10 reasons Central Americans are fleeing by the tens of thousands

10 reasons Central Americans are fleeing by the tens of thousands

The Northern Triangle is a gorgeous, fertile land made up of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Why is it so troubled?

The fertile Sula Valley in northern Honduras produces 63 percent of the country's GDP.

The fertile Sula Valley in northern Honduras produces 63 percent of the country's GDP.

Journey through the eyes of José


When José was 8 years old, he and his family fled the farm in northern Honduras where he was born, the ninth of 11 children. It was there that they had raised pigs, chickens, beans, corn, jalapeño peppers and tomatoes.

That was 1999.

“Everything was beautiful then,” he said. “Everything is beautiful being around animals.”

By age 11, after trying to survive with his mother in the big city of San Pedro Sula but finding no work, José moved to Guatemala to live with older siblings. He hadn't yet found his place, so he decided to try his luck in Mexico, where as a preteen he rented from his brother and drove a tricycle taxi. Finally, at age 14, he spent six months on the slow train through Mexico, and even though he couldn’t swim, braved the Rio Grande, to find a life on the “Other Side.”

José’s meandering journey to the United States and away from the idyllic country life began when drug dealers told his father they would kill the whole family if they didn’t give up the farm.

“We were looking for a better future,” he said. “I saw everything. I saw families killed right in front of me. Everybody was trying to get some money somehow. They killed people for just $1.”

The family dispersed. As is so common with those who flee all they have known due to poverty and violence, José’s mother and father still live apart, watching over and being cared for by their adult children.


Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are considered part of Central America’s Northern Triangle. Since 2011, the migration of unaccompanied minors from that area has been 10 times that of the seven-year period before. The majority of them are male and older than 14 years old.

Source: The Washington Office on Latin America.

Source: The Washington Office on Latin America.

With the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally, even when asking for asylum, and the increased media attention on the separation of children from their parents (as adults are prosecuted for crossing illegally), more Americans are hearing about the plight of these children and families than ever before.

We hear about the drugs, we hear about the gangs and we hear about the murders that these children are fleeing. And we can see it in the numbers. In 2015, the two largest cities in Honduras made the top five deadliest cities in the world, with more than 120 murders per 100,000 people. 

The big question is, why are things so bad? And in spite of millions of dollars sent in aid for decades, why isn’t it changing?

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1)            Some of us have heard about the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, and how in the name of preventing communism, the U.S. government aided the suppression of the leftist revolution there (resulting in more than 75,000 deaths). Many of us have heard how the traumatized juveniles and young men fleeing that war are the ones who founded the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang in the jails of Los Angeles.

2)            We also know that the MS-13 gang members returned to El Salvador after President Bill Clinton let their Temporary Protected Status expire, and right on cue they then began to terrorize that country with the thuggery they had honed on the mean streets of the United States.

3)            Where gangs are, there are drugs, so we also know that drugs and drug money are another major factor. In Honduras, “The drug dealers are running the government,” said José. “They always work together.”

4)            Another reason the region has struggled with rule of law and economic problems: a series of natural disasters.

Other reasons are not talked about: Where the wealth is concentrated in those countries, how the rich treat the poor in those countries, and why in spite of so much aid, those with the least resources continue to be exploited there.


5) Carlos Juarez came to the United States from Guatemala in the early 1970s. He said the bottom 10 percent of people in Guatemala are exploited, doing menial jobs for 50 cents a day and place to sleep. Often, they have no education and cannot even read, he said.

“The problem is they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have a job,” he said. “If you go to a hospital, they have no medicine. The rich people steal all the money.”

The middle class are doing all right in Guatemala, Juarez said. The unfortunate are those who are exploited, similar to America's poorest neighborhoods that suffer from crime and neglect, he said, giving the L.A. neighborhood of Watts as an example.

"Nobody wants to go to Watts," he added.

Juarez himself came to America because it was a place that gives anyone the opportunity to work hard and get ahead.

