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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 | Updated on 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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(132)
  • SRogers
    11/16/2018
    ···

    "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

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  • David
    11/16/2018
    ···

    We are tasked with welcoming the stranger. In this case they are fleeing violence, intimidation, murder, gangs, drugs, torture, and other crimes inflicted upon them by gangs and the complicity of their governments. To turn them away is criminal and inhumane. Is this who we want to become?

    Like (49)
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  • SneakyPete
    11/17/2018
    ···

    Let me see Democrats, 1). FREE Housing. 2). FREE Healthcare. 3). FREE Legal service. 4). FREE Sanctuary City Support. 5). FREE Social Benefits. 6). Questionable Voting Rights. And the list goes on and on particularly with the arrival of the MASSIVE Caravan at the Southern border. SneakyPete..... ????? 11*16*18.....

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  • JTJ
    11/16/2018
    ···

    I’m sick of democrats false compassion. They used to be for strong borders, now they just want the votes. Let these people find asylum in Mexico. It is not our responsibility to support the unfortunate of the world. We can’t pay for our own problems, much less everyone else. What if there was no USA for them to flee to? Maybe they would stay home and fight for their country.

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  • Alexis
    11/17/2018
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    Violence, poverty, no jobs, kids can’t have their education free since the government does thing different. It’s basically a sh*thole, that’s why they’re fleeing, they don’t want their families suffering, they just want to provide them with a better future. This is something Donald f*cking trump won’t understand and wouldn’t care cause he is just cruel.

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  • burrkitty
    11/17/2018
    ···

    To get a handle on our drug problem we must find ways to treat addiction as the social issue that it is. A Universal single payer healthcare system that includes mental health, harm reduction, rehab, and treatment for our addicted population. Decriminalize personal drug possessions and legalizing marijuana will cut our prison pipeline down as well as drug imports (weed grows wild here so no need for S. America sources) We must break the economy of drug imports from S. America. The only way to do that is to kill the black market. We can legalize everything and get our laboratories here to make the drugs with some oversight and quality control and corner the market OR we can treat the population or both. I prefer treatment.

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  • Devo.1
    11/16/2018
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    I’m presuming from treading this that these countries don’t allow citizens to own guns. If they did, gangs wouldn’t succeed at destroying neighborhoods. When the government can’t or won’t protect its citizens, citizens must do it themselves. However, in the case of the countries where refugees are ascending on America, their country’s leaders need to be brought to task to fight these gangs and protect their own citizens who are leaving to seek refuge. Also it must be noted, Most of the people running away are young men. Who maybe should be fighting to save their country, not running away.

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  • Kathryn
    11/18/2018
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    We don’t have an immigration problem. We have a gang/drug problem. I say we because their problems have now become our problem! We keep throwing money at these countries and, although they’ve made progress, they just can’t keep up with the gang/drug problem. I propose rather than sending troops to the border to “protect us” from people seeking asylum, we send them to the source of the problem! help these countries combat the gangs that plague them and send thousands of their citizens running for safety. And don’t stay there to impose “order” let them sort their own things out, but help them with this one problem and then leave! I don’t know what else can we do? Keep giving them money we don’t have until the end of time?! We spend over half of our national budget on the military and then use them for the wrong reasons entirely. Here we have our closest neighbors struggling, and that has been causing our own troubles in the U.S....how have we not taken care of the root cause yet?!

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  • Gerry
    11/17/2018
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    Who cares. Not our problem. Most are men. They should stay along with the women and kids. Change their country. Don’t change ours

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  • Tooluser1
    11/16/2018
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    Leftists. Leftists make people flee central America. Meanwhile we're building our very own leftist banana republic where laws are for peasants and your votes don't matter. I who CARES if illegals vote if your plan is to count, recount, and modify ballots until your candidate wins anyway?

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  • Lynn
    11/17/2018
    ···

    Not our problem. Send them back. If they’re Mexican, they’re Mexico’s problem. If they’re in Mexico to cross and they’re not Mexican, THEY ARE STILL MEXICO’S PROBLEM! Don’t let them in. Build the freaking wall, MAN IT, and investigate every applicant for asylum on a case by case basis. If it slows immigration to a crawl, GOOD! If it halts it completely, EXCELLENT!! Then send the illegals back to Mexico, and let THEM sort it out. It is , after all, THEIR problem.

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  • Peanut
    11/16/2018
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    Stop the invasion on our borders. Build the wall. End chain migration and lottery systems. End welfare for illegals. We want a merit based system and restrictions on who comes in and benefits they apply for.

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  • ManfromNebraska
    11/16/2018
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    We live in a country that has socialism as its government. And why in the world would we want to make our country a socialist country? Democrats want socialism. Socialism lays extremely heavy burdens on its people while those in power steal everything from them. The people turn into slaves for the government. I understand why they are leaving their country but that still doesn’t mean they can break our laws. They must come legally. And it’s funny they’re waving the flag of the country they say has persecuted them. And yet they desecrate the flag of the country they say they want to come to.

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  • Brian
    11/16/2018
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    Tell them to stay in Mexico. Because the Mexican government already gave them asylum there. No need to come here for no reason.

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  • Chickie
    11/16/2018
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    The foundation of our government was built on the backs of immigrants, who arrived on the Mayflower and onward. Ships were packed with people fleeing oppression, violence, poverty, and religious prosecution. Those who have trekked an estimated 1,000 miles, (on foot), have risked their lives and the lives of their families looking for a safer life, propelled by Hope. Coming to our borders, where under #45’s administration they will encounter a different type of chaos; one that is wrapped with red bureaucratic tape. #45 has created ill-informed Americans looking at the asylum seekers not as people, but a wave of gang members peppered with overseas terrorists. #45 has reversed the traits, making the asylum seekers invaders, resulting Americans as the angry mob. Spreading lies to bring fear to people is a classic textbook beginnings of a Dictatorship. We must create a policy for processing the people (and future people), seeking asylum. Creating a chokehold on the lives of those who have faced atrocities that we can only imagine is cruel. We must find a way to make it work; treating the asylum seekers with dignity not with hate.

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  • Rick
    11/17/2018
    ···

    We have long been a welcoming nation. The Statue of Liberty declares it. Our morally bankrupt nation has forgotten that we are one in so many ways. We are highly interdependent, and somewhere down the line our genes have crossed.

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  • Sync
    11/16/2018
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    You can’t market your country as “the best and the most free” for 400 years, back countless coups in a certain region as part of your foreign policy, and then be surprised when people flee to your country from the violence you helped cause in their home countries. Let in those seeking asylum and take responsibility for the past actions of our nation by helping them.

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  • Cosmo
    11/16/2018
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    Same reasons why people won’t leave our USA. The people illegally crossing into our country, take advantage of all the benefits legal citizens pay with tax dollars. They bring in diseases, tax our school system, send American dollars back home, criminals and the list goes on. Yes, they leave their birth country because the have socialist thieves instead of Republican leadership. Ever wonder why the Democrats have taken their position on illegal aliens to legal Americans. Safe cities, no wall etc.? Democrats never do anything without a dubious reason. Let’s go back 10 years and investigate what the thieves are truly looking to accomplish. We should have a third party investigate the Democratic objectives and bullet their true reasons as to WHY.

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  • John.Nutt
    11/17/2018
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    The fact that they know they can get into the US as long as they show up at the boarder.

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  • Dara
    11/17/2018
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    This migration by the people of Central America is perpetuated by Americans, our incessant desire for drugs has created this atrocity. These individuals are fleeing for their lives. We are responsible.

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