Why They’re coming.

Who’s Really Crossing the U.S. Border, and Why They’re Coming
By Stephanie Leutert
LAWFARE, Saturday, June 23, 2018,

Central American migrants riding freight trains through Mexico (Flickr/Peter Haden)

The passages that follow are a much edited and much shortened version of Stephanie Leutert’s original article which I encourage you to read. For letting us know what in fact is happening at our southern border crossing her account is terrific . What would it take to get the president to read her text? More than anyone of us has, especially given the fact that the president doesn’t read at all. Why if ever he did begin to read, say “real news,” not the fake news of Fox and Friends, that by itself might begin to change our country, perhaps even begin to return us to the community of liberal democracies that are now being heedlessly and stupidly thrown under the bus by the president’s words and actions. As he so often says, SAD! DEMORALIZING!


Over the past week, the separation of 2,000 children from their parents along the U.S. border has forced immigration into the national spotlight. President Trump, who initiated the separations and then sought to quash criticism with a muddled executive order, has portrayed the policy as a harsh but necessary measure to stop a wave of migrants “bringing death and destruction” into the United States. He claimed that migrants want to “pour in and infest our country,” while linking those crossing the border to the gang MS-13.

But despite what the president says, the situation at the border is much more nuanced. There’s not a flood of people racing to and across the border. Also the migrants for the most part are far from being dangerous criminals. Most are women and children, fleeing the gang violence at home and certainly not trying to bring the gangs with them to our country.

Trump and co. has tried to tie Central American migrants to the gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. Our own government data reveals that gang members cross very irregularly and are the rare exceptions. The crossing numbers for gang members are far from being the “infestation” as described by the president.

The Migrants themselves today are not the same as they were some 20 years ago. The face of migration has greatly changed. Back in 2000, Mexican nationals made up 98 percent of the total and Central Americans (referring to Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran migrants) only one percent. Today, Central Americans make up closer to 50 percent. A declining Mexican birth rate, a stable economy, and the U.S. border buildup have all contributed to the decrease in migration from Mexico.

Still there’s no one simple description of a migrant. Across the U.S. political spectrum, politicians and activists present Central American migrants as either dreamers or law-breakers; those fleeing violence or those  using to their own advantage immigration loopholes; the crying toddlers or the MS-13 gangsters. Such divisions as these force migrants into rigid categories, losing the diversity of their reasons stemming from wide-ranging demographics and backgrounds.

To understand Central American migrants means first abandoning the depiction of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America as a homogenous region. All three countries of the triangle, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have different histories and contemporary political realities, along with varying security and development indicators, all of which bear on today’s situation. What moves each of these immigrant groups to travel to the United States is not the same.

Take the following map,


which illustrates the hometowns of Central American migrant families apprehended at the border (as reported by the U.S. Border Patrol) from 2012-2017. In Honduras, most families report that they are coming from major cities, such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa; the situation is similar in El Salvador, with of these migrants hailing from San Salvador and San Miguel. This urbanization matters: these cities have high levels of urban gang violence, committed by MS-13 and Barrio 18. These groups have divided control of the cities up into a patchwork quilt and earn the majority of their money from local-level extortion.

For Central American residents, control of these gangs over their neighborhood likely means a weekly or monthly extortion payment simply for the right to operate a business or live in their territory. The price for failing to provide this money is death. All it takes is a neighbor or nearby shopkeeper to be gunned down for failing to pay the adequate fees, and it becomes clear that the only options are pay or flee. Parents may also send their children to the United States or take them north as the gangs try to recruit them into their activities: Boys of eleven years old (or younger) may be recruited as lookouts and teenage girls may be eyed for becoming the members’ “girlfriends.” Older women who date or at one point dated a gang member can become trapped and unable to escape the violence, with partner-violence a driving migratory factor for many women….

Without an ability to live safely or prosperously in Central America, residents begin looking to head north to the United States. That means coming up with the US$6,000 to $10,000 necessary for hiring a smuggler. To obtain this money, residents may sell their land or property, rely on the generosity of friends or family in the United States, or borrow money from local loan sharks and leave their farms and property as collateral…

The journey across Mexico is not, as Trump commented on Thursday, “like … walking through Central Park.” Migrants are extorted, robbed, assaulted, raped, kidnapped, and murdered at alarmingly high levels and with almost complete impunity. The perpetrators vary by geographic area, including MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the southern part of Mexico; larger criminal groups such as the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in the northern parts of the country such as Tamaulipas; local kidnapping rings and bandits throughout the territory; and even municipal, state, and federal migratory and public security authorities. …Women and children are also at particular risk, with nearly one-third of the women reporting that they were sexually assaulted during their trip through Mexico….

The families that the Trump administration has focused on separating make up an increasingly high proportion of the migrants who reach the U.S. border. Previously, many migrants would seek to reach the United States by hiking through the desert undetected. But in recent years, families have begun crossing the border and waiting for a Border Patrol agent, or showing up at ports of entry, to ask for asylum. Before the Trump administration’s recent immigration crackdown, these families would be then taken to a family detention center, where they would have to pass a “credible fear” interview to be released—that is, prove that they have a real fear of returning to their home countries. At least 77 percent of the families pass this hurdle and are released with an ankle monitor or after paying a bond. They can then begin their cases in immigration courts.

The Trump administration is looking to shake up this system. Under the current policy and the June 20th executive order, the administration is pushing to detain families together for months, if not years, while their cases are processed. …

Finally and despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, the numbers of Central Americans arriving at the border are not near the all-time highs, and there is no infestation or invasion of MS-13.

What the data shows instead is something far less dramatic: men, women, families, and children who are arriving to seek safety and the basic American dream of a better life.


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