When the Border Patrol found a group of 95 Central Americans gathered in Southern Arizona’s scorching desert last weekend, a trend was highlighted.
Since 2014, arrivals to the United States of people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have risen consistently, as overall migration from Mexico slows.
Today, people from the area known as the Northern Triangle make up the largest share of southwest border apprehensions. Many of them are parents traveling with children and minors.
The group detained July 28 near the border crossing at Lukeville was comprised of people from those three Central American countries, ranging in age from 3 months to 60 years. After being found to be in good health, they were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing, The Associated Press reported.
Every day such groups of parents and their children arrive in Southern Arizona for a shot at refuge. Some line up at the Nogales port of entry to wait their turn; others cross through the desert and look for a Border Patrol agent so they can turn themselves in.
Many are fleeing gangs, domestic violence or entrenched poverty from countries that grapple with corruption and are still trying to recover from years of civil wars.
In 2000, only 2 percent of Border Patrol apprehensions were of people referred to by the agency as “other than Mexicans.” By 2017, that number had climbed to 58 percent. It includes people from around the world, but a large share are from Central America.
“The civil wars that engulfed the Northern Triangle in the latter half of the 20th century resulted in reduced public trust in government and feelings of personal insecurity,” researchers with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, reported in May. That left a fertile ground for gangs, cartels and other criminal groups, it said.
That left government institutions weak, with corruption widespread, economies stagnant, inequality high, indigenous people routinely forced off their land and citizens’ rights regularly violated, the authors of the “Central American Immigrants in the United States” report wrote.
The current situation in the area is almost as bad as the era of civil wars in Central America around the 1980s, said Adam Isacson, who is with the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy and research organization in D.C.
“While that region has not been in official armed conflict, it might as well be. It doesn’t follow the rules of a civil war or an insurgency, it’s not about politics, but the number of people being threatened or killed and forcibly recruited, raped and tortured, and not being protected is the same as if there were a war happening,” Isacson said.
People are not only fleeing to the United States, they are also seeking refuge in places like Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.
And it’s not likely to end anytime soon.
Barriers to asylum
“Migration is a complicated human phenomenon,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor in the Latin American department at the University of Arizona who focuses her research on Central America.
“People come for different reasons,” she noted, some having to do with deep poverty and lack of opportunity in Guatemala, or gang and domestic violence.
They are not “storming the border,” she said, but instead exercising their right to peacefully seek asylum.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently dismissed domestic and social violence as a reason for people to seek asylum in the United States, potentially closing the door on thousands of asylum-seekers and those in the process.
“The prototypical refugee flees her home country because the government has persecuted her,” Sessions wrote in his order.
“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances. Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”
This overturned a decision made by the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals in 2016 that allowed victims of domestic violence to be considered for asylum.
That hurts the most vulnerable, Oglesby said.
It’s still early to say what impact this change will have, Isacson said. But if the percentage of those who pass the initial “credible fear” threshold, the first step in seeking asylum, starts to drop to something like 20 percent, from about 70 percent, some might start shifting to crossing the border illegally, he said.
“It would seal the fate of many, especially those trying to come through Arizona. … Yes, people might stop trying to come, but there’s going to be a lot more dead people,” he said, referring to the perils of crossing the desert.
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican, has come out in support of the Trump administration’s tough immigration enforcement efforts, saying that MS-13 gang members and others could enter the U.S. by abusing legal loopholes.
“UACs (unaccompanied minors) from El Salvador and other Central American countries are given different treatment than those from Mexico or other countries like Canada and are allowed to remain in the United States only to disappear into the shadows. Is MS-13 using loopholes in our law to send individuals to the United States?” she asked U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a Southwest U.S. tour .
An even more critical issue than street gangs like MS-13 or its rival the 18th Street Gang, Oglesby said, is government-linked organized crime and corruption, which create security threats and drain resources that could be used for development to mitigate migration.
But politicians often don’t talk about real solutions, including ways to support efforts to combat organized crime, she said, “which would have an impact on people’s everyday situation of citizen security and the stability of the government and the ability of the government to invest resources in social development.”
describing their fears
After waiting outside ports of entry in Nogales to be processed, or after being released from Border Patrol custody, families arrive at Casa Alitas, where they can shower, have a warm meal and relax for the first time in days.
Here, shelter workers and volunteers say they see those who come for a better future, those who are fleeing for their lives, those who want to reunite with family — and those who saw no other choice but to leave everything behind.
There are men like Camilo, a father from Guatemala, who said he fled with his 17-year-old daughter when a gang threatened to rape her and kill all of them if they went to police.
Camilo said he tried to stay and make a better life for his family, but conditions were too difficult.
He took any job he could in the fields for very little, around 40 quetzales a day, or about $5.
After his daughter was forced to give up her studies, “She told me ‘what can we do?’” Camilo said, “And I told her, ‘honestly, we can’t do anything.’” Camilo asked that only his first name be used, for security reasons.
He said in June that they would be going to live with a friend in South Carolina while their immigration cases are processed.
Since Casa Alitas opened in 2014 in response to a then-growing number of families coming across the border, the walls of the small Tucson house have been covered with drawings by those who have passed through its doors, with thank-you notes written with big hearts. There are multiple versions and sizes of the U.S. flag on display, of the Virgin of Guadalupe and of the home villages migrants may never see again.
The families send their blessings to the staff at Casa Alitas for welcoming them. “God bless you,” they write over and over.
Every week, several parents with their children arrive at the Catholic Community Services shelter. They’ve been released by immigration authorities to continue the processing of their cases at a final destination, usually a place where they have a friend or relative who can sponsor them.
So far this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have made more than 95,000 apprehensions along the Southwest border of unaccompanied minors and family units from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. That’s in addition to about 24,000 others who have presented themselves at ports of entry.
The most common reason heard by Teresa Cavendish, director of the shelter, of why people left their homes is violence and extortion by gangs, she said.
“Social violence and domestic violence are the two most common things that we hear, and they’re very real and they’re not manageable,” she said.
Cavendish particularly remembers a story of a family that had one of two options: Sell their farm to pay a smuggler to take them to the United States, or death.
The Central American countries have some of the highest crime rates in the world, especially against women. With 60 murders per 100,000 people in 2017, El Salvador was the deadliest place in the world not at war. Almost 4,000 people were killed there last year. It also had the third-highest rate of violent deaths of women in the world in 2015, while Honduras ranked fifth.
In Guatemala, the Migration Policy Institute and other researchers have found that migration is more often linked to a mix of general violence, poverty and rights violations, especially among indigenous people.
More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, from which the country has not fully recovered.
Extortion is rising in the Guatemalan highlands on routes used for drug smuggling. Between 85 to 90 percent of cocaine goes through the Mexico-Central America corridor, Isacson said, and most of that goes overland through Guatemala.
“It is so difficult for us to put ourselves in their place because we have been very fortunate in this country to not have to endure some of these things,” Cavendish said.
“When I write and teach about Central American immigration, people often ask me, ‘Why don’t people stay in their country and struggle for their country?’” Oglesby said,. “Well, they did that for decades. The U.S. overthrew the democratic government in Guatemala in 1954, we funded the counterinsurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador. …”
Central Americans struggled for decades to be able to forge more equitable and democratic societies, she said. “The United States put itself on the wrong side in those struggles and now we’re reaping the whirlwind of that.”