Lauren Markham writes in the NY Times:
“SundayReview | OPINION
The Wrong Way to Fight Gangs
By LAUREN MARKHAMSEPT. 28, 2017
Lester, who is among the recent Central American students at Oakland International High School who crossed into the US, during soccer practice for the Soccer Without Borders program. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Oakland, Calif. — Young migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador come to this country fleeing violence and lives that are often dictated by savage gangs. It’s expensive to get here. They often arrive with thousands of dollars of high-interest debt and little or no English skills. And they face an administration that insists that they are gangsters bringing bloodshed and gang warfare to American cities.
In fact, these young people are often fleeing gangs. And the challenges they face in the United States make them particularly vulnerable for recruitment into the same violent gangs they left home to escape.
“They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” President Trump said of the members of MS-13, a transnational gang composed largely of Central American youth; its activity has been growing in recent years, both in the United States and in Central America. A few weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told law enforcement officers that these young, undocumented immigrants were “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
I work at Oakland International High School in Oakland, Calif. It is a public school with a population made up entirely of recently arrived immigrant students. Today, over 25 percent are unaccompanied minors — young people who crossed into the United States without papers or parents — who have been released from immigration custody and placed in deportation proceedings to await their day in court. Since we opened 10 years ago, our students’ gang involvement has markedly decreased. This is because we have gotten better at what we were meant to do, namely: provide programs that teach skills, offer support services that reduce barriers to coming to school, and foster a sense of community.
We offer what the gangs offer, but better.
I had one student who came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from Honduras. His mother left him when he was little, and he never knew his father. He lived with his grandmother until she died. He was just 13. For two years he lived alone in her house, selling water bottles on the street on behalf of a neighboring family. Sometimes they invited him over for dinner; other times they didn’t.
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He told me that he saw this life in Honduras as a dead end. He crossed into Guatemala, rode on top of trains through Mexico, hiding what little money he had pressed against the inside of his cheek, and swam across the Rio Grande. He was apprehended at the border, placed into a youth detention center, and sent to live with his aunt in Oakland, pending his deportation hearing. He enrolled at Oakland International but, after a couple of weeks, his attendance waned. Soon he stopped coming altogether.
“I didn’t know anything,” he told me. Being in school felt impossible to him because he felt unable to succeed at it. He had an upcoming court case and no lawyer; that, he knew, would cost money he didn’t have.
One Saturday, I took the train into San Francisco to meet a friend. As I waited at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station outside the Civic Center, I watched as, in broad daylight, Latino teenagers sold drugs to the area’s vagrants. I knew this drug ring was connected to MS-13. There, on the other side of the plaza, was my student.
“These are animals,” President Trump said of MS-13 members. Most often, rather, they are like my student: young people, not unlike child soldiers, who enter a violent life by either force or force of circumstance. They do not come to the United States to participate in gang life; it winds up as the only option.
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Our school kept trying with this particular student. We conducted home visits in East Oakland, where he lived with his aunt, found him a therapist he could see at school, and encouraged him to join our school soccer team. He got a free lawyer. He quit selling at the Civic Center. He came back to school.
Newly arrived immigrants are a fast-growing demographic in American schools, and they will continue to be, regardless of the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Yet the Trump administration is pushing for cuts that will affect their ability to succeed in school, or even attend school at all.
The proposed 2018 education budget includes approximately $9 billion in cuts — 13.5 percent of the total. The cuts include an evisceration of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a $1 billion earmark which provides funding for enrichment opportunities for students in high-poverty schools.
Nearly all of the support our school was able to offer my student, and so many like him, was a result of 21st Century funding. It pays for Soccer Without Borders, which serves more than half of our student population, and for an organization called Refugee Transitions, which offers tutoring and homework help. It pays for mental health interns to provide therapy to youth in six languages.
Quality public education is a fundamental, if aspirational, American value. But altruism aside, investing in newcomer education makes practical sense. It costs far more to lock someone up for a year than it does to educate him.
“We’re going to destroy the vile, criminal cartel MS-13,” President Trump announced to a group of law enforcement officers on Long Island, N.Y., in July. To focus on police intervention rather than education isn’t only shortsighted, it’s also been proven not to work. All we have to do is look at El Salvador, where a series of failed iron fist campaigns that combined police crackdowns with a lack of social alternatives served to increase violence.
We could also look at history. MS- 13 was born in the United States among disenfranchised, traumatized immigrant youth in the 1980s and, through deportation, was exported to El Salvador (then spread to Honduras and Guatemala) — where it now relies on vulnerable young recruits, teenage and even younger, to grow its ranks.
Central America’s endemic violence is not going away anytime soon, so, like it or not, these young people will keep coming, regardless of the walls we build or the immigration policies we enact. Excluded and disenfranchised young people seek inclusion elsewhere: on the margins, in the shadows, in society’s dark underbelly. Gangs provide that sense of belonging, along with a feeling of success and upward mobility, for those who are not offered the same in mainstream society.
Last Tuesday afternoon, on a warm fall day in Oakland, more than 60 young men from more than a dozen countries played soccer together out on our misshapen soccer pitch. An additional 50 or so students sat in the cafeteria, working with teachers and volunteers to practice their English and finish their homework. A group of parents met in a classroom to help plan the year’s activities. It was just a typical day at the school — a day full of activities that depend on money that could disappear. If 21st Century funds go away, these programs vanish. Which means the students will find somewhere else to take them in.
MS-13, as it happens, welcomes young people with open arms.”
Pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. There ways of getting the job done. We really need to use them!