The leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are meeting with President Obama in the White House on Friday to talk about the surge of children from their countries fleeing gang violence and fearing for their lives if they return. Carolyn Rose-Avila, who has extensive experience working with these vulnerable populations, says she can predict what these Central American presidents will tell Obama.
“Their argument for the last 15 years has been these [gang members] learned their violent behavior in the U.S.,” Rose-Avila told The Daily Beast. “They weren’t born violent, they didn’t learn that behavior in their home countries. They were not given refugee status, and they were thrust into very violent living situations, and they return as L.A. criminals. They’re going to point that history at Obama.”
Rose-Avila and her husband, Magdaleno Rose-Avila, worked in Central America starting in the late 1970s when he was Peace Corps director in Nicaragua and then Guatemala, and they were jumping from country to country, sidestepping wars and revolutions. In El Salvador, where they lived for a time, a quarter of the population fled the country to escape the war in the 1980s, some to Canada, some to the Nordic countries that would take them, and the vast majority to Los Angeles.
The El Salvadorans did not get refugee status in America, but for a long time there weren’t any mass deportations, Rose-Avila recalled. “They went underground, disappeared into the fabric of the city,” until L.A. became mired in gang violence and the deportations of young gang members began in the 1990s. Around that same time, Rose-Avila returned to El Salvador as regional director for Save the Children. “Magdaleno came with me as a husband,” she said, and one day filled in for her at a conference where deported gang members, the children of that earlier wave of illegal immigrants, were speaking.
“I got enamored of these guys,” Magdaleno told the Beast. “They knew the best hamburger spot in L.A. I used to frequent.” While living in El Salvador, Magdaleno “hung out with them; I spent 90 days going to gang meetings, doing gang activities.”
“Our house became a kind of community center for deported gang members from L.A.,” said Rose-Avila, picking up the story. “We would go to the airport and pick them up.” Flights carrying the deportees from the U.S. arrived about once a week. Rose-Aviva hired some of the young men. They had good English skills, they followed American football. They were Americans, she said, “and when they got to El Salvador they were treated like toxic waste. Because the U.S. deports them, the Salvadoran government refused to deal with them. They saw them as criminals. They were covered with tattoos, and you couldn’t get a job if you have a tattoo.”
Sometimes the military detained the deportees for questioning, torturing them to find out what they were up to, what they were planning, said Magdaleno. He visited their families in East L.A., taking videos of the youths. A high point was a reception he and then-California State Senator Tom Hayden organized at the U.S. ambassador’s house in San Salvador for the gang members that Magdaleno had befriended. “The kids all wore white shirts. They were wonderful young people once you got them directed out of this [gang] behavior,” recalled Rose-Avila. “They saw role models, as one said, ‘willing to love them.’”
In the end, though, it was a one-time event to please a visiting politician, and when Save the Children relocated its office to Miami in June of ’98, Rose-Avila was ready to leave. “I don’t think we had much impact,” she said. Many of those deported gang members never reformed, and El Salvador descended into a violent chaos that children now risk their lives to flee. Her husband, however, was more circumspect. “You plant a seed, and you hope it grows,” he said. “All the work you do with gangs is not quantifiable. You change attitudes, and they change other people’s attitudes.”
He cited a gang member in El Salvador who’s now an attorney. “I never talked to him about being an attorney,” he said. “I just raised his self-esteem.” While in El Salvador, Magdaleno founded Homies Unidos, which has a chapter in Los Angeles led by a former gang leader, Alex Sanchez, whom he praises for “turning people around on a regular basis.”
A storied figure in his own right, Magdaleno is one of 12 children of Mexican parents who came to the U.S. without documents. He started working at age 11 in the onion fields of Colorado, rising to become an organizer with Caesar Chavez. Alongside Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, he founded the Moratorium Campaign, an anti-death penalty effort. He is currently executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, Washington.
He has seen a lot of hardship, and he takes the long view. His cousins in Juarez, just across the border in Mexico, don’t have papers. But they tell him that at a border crossing each day the guards step aside so all the maids and gardeners can come in. Their services are needed, and so accommodations are made.
The children escaping the gangs and coming across the border from Central America will keep coming, Magdaleno said. They would rather die on the journey than live without hope in their own countries.