The Silent Crisis: What’s Driving Central American Migration?

7 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

During the election and now in the first few days of Donald Trump’s presidency,  the political rhetoric in the United States has manifested into an outright hateful and angry tone toward people of color, especially undocumented immigrants. The Republican Party’s platform historically has been unfriendly toward foreigners and outsiders seeking refuge in the United States, and many fear that Trump’s win will only exacerbate the GOP’s history of promoting anti-immigrant  policies. But underneath Trump’s calls to deport millions of undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin, it is important to examine the root causes as to why Central Americans are fleeing their home countries in such large numbers and taking the risky journey to reach the United States. Because of the dire conditions that force these migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors, to flee their home countries, it is crucial that Americans show compassion to this wave of refugees while considering the boundaries of the law.

Currently, the media attention regarding the refugee crisis is focused primarily on the horrifying situation regarding the Syrian Civil War, which has decimated nearly the entire country and forced millions of innocent civilians to flee. However, less attention is directed toward what drives so many Central Americans to cross the borders into an uncertain future in the United States. While it seems like the American attitude these days is quite negative toward undocumented immigrants, we need to understand what is forcing them to take such a dangerous journey to reach U.S. borders.

Most Central American migrants, similar to many Americans, lived ordinary lives with stable jobs, incomes, and families. Much like Syrian refugees escaping the Syrian Civil War, refugees from Central America are stuck in grave situations out of their control. The Northern Triangle Region, consisting of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, is home to some of the the greatest levels violence in the world including some of the highest homicide rates in the entire world for a non-war zone country, with rates peaking in 2011 at 91.6 murders per 100,000 people. Despite a slow decrease in homicide rates, violence continues to be a part of daily life, it is no wonder that so many people from this region are desperate to escape their homelands. Coupled with an economic depression fueled by government inefficiency and corrupt security forces, innocent civilians have no choice but to flee with as few of their belongings as possible.

The largest contributor to this extreme violence in Central America is the prevailing gang violence that is dominating every aspect of society. Although the countries have government structures, government power is undermined by the brutality of the gangs and cartels, rendering the governments  unable to provide true security to their own citizens caught in the crossfire of gang-related feuds. There are many horror stories from families escaping the Northern Triangle region due to local gangs forcing children to join their groups, threatening them with death or torture should they refuse their offers. This problem is especially pertinent to Honduran children, in which child casualty rates upward to 32 deaths per month. The two major youth gangs in Honduras are driving this extreme violence directed toward children; in the first half of 2014, more than 2000 children escaped from just one city in Honduras. Parents also do not want their children recruited into the youth gangs since the chances of being killed and going to prison also rise up.

Extortion is another major issue related to corruption in the Northern Triangle. In July 2015, Salvadorans and Hondurans paid almost $600 million in extortion money to organized crime groups in their local regions. Families living in villages overrun by gangs pay them the annual extortion fees for their own safety and lives. The most affected groups are poor residents in urban areas, small business, and public transportation operators. If the residents fail to pay the extortion fees, then they become automatic targets of the deadly gangs. Therefore, along with the threat of violence, there is an economic factor contributing to the heavy flow of Central American migrants in recent years.

And even more unfortunately, gangs have been going through a surge of increasing violence against younger civilians, meaning that children are sometimes their primary targets and victims. Since most of the gangs, at least in Honduras, are made up of youths under the age of 18, children usually face the brunt of gang violence when major youth gangs conflict with each other. The killings of younger children explains the wave of Central American migrant children escaping their homes on their own, leading to a rise of unaccompanied minors reaching the southern borders. there is also an increasing amount of asylum applications in the United States from entire families as the situation in the Northern Triangle intensifies with 8,000 asylum applications by the end of 2016. In the 2016 fiscal year, the number of migrants escaping to the United States rose 23 percent from the previous year with  409,000 people attempting to cross southern U.S. borders. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the Northern Triangle’s population have already left their native countries for the safety of their lives, not necessarily to search for better life opportunities. Ultimately, The main reason why Central American migrants are applying for asylum is not in hopes of finding a life with more opportunities but is instead to simply avoid the violence back home at all costs.

Therefore, even if the Republican Party decides to take a more harsh turn on undocumented immigrants crossing the southern borders, it is unlikely to deter Central American migrants from attempting the dangerous journey to reach the United States. With gang violence and corruption making their homes completely unlivable, they essentially have no choice but to escape without thinking too far ahead of their future prospects. Much like Middle Eastern and African refugees, their situation is either definite death back home or a potential for survival in escaping their homes.  Just recently in 2016, there were over 120,000 families and children from Central America apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Even if Trump does manage to build a wall across the Mexican border, the surge of migrants will most likely continue as long as there are life-threatening issues back home. We cannot continue to ignore the invisible refugee crisis happening right in America’s backyard, because it will not be going away anytime soon.

by: Shiyuan Wang