“It’s easy to live in the United States,” he said.

5) What about the wealthy in Guatemala? Guatemala's billionaire community is dominated by old money who belong to an antiquated system of inherited wealth, and some of them live behind walls. One area, built in 2013, is a “nearly independent city for the wealthy on the outskirts of a capital marred by crime and snarled by traffic,” according to the Guardian.

6) The wealthy also pay for protection. And the private security industry in Guatemala is growing rapidly. What happens when you have unregulated, private security forces? In addition to the people they are protecting the wealthy from, they commit crimes, too.

7) One commentator, a former guerrilla fighter in the war in El Salvador, suggests that the wealthy in the Northern Triangle are unwilling to help their own countries solve their problems, instead paying starvation wages to those they employ. They also have no incentive to grow new industries because they are getting billions of dollars sent to their countries by their formerly exploited citizens – who are now being given a chance to work hard and send money back to their families.

Joaquín Villalobos, the former Salvadoran guerilla who is now a consultant for ending conflicts, writes:

The fundamental cause of this crisis comes from the brutally extractive economies prevalent in those countries. The six million migrants from these countries who live in the United States would make up 12 percent of the population of Guatemala, 14 percent of that of Honduras and 40 percent of that of El Salvador. Over the last two decades, these Central Americans have sent their countries the astonishing sum of 12.4 billion dollars in remittances. Exporting poor people has become the local oligarchs’ most profitable business.”

8) Those who try to expose the corruption and collusion between the wealthy and the government are ostracized and their lives ruined.

Los Cabos, Mexico, recently surpassed all other cities as the deadliest city in the world.

Los Cabos, Mexico, recently surpassed all other cities as the deadliest city in the world.

9) Another reason for the surge of children and immigrant families from Central Amerca, which was fairly well known in the U.S. government in 2014, is that rumors have spread among the communities that criss-cross the continent that asylum seekers from Central America were being given permission to stay.

"A May 28, 2014, Rio Grande Valley Sector Intelligence Report tells a story that is strikingly different than the claimed humanitarian crisis the Administration paints as responsible for the surge," stated Sen. Bob Goodlatte at a Judiciary Committee hearing. "The report summarized interviews conducted with hundreds of apprehended Central American minors and, quite frankly, paints a very different picture of the situation. According to the report, when these individuals were asked why they made the journey to the United States, approximately 95 percent indicated that the main reason was to take advantage of the new U.S. law that grants a free pass or permit, referred to as ‘permisos,’ being issued by the U.S. Government to women traveling with minors and unaccompanied alien minors."

The reason was this: the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, passed in 2008. This act for the first time specified what should happen to unaccompanied minors from Mexico versus those from Central America.

“Under the TVPRA, DHS screens Mexican children within 48 hours of apprehension to determine if the child is a victim of trafficking or has a claim to asylum based on fear of persecution. If the child does not meet that criteria, they are eligible to agree to a voluntary return and speedy repatriation to Mexico. On the other hand, UAC from non-contiguous countries must be transferred to ORR within 72 hours of apprehension and are guaranteed an immigration court hearing.”

In other words, unaccompanied Mexican children who do not pass a credible fear interview at the border have the option to voluntarily return in a speedy manner to Mexico. But unaccompanied children from Central America (non-contiguous countries) must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours and must receive an immigration court hearing.

The bill that was designed to prevent trafficking actually encouraged more children to come, and more adults to come with them -- some of them in the business of child labor or worse. Knowing the children would get a foot in the door, it appears adults worked to send them first, with a mixture of reasons for wanting to flee their native lands.

10) Due to the backlog of immigration judges, and the long wait times on hearing a decision for their asylum case, a notice to appear has been, in some cases, confused with permission to stay. Families and children wait years to hear if their asylum application has been approved.

It’s easy to understand why President Obama spoke directly to the parents of juvenile migrants on television and said that if they cross the border illegally, they will be sent back.

