My Turn: Central Americans are running for their lives but toward detention and deportation

  • Gabriela Flora of the American Friends Service Committee talks with a Central American asylum seeker at a shelter in Mexico City. Arnie Alpert

  • Mexico’s largest immigrant detention center is in Tapachula, Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. Arnie Alpert

For the Monitor
Published: 7/28/2016 12:20:02 AM

(Editor’s note: In order to protect the identities of those profiled for this article, their names have been changed.)

Ricardo sounded desperate when we met him at a shelter for migrants in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca six years ago.

He was traveling north, trying to get to the United States for the second time. The first time, he said, he was arrested by Mexican authorities and deported back to El Salvador. “If I could stay in my country and make money, I’d never leave,” he said.

The dangers of the trail were well known: thieves, kidnappers, police and perhaps a risky trip across the desert where plenty of people have perished from thirst and starvation. “I could die on this journey,” he said, but he was willing to try one more time. If he failed, Ricardo said, he would return to his mother’s home in El Salvador and “we’ll starve to death.”

In the past six years, the situation appears to have grown even more desperate for people like Ricardo. But instead of taking action to support human rights and peaceful development, the United States is putting its weight behind enforcement and deportation on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

When unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, also called the Northern Triangle, began showing up in large numbers at the U.S. border with Mexico two years ago, the Obama administration recognized “a humanitarian crisis,” to which it responded by opening new detention centers and stepping up the deportation of children and families.

In addition, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, “U.S. officials and members of Congress called for increases in U.S. assistance to help Mexico fortify its southern border, building on construction, equipment deliveries, and training support that began with the post-2007 ‘Mérida Initiative’ aid packages and intensified after 2011.”

“As you look at these children, they are all coming from Central America. If we can close the southern border of Mexico, that stops 99 percent of our problems here,” is how Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, characterized the situation at a hearing.

Speaking at a House budget hearing, Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican and chairwoman of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, stated, “Our neighbor Mexico is on the front lines of combating the illegal migration issue and we must do all we can to help Mexico strengthen its borders.”

Mexico apparently got the message. Since it introduced a new “Southern Border Program” (or “Plan Frontera Sur”), apprehension and deportation of Central American migrants has gone up.

In 2015, Mexico apprehended nearly 172,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle, up from 118,000 in 2014. Apprehensions by Mexico of unaccompanied children from those countries went up by 70 percent during the same time. Meanwhile, U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied minors went down by 42 percent from 2014 to 2015.

So, while the program may reduce the number of migrants who reach the U.S. border, it worsens the real crisis.

Sandra and Juan

Sandra’s case is disturbingly typical.

After her husband was killed by gang members in El Salvador, she fled to Mexico, where she was picked up and jailed for seven months.

Speaking recently in the safety of a church-related human rights group’s office in southern Mexico, she said she had produced proof that her husband had been murdered, even providing a letter from the local mayor.

Despite the evidence that her life, too, would be in danger if she went home, her request for asylum was denied and she was deported. But with the gang threats still real, she was giving it another try.

We met Juan near another border crossing in southern Mexico. He had fled Honduras with his pregnant wife and little boy. After armed gang members stole the motorcycle he used for work, he filed a complaint with the police. The gang responded with threats to kill him and his son.

According to a recent report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Increasing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras forced thousands of women, men and children to leave their homes in 2015, mainly to Mexico and the United States. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers with pending cases in Mexico from these three Central American countries increased from 20,900 people in 2012 to 109,800 people in 2015.”

“The situation is so bad that people have no other choice but to flee,” a UNHCR representative told us. By her estimates, some 400,000 Central Americans were crossing the Mexican border every year. Half of them were probably in need of protection, but only 1 percent were even seeking refugee status in Mexico.

And of that small fraction, most would fail to get protection.

According to a staff member at the Mexican federal agency responsible for vetting refugee claims, only 3,423 people filed applications for refuge in 2015. Of those, only about 1,100 were granted some form of protection by the Mexican government.

In addition to providing the Mexican military and police with millions of dollars of armaments, the U.S. is also stationing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Mexico to provide “mentoring” for members of the country’s immigration enforcement agency.

With stepped up enforcement by Mexico authorities, including shutting off the option of travel on the tops of trains, migrants have been forced into more dangerous routes.

According to Amnesty International’s latest report on Mexico, “Migrants and asylum-seekers passing through Mexico continued to be subjected to mass abductions, extortion, disappearances and other abuses committed by organized crime groups, often working in collusion with state agents.”

If they evade the odds and make it as far as the United States, they still run the risk of getting jailed rather than granted asylum.


Take Mario, a recent detainee at the Strafford County jail in Dover. He first came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 14 years old, fleeing gang violence and direct threats to his life if he didn’t join. After he was deported back to Honduras and his father was killed, he returned to the U.S. and was deported once more.

Deportation did nothing to provide security from criminals at home, so Mario tried once again to make it to the United States.

This time he succeeded and not only found work in construction, he also fell in love, got married and had 3 children. But when he was arrested again, our legal system saw him only as a felon for crossing the border after deportation. Once again he was sent back to Honduras, leaving his U.S. citizen wife and children homeless and his own life in jeopardy.

The stories go on, each one unique but together painting a picture of widespread violence and governments focused on blocking migration instead of protecting those fleeing for their lives.

Though the recently announced expansion of the Central American Minors program is a step in the right direction, it will affect only a small number of the people fleeing violence in Central America and will not prevent the thousands of perilous journeys through Mexico each year.

Responding to past humanitarian crises, the U.S. has recognized and welcomed large numbers of refugees, successfully meeting our international obligations and often strengthening the communities where they settle. There’s no reason we can’t do that once again with Central Americans instead of sending refugees back to their deaths.

(Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program. He recently participated in a two-week fact-finding trip to Mexico focused on human rights.)

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