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What Makes People Flee Central America?

How should the U.S. handle the migrants arriving at the southern border?

by Countable | 11.15.18

  • As the latest caravan of migrants begins to arrive at the U.S. southern border, debate swirls as to how the U.S. should respond.
  • Given that asylum law depends largely on the reason a person fled their home country, a close look at the situation in migrants’ countries of origin is critical.

Gangs and drugs

A recent Wall Street Journal article explains that a new breed of gangs is taking over Central America. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 prey on their own neighborhoods in a violent, chaotic model that’s spreading through the region. According to the article:

Latin America accounts for 8% of the world’s population and a third of its homicides, which makes it one of the world’s most murderous regions. At its violent core is El Salvador, where an imported American gang culture rivals government authority, and its leaders hold sway with a surplus of money, guns and willing young men.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, as leader of U.S. Southern Command in 2014, said that cartels and gangs, fueled by the U.S. demand for drugs, “have left near-broken societies in their wake.” In a 2017 speech, Kelly – then Secretary of Homeland Security – argued, “The reason for the drug flow is due to our drug demand and we do almost nothing about it.” 

A recent report found that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – known as the Northern Triangle countries – are experiencing “unprecedented levels of violence outside a war zone” and that “citizens are murdered with impunity, [and] kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences. Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and control.”

Ian Taronji, an immigration attorney who specializes in asylum cases, explained:

“These countries are functionally riven with a gang civil war. The gangs are the law. Not only are police ineffectual in stopping gang violence, but they’re very often in on it. I always ask my clients if they reported their circumstances to the police. They tell me no, because the last three people they knew who did that were killed: Their heads were found in one place and their bodies in another.”

Fewer migrants, but more from the Northern Triangle

According to our partners at USAFacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative aimed at making government data accessible and understandable, the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t say how many undocumented immigrants enter or leave the U.S. each year. However, border apprehensions have declined significantly since 2000, from 1.7 million to just 311,000 in 2017, even as the number of border agents has increased four times over.

As overall numbers have decreased, border apprehensions of Northern Triangle citizens have increased precipitously in recent years.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

From economics to life and limb

Historically, migrants arriving at the southern border have come for economic reasons, and that certainly remains a factor. Gangs increasingly use extortion as a business model. In El Salvador, a recent federal investigation found that MS-13 earns as much as $600,000 a month in extortion payments from bus companies, retailers, and other businesses. Official estimates say that El Salvador’s gangs bring in about $20 million a year from extortion.

The current flow, however, is different. In 2016, 42 percent of people apprehended at the U.S. southern border came from Northern Triangle countries, compared to 13 percent in 2010. While economic incentives are still a motivating factor, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops concludes that generalized violence “has played a decisive and forceful role” for recent arrivals.

Taronji explained further:

“People aren’t safe going out after dark, or even in their own homes. They’re in constant danger. Gangs recruit boys as young as 8 to sell drugs, serve as lookouts, and make deliveries. If the boys refuse, the gangs threaten to kill their families, and they make good on that threat. It creates a situation where the family has only one choice: succumb to the gangs, or flee. It’s a lot like living under ISIS. The fear is not only that I’m going to be killed, but that I’m going to be tortured and killed. People’s bodies are found in gruesome shape. No American would live under those conditions.”

The U.S.’ role

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that U.S. demand for drugs drives violence and lawlessness in Northern Triangle countries. Arms trafficked from the U.S. also contribute to the violence: Almost half of unregistered weapons seized in Honduras came from the U.S. The region also has stockpiles of weapons from the Cold War, many provided by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The Wall Street Journal outlined an additional aspect of U.S. influence. In 2012, the president of El Salvador brokered a truce between the two major rival gangs that provided improved prison conditions for gang leaders. By the following year, the national homicide rate had fallen by 42 percent.

Many Salvadorans, however, felt the government had bowed to the gangs’ terrorism in making the deal, and stopped believing in the rule of law altogether. According to the article:

“Under pressure from the U.S., the government ended the truce after a little more than a year. Murders spiked almost immediately.”

What price, safety?

Regarding the migrants’ arduous undertaking, Taronji said:

“It’s a more than 1,000-mile journey through hostile territory. It’s a very dangerous, treacherous journey. People aren’t doing this lightly. They’re not leaving their homes, families, and country for fun. I said it before, and it bears repeating: No American would ever live under these conditions.”

What do you think?

How should the U.S. handle the migrants arriving at the southern border? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / vichinterlang

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