Why the U.S. effort to stop Central Americans from surging across the border is failing

  • Karla, 28, at an immigration detention center in the U.S. speaks on the phone with her mother in El Salvador, who she had not spoken with since leaving the country. Ilana Panich-Linsman / For The Washington Post

Washington Post
Published: 8/15/2016 6:38:27 PM

Hellen Guerrero left El Salvador only because she felt she had to. Her country was collapsing after the breakdown of a truce between two of its most powerful gangs, and one of them, MS-13 – famous for its deadly machete hackings – was after her.

For years, Guerrero, 30, had visited nearby schools with police officers, preaching against violence. Then, one of the officers she worked with was killed. Soon after, members of the same gang showed up at her house.

“You have 24 hours to hand over your daughter,” who is 13, Guerrero remembers them saying.

Guerrero sold off as many belongings as she could. She raised $8,000 to pay coyotes. With her daughter and husband, she was out of El Salvador the next day. At the U.S. border, she turned herself in to authorities and was taken along with her daughter to a family detention center here in Texas.

The same forces that pushed Guerrero from her country pose a monumental challenge for the United States in its mission to cut down the flow of Central Americans streaming across the Rio Grande. The U.S. has invested heavily in new family detention centers designed as deterrents for female and child asylum seekers. But the prospect of detention has so far failed to change the calculus for most migrant Central Americans, who ultimately decide to leave because of acute fears about safety in what are the Western Hemisphere’s most violent places.

Interviews with detainees, as well as academic studies and accounts from a dozen lawyers and activists who’ve worked with asylum seekers, reveal a key reason that U.S. efforts to slow the arrivals haven’t been successful: Relative to the dangers Central Americans face at home, short-term detention in the United States lacks much bite.

Migrants, merely in making the journey, are taking the risk that they might be detained by Mexican authorities, raped by gang members or robbed by cartels. One woman, Jenyfer Espinal Almendarez, 30, from Honduras, described a perilous bus ride through winding roads with a crack-addled driver behind the wheel. When Almendarez arrived at a detention center in Texas, it was the least imperiled she’d felt in weeks.

“It feels like I’m on vacation,” she said in an interview at the facility. “Here, you are worried about your (legal) case. But you are not worried about your safety.”

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