And it’s likely one of the reasons that the current administration adopted a zero tolerance policy, to discourage people from seeking asylum. Most of them do pass the credible fear interview, and yet according to immigration attorney manuals, they have mixed reasons for leaving their countries.


Back to 2004, and the 14-year-old Honduran teen José set off from Mexico for the Other Side with a friend who was 19 years old. They spent months sleeping along side the train tracks, begging for food in the nearby towns and getting beaten and robbed frequently. It took them months to get to the Rio Grande. At times, they even drank rain water that had collected in the footprints of horses.

José got separated from his friend and ended up approaching the river with two male adults. At the time, he didn’t know how to swim. The two men told him to take his clothes off, or he could drown. Nervous about their intentions, he opted to jump in the river with his clothes on, and by some miracle he ended up on the Other Side. He was screaming for help, and some fellow travelers pulled him out and told him not to make a sound. They eventually found a ranch house and got permission to sleep on his back patio. Eventually, he was picked up while walking down Main Street in Nixon, Texas.

He was detained for eight days at the border, he said. The air conditioning was unbearably cold. The Border Patrol National Standards state that detention at intake must be 72 hours at most, and that holding areas (such as “cages”) must be comfortable both for detainees and border patrol agents. But nearly everyone who goes through those intake areas describes them as “hieleras,” or literally, “ice boxes.”

While in detention, the border patrol sent away for his birth certificate.

José was released to an aunt, who lived in Los Angeles.

“I want to work,” he told her.

But after one week, she told him he was on his own for a place to live. She was not allowed to have guests in her apartment.

“I didn’t care,” he said. “I was happy. My dream was here.”

José stayed with the leader of the Playboys gang, who treated him like a son. One night, the man got angry and hit him, and someone called the police. The old gangster went to jail for a year, and José was sent to a foster home.

He ran away after he learned that he was going to be deported. For three months, he slept under cars on the streets of Los Angeles, all the while working at night and attending West Adams High School during the day.

“The government here helps us a lot,” he said, adding, “I went to high school in Spanish.”

Eventually, he was put in a second foster home and stayed there from age 15 to 21. And he got his green card, after finding a church (to which he still belongs) and a lawyer.

“I think it really helped me that I went to high school on my own,” he said.

José works as a subcontractor doing drywall and flooring. Now 26, he has a wife and three kids. He pays voluntary child support to his ex-girlfriend. He also sends money to his mother in Honduras. With an exchange rate at 23 pesos to the dollar, her life can really improve.

He files taxes, and just like all U.S. residents with children who file taxes, gets a $2,500 tax credit per child.

As for President Trump, he says “We can’t do anything about it, he’s the President.”

He wishes that Trump would acknowledge the law-abiding immigrants from Latin America. He acknowledges, “Bad people come. That’s true. It’s about 20 percent.”

He does his best to stay out of trouble. As a legal permanent resident, he could still be deported if he got into trouble.

He just wants to work. “I have 30 years to work and do something with my life.” With two years of business administration completed, this kid who arrived with a dream of something better is eager to apply his knowledge in the land of opportunity.

After that, he’ll probably try to go and get his house back.

And that might not be entirely out of the question. Somehow, Honduras is getting better, with Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula dropping off the list of top 50 cities in homicides for 2017.

The Mexican think tank Seguridad, Justicia y Paz (Security, Justice and Peace) attributes this improvement to the Honduran government’s commitment to “systematically eradicate criminal cells” and restore “order to the prison system.” San Salvador, however, still ranks 17th, and Guatemala City is 24th in the world in murders.

Tatiana Prophet is an award-winning journalist who has covered immigration and the Latino community in the United States off and on for the last 15 years, mostly in Atlanta, north Georgia, and Southern California -- namely San Bernardino County, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. She is reasonably fluent enough in conversational Spanish to hold her own in an interview.

Jaime Reyes is an illustrator from Charleston, South Carolina.

Further reading:
Harvard Public Health Review article, 2015

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