Migration from Central America

How can we not be shocked after the tragedy that we have seen these past days in San Antonio?

An overheated trailer carrying many migrants–possibly from the border–was found in a Walmart parking lot. Ten men lost their lives and others are still in precarious conditions. Police believe it is a case of smuggling and/or human trafficking and are still investigating.

“This happens more often than we care to imagine,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES, told USA Today. “We see it day in and day out in our offices.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons identifies a clear link between illegal migration and trafficking in persons. In fact, migration exacerbates trafficking.

However, in North America, some migration flows are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Presently, the majority of persons migrating to the United States are from Central America. They are particularly at risk because of their long trek through Mexico which is infamous for cartels and gangs preying on migrants.

These cartels and gangs have birthed a new reality for migrants. A reality of abduction of persons or groups of migrants, held in order to require from them–or their families–ransom in exchange for release. Human beings are being increasingly considered merchandise. Not only is anyone hoping to reach the U.S. border via Mexico expected to pay a “right of exit” imposed by the reigning local cartels, but, as migrants near the border, smugglers (also known as “coyotes”) must be paid to lead the immigrants across the border.

So where are these migrants coming from and why are they coming?

Over the past few years, the violence led by criminal gangs has created worse living conditions throughout Central American, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Territorial conflicts among the gangs have created a climate of violence, terror, and fear that has eroded the social fabric in communities. In desperation, men, women, and children have been fleeing their homelands seeking simply to survive and, hopefully, create a better life for their families. For many, migration is the only option.

In some regions of these countries, the law of the gang is absolute. Young people are extremely vulnerable of being recruited through intimidation and threats of violence against them or their families. They are under pressure to become drug dealers, thieves, or intimidators. Often, families prefer to see their sons and daughters flee their homeland rather than be killed or forced into a criminal lifestyle. As a result, many teens and children are encouraged, even begged, to leave their country, often times without a parent.

What do these migrants face on their way to a better life?

According to reports by migrants who have successfully made it across the U.S. border, violence continues throughout the entire migration route, particularly in Mexico. Most of these individuals are vulnerable due to their lack of legal documentation to allow them to cross Mexico safely. Many are frequently forced to pay traffickers working directly with organized crime networks to avoid being exploited into labor and sex trafficking.

These migrants also often face a systematic cycle of abuse. Public transportation drivers apply higher rates, corrupt police officers require them to pay to continue on their way, gangs claiming to be migrants infiltrate and assault them, organized crime groups inflict violence ranging from extortion to rape, torture, and kidnapping. Every penny is taken from the migrants whenever an opportunity arises. Sadly, many lose their lives.

Perhaps the starkest example of the commonality of brutality on the journey is that many women take contraceptives before their departure from Central America. They know the journey contains a high risk of sexual assault. Credible estimates are that 80% of women migrating through Mexico are raped.

Upon reaching the United States border, most Central Americans admit to their origins, seeking entrance as refugees fleeing from violence and death in their homeland. They are put through a process called “credible fear” so they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship while it is not safe to return to their country of origin.

Local churches in the United States provide a safe haven and passage for these migrants once they cross the border. These organizations aid them on the trips to their families or sponsors. Further, the USCCB coordinates a coalition to alert people and work against human trafficking.

As long as violence and poverty persist in their home country, nothing will discourage these migrants from taking the risk of the journey to the United States. It is not possible to take away their hopes of a better life, especially for their children. Any solution to this problem will require an analysis of every factor involved in the process of migration.

My recent experience of visiting our Sisters at their shelter for migrants at Reynosa on the Mexican border saddened me greatly. The majority of migrants had been deported. They had been taken from their families after working, paying taxes, leading a crime-free life for 20-25 years, only to be dumped in a highly dangerous, gang-infested area, the very atmosphere from which they had fled years prior. You could see the hopelessness, the sadness, the terror that they were now experiencing once again.

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