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Border Report: Why Central American Asylum-Seekers Keep Making Their Way to America's Doorstep

The Trump administration is determined to quell the number of Central American asylum-seekers who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border. We spoke with several experts about the Central American migrants coming to the United States to seek asylum – who they are, why they’re coming, whether there’s a crisis at the border and how to address it.

A woman directs people from a caravan of Central American migrants into a meeting area, where they will receive legal counsel on pursuing an asylum claim. / Photo by David Maung

The Trump administration is determined to quell the number of Central American asylum-seekers who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here are some of the ways that has happened so far:

The Trump administration argues that the increase in families and children fleeing violence in their countries of origin and seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border is a result of “loopholes” in U.S. immigration laws.

Indeed, there has been a sharp rise in asylum-seekers from Central America’s Northern Triangle region, which includes Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports that more individuals from the Northern Triangle region sought asylum in the United States between 2013 to 2015 than in the previous 15 years combined.

Since the end of the internal armed conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua — which together displaced almost 2 million people in the 1970s and 1980s—thousands of Central Americans traveled to the United States to escape poverty in their war-torn countries.

Today’s migrant flow is different. While there are still men seeking economic opportunities in the United States, there are far more families, children and women escaping violence and extortion.

I spoke with several experts about the Central American migrants coming to the United States to seek asylum – who they are, why they’re coming, whether they are causing a crisis at our border that needs to be addressed and if so, how. Here’s what they told me:

Suyapa Portillo Villeda, assistant professor of Chicano-Latino Transnational Studies at Pitzer College

Portillo says that to truly understand Central American asylum-seekers, you must understand the history of the countries they come from, dating back to the coup d’etat in Guatemala in 1954, a covert operation carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution, which began in 1944.

But for more recent history, she said, look at the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, when the Honduran Army followed orders from the Honduran Supreme Court to oust President Manuel Zelaya and send him into exile.

That led to the most violent years on record in the country, starting in 2011.

“If you look at records of people being detained and making it through at the border, that is when we see a serious exodus of Hondurans and entry to the U.S.,” she said. “There’s extortion, gangs, but also intrafamilial violence against women. People wanted to get their kids out by 2014.”

That year, 2014, is when the U.S. saw a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America arrive at the Texas border.

El Salvador and Honduras started seeing hundreds of women murdered each year, with few  investigated at all.

Portillo noted that there has always been discrimination against Central American asylum-seekers in the U.S. immigration system, because allowing them in as refugees would be an admission by the United States of its role in the instability of those countries. She points to a court case following a 1980s spike in Central American migration caused by civil wars that alleged discrimination against Central American asylum applicants.

Central Americans continue to have dismal outcomes in asylum cases, with around 80 percent of all applications rejected, according to the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Everard Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego

“At one extreme of the migrant spectrum, you have people who are opportunity-seekers, and at the other extreme you have people who are refugees,” Meade said. “I think most of the people we see today are much closer to the refugee end of the spectrum than opportunity-seekers. Back in the ‘90s there were more opportunity-seekers. It’s obvious to everyone who I talk to in the community of immigration lawyers. If we had a desperation index, it’s never been higher.”

Meade said a big part of the trend toward more desperate asylum-seekers is the increase in border security, which has rerouted migrants through the desert and forced them into the hands of smugglers and organized crime, making it more dangerous to make the journey to the United States.

Part of the perceived crisis, he said, has less to do with sheer numbers and more to do with an increasingly high-needs population coming to the border, like women and children fleeing violence. The number of families and unaccompanied minors still represent only about a third of total border apprehensions, which are at an all-time low, he said.

“The basic numbers don’t add up to anything we should call a crisis,” Meade said. “If you have a concentration of a high-needs population, like unaccompanied minors, coming to one part of the border, Border Patrol stations there may struggle to handle it. If you’ve got a whole bunch of accompanied minors that went to particular school district, that school district is going to struggle.”

Alan Bersin, former border czar under President Bill Clinton, former acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California

Bersin thinks it’s problematic that changes to the asylum system are being dictated through courts, not through legislation.

“Under Obama, they interpreted [the court decisions] in a wider way, and the Trump people have tightened it up,” Bersin said. “For me, I’d much rather find a middle ground, but if you want to do it, it should be done legislatively.”

Bersin said the United States should be working more with Mexico to take on some of the asylum-seekers. In general, asylum applications there have been on the rise. But Mexico’s asylum system is inconsistent and lacks resources.

There should also be “safe zones” in Central American countries, Bersin said, where people can be processed in their own country to receive humanitarian parole – a system more akin to the refugee system.

“How do you manage the asylum system so people who need asylum are getting it and people who don’t have legitimate claims aren’t being let into the country?” he said. “We’ve got to have something between open borders and the Berlin Wall.”

Cecilia Menjívar, sociology professor at the University of Kansas

“People know there are no open borders here,” Menjívar said. “People know it is a treacherous trip. It’s a life- or-death situation crossing Mexico. They know they don’t have a good chance of getting asylum once they’re here.”

While knowing the United States does sometimes extend protections helps, what really drives Central American migrants to come to the United States is the fact that many have relatives here. There’s also a long history of Central American migrants seeking new opportunities in the United States. There have been long-standing military, diplomatic, economic and labor connections between the United States and countries in the Northern Triangle.

For example, even when El Salvador was relatively peaceful, early waves of Salvadoran migration to the United States can be linked to the commercialization of coffee, Menjívar said. Members of El Salvador’s coffee-producing elite settled in the San Francisco area, which was the chief processing center for coffee from Central America, as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

“The longtime U.S. presence in Central America created conditions for people to migrate to the U.S.,” she said.

Ginger Jacobs, San Diego-based immigration attorney

People who are trying to enter the United States both from Mexico and Central America generally cite very specific circumstances they are looking to flee, Jacobs said. There is often a story about a relative or multiple relatives getting murdered, or a change in political dynamics in their city that caused them to be fearful.

Jacobs said that violence against women has been climbing in the region for about 10 years. That’s also when the gang cases started heating up.

She, too, believes many Central American asylum-seekers end up in the United States because they have family here.

“The severe violence against women is really hitting a crisis point,” she said. “If you look back to the Central American Civil War, that was more fighting between men. Certainly women, particularly indigenous women, fled, but what you’re looking at more with gangs, the violence gang members are showing is extending dramatically out to women. There’s a lot of focus in the expressions of fear around sexual violence.”

Gangs like MS-13 were created in the United States, in immigrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles, by Central American refugees and their children. Large-scale deportations in the ‘90s exported them to Central America, fueling much of the violence that migrants are now fleeing.

Mexico’s Landslide Victory for the Left

On Sunday, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won Mexico’s presidential election in a landslide. Here are five takeaways from the election from the New York Times – the first is voters’ rejection of the status quo.

The Union-Tribune also checked in with California-residing voters who crossed the border to vote.

San Diego’s Federal Courts Grapple With Zero Tolerance

Next Monday, July 9, federal courts in San Diego and El Centro are expected to implement Operation Streamline, a program that would fast-track illegal entry prosecutions that have been overloading the Southern District of California since “zero-tolerance” went into effect in April, writes the Union-Tribune.

Most of the people charged with misdemeanor illegal entry plead guilty. They often do so to get out of custody as soon as possible, since many can’t afford to post bond.

But the first handful of illegal entry cases that went to trial in San Diego under “zero tolerance” were dismissed.

Someone has set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money for bond funds for the defendants facing illegal entry charges.

More Border News

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