly what is happening in their home countries? And what hand does the United States play in creating those problems?

Opinion: The right fate for immigrant kids

Obama to ask Congress for emergency funds

My brother and I did not leave our parents behind, only to be assaulted on a monthlong journey north and witness the worst, including people dying, because we simply wanted to. We did not leave the work we had and the life we had started to build because we would be happier looking for jobs on the street and paying what we could to sleep in a living room.

We came because it was our opportunity to survive, because counterinsurgency forces, known now to have been financed by the Reagan administration, fought a dirty war in El Salvador. It claimed the lives of 70,000 people and displaced 1 million more.

I hope the plight of the children who have taken center stage in the immigration debate can shatter the myth that we can continue the conversation without considering our neighbors.

The children have shown that proposals and issues of the debate have been inadequate. When I return to El Salvador, as a citizen of the United States, and I interview those who were deported for a soon-to-be-released study, the most common refrain people share is "What choice do I have but to go north?"

The walls erected and the troops deployed and even the legislation that has been introduced do not answer that question and do not address people who desire to survive, harbor the hope for something better and see the possibility of neither.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT