Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Why Central Americans Keep Coming

Stephanie Leutert
Tuesday, September 13, 2016, 7:57 AM

Over the past eleven months, 42,405 Central American unaccompanied children under the age of eighteen have been picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, in addition to another 61,575 families. That’s on top of the plain old adults, who likely totaled at least another 77,000 individuals. In other words, we are talking about some 16,450 Central Americans being apprehended on our southwest border every single month.

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Over the past eleven months, 42,405 Central American unaccompanied children under the age of eighteen have been picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, in addition to another 61,575 families. That’s on top of the plain old adults, who likely totaled at least another 77,000 individuals. In other words, we are talking about some 16,450 Central Americans being apprehended on our southwest border every single month.

In response, U.S. policy has stumbled along—trying what at times seems to be every trick in the book to stop the migrants from arriving. There has been international media outreach, stepped up immigration enforcement, targeted law enforcement campaigns against smugglers, and in-country refugee processing. Yet despite it all, Central Americans keep coming.

To figure out what is going on here, let’s first try to understand who these migrants are and then move through the U.S. policy approaches.

First off, these are not your migrants of yesteryear. Put aside your visions of poor farmers squeezed off their land and sneaking across the border to look for low-paying work in agricultural fields. There are some of those individuals tucked away in today’s masses, but they aren’t the ones defining the group. Many of today’s Central Americans are not migrating; they are fleeing.

But wait, you say: Central America doesn’t have any armed conflicts any more. Those brutal civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador—which pushed their own waves of refugees toward the United States—wrapped up some two decades ago.

You’d be right—at least on the surface. There are today no rebel armies traipsing through Central American jungles and espousing Marxist worldviews. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict. Central America and its Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 gangs have mastered the art of warfare without war.

As I described in a previous post, Central America’s gangs act in many of the same ways as do rebel groups, minus the overt political ambitions. They hold territory, invisibly dividing up cities block by block or taking entire neighborhoods or towns. They set up lookouts for enemy intruders. And they enforce strict rules on those living within their spheres of influence, determining what shoe brand you can use, what color to wear, or the acceptable hours to be outside your home.

We count murder rates in the number of dead per 100,000 individuals, and El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest in the world. But to understand why this region is so gripped by fear, take a moment to think about who the dead really are.

Among the murdered, yes, there are lots of gang members. But there are also the kids who refuse to be mini gangsters. There are the girls who try to avoid becoming gangsters’ girlfriends and the women who don’t leave these relationships. And there are the countless family members of people who ignore the hand-written extortion notes slipped under their doors or who can’t meet a demanded payment level just that once.

All it takes is one neighbor, cousin, or friend who fails to fulfill a gang demand and met a grisly end. The gang’s ambition is to terrorize an entire family, neighborhood, or town into submission or to send them fleeing. And that latter option is exactly what is driving the uptick in Central Americans arriving on the U.S. border. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department reports receiving 6,511 asylum applications from Hondurans, Guatemalans, and El Salvadorans. In 2015, that number was almost four times higher, at 25,699.

The U.S. policy approach for containing and slowing down the migration has been quite broad, with the response focusing generally around three prongs:

Return and Deter Migrants

The high water mark of the Central American migration “surge” was during mid-2014, when an average of 141 Central American children showed up alone on the border every day. The most immediate U.S. response was simply processing the tens of thousands of individuals with the aim of returning quickly those not entitled to remain in the United States. This meant a parallel surge in immigration judges, ICE attorneys, and asylum officers destined for the border—a pretty standard redirecting of resources toward a pressing need. It also led to the controversial reopening of family detention centers, which immigrant advocates have been fighting ever since.

Along with the new resources and facilities, the Obama administration launched “an aggressive deterrence strategy.” The central feature was prioritizing the recent arrivals’ deportations with the goal of persuading people still in their countries of origin that the voyage to the United States is a fool’s errand that they should not attempt. The result has been a mass exodus of Central Americans from the United States back to their countries—an average of 14 deportation flights a week—and high profile immigration raids against Central American families this past January.

This deterrence strategy also entailed a public outreach campaign in Central America, with public service announcements, posters, videos (showing migrants getting cheated by smugglers or dying in the desert), and even a popular song.

Stop Migrants Mid-Journey

Amid rumored U.S. pressure, in April 2014 Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the Plan Frontera Sur (the Southern Border Program), which lists orderly migration and protecting migrants as two of its objectives. To be clear, the Southern Border Program refers to Mexico’s southern border, not ours—our southern border being Mexico’s northern border, after all. Since Plan Frontera Sur—which has received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. support—began, Mexico has stepped up its deportations of Central Americans, with 55 percent of those deportations taking place in the southern border states of Tabasco and Chiapas.

*Border states are Tabasco and Chiapas. Data from Mexico’s Secretaría de Gobernación.

U.S. officials have deemed this approach a success, but there are serious—and largely unaddressed—concerns regarding Mexico’s treatment of Central Americans, especially of children. These include failing to screen migrants for asylum claims and detaining children with adults while both wait weeks or months for their asylum decisions.

The Obama administration has also partnered with Mexico to shut down the infamous train network, known as “La Bestia,” which has carried migrants across Mexico for decades. In July 2014, Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior announced that migrants would no longer be able to ride the trains. While in a recent move, the government stripped the Chiapas-Mayab Railroad Company (one of the operators of La Bestia) of its rail concession in southern Mexico and announced the need for new security measures on the trains—moves that have been interpreted as aiming to contain migrant flows along with securing train cargo.

But it doesn’t stop there. The United States, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, have also attacked migrant smuggling network through “Operation Coyote”—leading to the arrest of more than 1,000 smugglers and their associates and shutting down hundreds of bank accounts.

Keep Migrants in Central America and Process Applications from There

Since 2014, there has been a clear move by the Obama administration not just to deter and detain migrants, but also to address the issues driving the migration at their source. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Congress appropriated $750 million (of a $1 billion administration request) to scale up existing security, economic, and social projects within El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These countries also ponied up some $2.6 billion of their own to back the initiative. The next step will be for this aid to be well invested, monitored, and evaluated.

The administration has also taken the U.S. asylum screening process to Central America. In December 2014, the U.S. government launched the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program in all three Northern Triangle countries, allowing children who have one parent legally within the United States to apply for refugee status from within their respective countries. In July 2016, the program grew to include siblings, caregivers, and parents of eligible children. Costa Rica also agreed to temporarily host up to 200 children in immediate danger.

So far, at least, the combination of these three policy approaches has had limited effect, and the migrants keep coming. The simple reason is that many of the most immediate responses—those based on deterring or detaining migrants or dismantling the smuggling infrastructure—may dissuade some migrants, but will not dissuade those fearing imminent violence. While they raise the cost and danger levels of the trip, they but don’t come close to providing sufficient disincentives for foregoing the journey when the alternative is getting killed at home.

Meanwhile, the move to improve conditions on the ground in Central America, which has the greatest potential to be effective in slowing migration flows, is a longer-term project. And these improvements are far easier said than done. The sustainable solutions won’t come through battles won but rather in efforts to improve citizen security, restitch the social fabric, kickstart local economies, and strengthen political institutions. These outcomes require not just a U.S. supporting role but a concerted commitment across Central American governments and between incoming and outgoing U.S. and regional administrations. In short, it’s a monumental, long-term undertaking.

In the meantime, there may be a space for more creative or bold policy approaches. Mexico could become a stronger partner not just for immigration enforcement but also for the types of in-country refugee processing that have taken place across the region. Other regional countries could also help bear the burden of relocating or housing tens of thousands of Central Americans, which could also direct regional attention and support toward the security crisis. And finally, the United States could explore more aggressive moves of its own, such as providing Central American migrants with Temporary Protected Status, as 146 House Democrats have already suggested.

Without a change in the Central America status quo, it’s hard to imagine that there will any change in the migration patterns. Migrants will continue to flee, emptying out Central America and arriving to the United States by the tens of thousands. There may be no wars in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala, but for those fleeing their homes, there also isn’t any sign of peace.

Stephanie Leutert is the Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes for Beyond the Border, a Strauss Center and Lawfare collaboration, and provides an in depth look at security and migration challenges in Mexico and Central America.

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