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Gang Violence in Central America and the Causes of the Immigration Wave

Our only event for Tuesday, December 2nd, was part of the "Happy Dog Takes on the World" series presented by the City Club of Greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs and, in this case, International Partners in Mission. It was a discussion titled "Gang Violence in Central America and the Causes of the Immigration Wave" featuring Mr. Brian Stefan-Szittai from the Interreligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF) and Dr. Milena Sterio, The Charles R. Emrick, Jr.-Calfee Halter Professor of Law at CSU's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Moderating the presentation was Mr. Tony Ganzer of WCPN. Mr. Stefan-Szittai started off by saying that part of the mission of the IRTF was to help the people of Central America stay in their countries which is what they would do if it was safe for them to do so. Dr. Sterio said that the three most perilous countries of Central America were Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala because the murder rate was 10-20 times higher than in the United States; the citizenry lives with fear on a daily basis and the only way that the people could protect themselves is often by fleeing. Parents are often confronted with the choice of sending their small child, perhaps unaccompanied, to the United States even though the odds of surviving the journey were not very good or keeping the child with them in which case the odds were that the child would be killed.

Both Mr. Stefan-Szittai and Dr. Sterio said that a lot of these problems were attributable to United States foreign policy going back to 1970's-1980's when we supported the policies of brutal Central American leaders to the present time when we supported the free trade agreements which have had an adverse effect on middle to lower income people.

Among the things that were said this evening were:

*** Mr. Stefan-Szittai said that the reason that we are hearing such a lot about the children being held at the U.S./Mexican border is that it caught the media's attention and the public had empathy; they questioned how people could be sending their small children on such a dangerous trip and wondered if they would do the same thing in similar circumstances.

***Dr. Sterio recalled that in the 1980's about 1/3rd of the people of El Salvador fled to the United States. Many of them settled in Los Angeles where they formed gangs but in the 1990's federal tough-on-crime laws were passed making it easier to deport criminals. So, at least 10,000 El Salvador gang members from Los Angeles were deported back to their country of origin where they formed again and started terrorizing the country.

***Mr. Stefan-Szittai said that many of the gang-related problems were avoided in Nicaragua because many of the incarcerated gang members were redirected to job training programs instead of prison.

***Dr. Sterio said that in Central American gangs drugs are often a way of life because Central America is a hub for drugs coming in from all over the world and that the gangs often work for drug lords.

***Both agreed that instead of trying to apprehend the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be in the United States at this time, the funding should go to improving the conditions in Central America.

***Both also agreed that not much will be done by the United States about these problems in Central America. In fact, President Obama's Executive Order regarding immigration mostly focused on those who were already in the United States.

***During the Q and A, our friend Mr. Anthony Alto from the Young Latino Network stated his view which was that the United States should not be closing the borders but opening them so that more people can immigrate to the United States and repopulate it. Dr. Sterio agreed with him and said that Canada and Australia have much more of an open door policy and are doing well because of it. Mr. Stefan-Szittai said that the quota system established in the 1960's, which was slanted too heavily towards European immigrants, is now hopelessly outdated and must be revamped. He believed that family reunification must be top priority.

***Judge Diane Karpinski was present and she asked about possibly obtaining refugee status for those fleeing Central America. Dr. Sterio said that it is very difficult for someone from Central America to make a case for asylum and all the more difficult if they do not have a lawyer to help them. Unfortunately, there are just not that many lawyers who speak Spanish and are willing to work so hard for so very little on a consistent basis, although she credited the lawyers who went to the Mexico/United States border to help.

We shared a table with six people from St. Mary Church in Painesville who are part of the social justice task force. We had met most of them before at various functions where immigration was a key factor. For the first time tonight, we met Mr. Brian Rice who created a power point presentation about the children at the border. We told him that we would love to see it and he agreed to show it to us.

While we were waiting for the program to start we walked over to our friend Ms. Rachel Napolitano from the IRTF and met her friend, Ms. Ja Kim who immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was 12 years old. Her family settled in Los Angeles and she became a citizen when she was 17 years old. She now works as a industrial designer for Mellon. She told us that she travels all over and really loves Cleveland because it is less congested than other areas and is a good "nurturing" place for her to rest when she is not on the road.

After the program we talked to Dr. Sterio who told us that she was well aware of Ms. Wong's reputation. We invited her and Mr. Stefan-Szittai to our holiday party and both said that they would try to make it. After all, Dr. Sterio told us that her daughter just loves Pearl of the Orient.

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