Massive influxes of Central American families seeking asylum in the United States are overwhelming U.S. immigration facilities.
The crisis along the U.S. southern border led directly to the forced resignation on April 7 of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom President Donald Trump believed ineffectively managed the situation.
As Trump promises to “shut down the border” and “punish” the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for failing to stem the exodus from their countries, the question of why so many families are making the difficult and dangerous journey north appears more urgent than ever.
I have spent much of the last decade conducting on-the-ground fieldwork in this region, and along the migration paths through Mexico, seeking answers to this question.
The region’s extreme poverty and violent impunity are central factors driving this migration.
Yet every migrant’s story is unique. Some simply seek the chance to earn enough money to ensure a better future for themselves or their children. Others flee persecution at the hands of gangs, organized crime or corrupt state officials. For others, insecurity and poverty are so intertwined that drawing them apart becomes impossible.
‘Falling deeper into debt’
Extreme poverty and inequality haunt the region. Today, about half of all Central Americans – and two-thirds of the rural populations of Guatemala and Honduras – survive below the international poverty line.
Meanwhile, throughout the 21st century, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have consistently counted among the most murderous nations in the world.
Many Central American migrants are simply desperate to find work that pays enough to feed their families. U.S. asylum law provides no relief for these “economic refugees.”
I met Roberto Quijones in a migrant shelter in the Mexican state of Tabasco, about 25 mile north of the Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, in late 2017. We spoke as he soaked his blistered feet and tried to mend his busted shoes with duct tape.
Roberto is from a rural town in northwestern El Salvador near the border with Honduras and Guatemala, and had been out of work for two years. For more than a year, he and his wife and their 2-year-old daughter had been living with an aunt. Their welcome had worn thin.
“She’s family,” Roberto said, “but you know you get to a moment when not paying rent isn’t possible anymore. Even if they are family.”
And even for those who can find work, extremely low wages cannot cover families’ basic needs, destroying hope for a better future.
“I can make 200 lempiras, a day working” – the equivalent of US$10 – said Marvin Otoniel Castillo, a father of three from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We spoke in late 2016 beneath a bridge in Veracruz, Mexico, waiting to hop a train to continue northwards.
“So your whole life is falling deeper into debt,” Marvin continued. “That’s why I came. So I could send my oldest child to school so he wouldn’t have to live like his father.”
Running for their lives
Other migrants have been targeted by criminal organizations that operate with stunning impunity in Central America.
Criminal organizations derive much of their power from their deep links with government agents; it’s sometimes impossible to identify where the state ends and the underworld begins. Such connections also make understanding who is responsible for any given murder difficult.
Transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, play an important role in this violence. Estimates of how much they contribute to overall crime rates vary between countries and are hampered by extremely low prosecution rates and a lack of reliable data.
However, gangs are responsible for the region’s most widespread and brutal extortion rackets, which create deep psychological and economic strife for poor Central Americans while also causing countless murders.