For thousands of Central American migrants, the promise of greater personal security and economic opportunity is what drives them on arduous journeys north to the US border – not the warmer words of the President Joe Biden.
“I didn’t know anything about Biden, I didn’t have time to watch the news. We had to flee so quickly, ”said Carlos, a 28-year-old Honduran who says violent gangs chased him from his country in March.
“I would have stayed if I could, but I just had no choice,” he said.
He asked that his last name not be published for fear of reprisals from those who threatened him.
In Washington, Republican lawmakers accuse the president of instigating a record wave of migrants, blaming his shift to a more sympathetic tone on immigration for the harsh rhetoric of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Yet in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the three countries responsible for the majority of those detained at the southern border – crime, economic deprivation, natural disasters and human trafficking networks do much more to fuel the wave as all that Biden says.
Migration from the region was accelerating months before Biden came to power, due to the gaping economic and social disparities between Central America and the United States, exacerbated by the pandemic. From the start of the year to the end of April, more than 237,000 people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – known as the Northern Triangle – were apprehended crossing the southern border into the United States, according to government data.
Those entering the United States find an economy teeming with low-paying jobs that many Americans don’t want, as well as employers willing to bypass questions about their immigration status.
The migrant surge became an early and unexpected political crisis for Biden, who took office with a focus on stepping up the vaccination campaign in the United States and reviving the national economy. While many migrants are turned away from the border under pandemic protocols established by Trump, tens of thousands of people have been admitted to immigration procedures in the country – including dozens of children unaccompanied by parents or guardians, who Biden says will not be refused entry.
His administration is struggling to tackle the root causes of migration to the United States and has yet to come up with a new policy or come up with a strategy.
Vice President Kamala Harris has been appointed by Biden to lead a diplomatic campaign with the Mexican and Central American governments. She will visit Guatamala and Mexico early next month, after pledging more than $ 300 million in additional humanitarian aid for the Northern Triangle countries in an appeal with the President of Guatamalan, Alejandro Giammattei, in April.
There is no doubt that Biden has been more welcoming to migrants than Trump. As a presidential candidate, he condemned Trump’s restrictive immigration policies and said all those seeking asylum at the US border “deserve to be heard.”
“We are a nation that says if you want to run away and run away from oppression you should come,” he said during a Democratic primary debate in September 2019.
In February 2020, he pledged that “no one would be kicked out in my first 100 days” in office, and issued a stay-of-kick order on the first day of his presidency. Texas challenged the order in court and obtained an injunction against its execution.
Biden and his senior aides dispute that his warmer rhetoric encouraged migration, and they have repeatedly advised migrants not to try to come to the United States now, as the new administration deals with the outbreak and overhauling refugee and asylum programs.
“In shelters in early 2021, migrants were very tuned in to what was going on” in US politics, said Marisa Limón Garza, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, an advocacy group in El Paso, in Texas.
Lately, she said, more and more migrants are obtaining their information from human smugglers. “Conflicting messages abound,” she said.
But she said the migration was driven by “the reality of violence,” government corruption and environmental changes that have made farming more difficult, including climate change and palm oil production.
Biden’s government has yet to find an innovative solution to the root economic and social causes of migration, but Harris has asked his staff to seek out new ideas. The administration has placed corruption at the forefront of its strategy, seeing the problem as so pervasive that efforts to spur economic growth and opportunities cannot take without uprooting it.
The administration has also been more aggressive in partnering with the private sector, both to disburse aid through non-governmental organizations and to persuade businesses to rely on regional governments for eradicate corruption.
Money is only part of the problem.
Guatamala, for example, has the largest economy in Central America, according to the World Bank, but only 40% of its population enjoys food security. Nearly a million more Guatamalans – about 6% of the population – may have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, the bank estimates.
Honduras and El Salvador are even worse off economically, and the leaders of both countries have troubled relations with US Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been accused by US prosecutors of drug trafficking, while President D ‘El Salvarodan Nayib Bukele was criticized earlier this month by US Secretary of State Tony Blinken after his party sacked five of the country’s top judges and the attorney general in a bid to consolidate political power.
All governments in the region benefit financially from migration, leading to accusations from US politicians that they have little incentive to help stop it. Remittances from Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States are an important source of income for families in the country. In 2020, Mexico received $ 42.9 billion, while the three Central American countries together received $ 22.9 billion, according to the World Bank.
“You won’t see a real solution until we start addressing some of the fundamental issues in these southern countries,” said Victor Manjarrez, associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. a border patrol officer for 35 years. “And it’s not just sending money because we’ve been sending money to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for decades now. And the problem is still there.
The United States has allocated more than $ 3.6 billion in aid to the region from fiscal year 2016 to 2021, according to the Congressional Research Service. Trump suspended financial aid for more than a year in 2019 as leverage in negotiations with Northern Triangle governments over border security and asylum deals.
The suspension has delayed many aid programs, “making it difficult to assess the effectiveness of US aid efforts in the region,” CRS said in an updated May 13 report.
Economically fragile at best, the three Central American countries suffered back-to-back hits from two powerful hurricanes in November, causing particular damage to their agricultural sectors – a major source of regional jobs.
Hurricane Eta alone caused $ 5.5 billion in damage to the region, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. It was followed by Iota, who reportedly inflicted an additional $ 1.3 billion in damage, according to Aon Plc.
Endemic violence is superimposed on economic disasters. El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, and Honduras and Guatamala are also in the top 20, according to the United Nations.
Carlos, the Honduran migrant, said at home he made $ 200 in a good week selling cooking gas door-to-door. He was able to send his two daughters to a good school.
But in October, local gangs began demanding bribes that forced him to use up his savings and take out loans. Eventually, he decided to uproot his family and flee.
He crossed the southern border into the United States, but was apprehended and deported to Juarez in Mexico. Like many other migrants, he had hoped to reconnect with his family in the United States who had crossed the border before him. Now, as he awaits news of his asylum case at a local shelter, he tries to be optimistic.
“The only reason I came here was to take care of my family. I know there is work there. I love to work, no matter what job it is, ”he said over the phone in Spanish, crying every now and then.
The month-long trip cost him $ 7,000, he said.
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