Gang violence drives child migrants to US, say Central American media

Unaccompanied minors being held in Arizona by ICE for illegal entry into the U.S. are begging Central Americans to secure their release.

Children from Central America and Mexico hop freight trains with the goal of reaching the U.S.
Newspapers in the republics of Central America are covering closely the humanitarian crisis at the shared U.S./Mexico border where thousands of minors, some as young as three years of age, are being held in detention until American authorities can determine their immigration status. Many are attributing the surge of these illegal immigrants to violence imposed on the people of the isthmus by criminal gangs tied to narcotrafficking. According to the Prensa Gráfica newspaper of El Salvador, “Coercion, violence, and extortion on the part of criminal gangs have augmented the number of Hispanic immigrants who arrive at the U.S. border and appeal for asylum from immigration authorities by resorting to the legal formula known as ‘credible fear.’”
 
Prensa Gráfica, which is widely read in El Salvador, in 2009 there were 5,523 cases of ‘credible fear,’ while in 2013 the number rose to 36,454. So far, averred the paper, there have been at least 10,936 such cases in 2014. In October 2013, there were 3,000 such applicants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. All of these, according to the U.S. Department of State and the Drug Enforcement Agency, are countries that are sundered by political instability and violence related to narcotrafficking.
Petitioners for asylum, contended the paper, are fleeing criminal violence.
 
The paper quoted Nelson A. Castillo, an immigration attorney based in New York, concerning the causes of the flight from countries such as El Salvador. “The situation is alarming,” said Castillo, “Numbers talk. The phenomenon of gang violence, which extort or murder those who refuse to join in” have fostered a crisis throughout Central America and Mexico. Prensa Gráfica reported that asylees face dangers should they return to their home countries, having fled to the U.S. out of fear for criminal gangs and domestic violence. In the five year period between 2009 and 2013, said the paper, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency saw a 600% increase in the number of illegal immigrants applying for asylum on the basis of a tangible fear of persecution or torture. 
 
Attorney Castillo, who belongs to the New York bar, had advice for future immigrants to the U.S. Prensa Gráfica reported that Castillo advises immigrants to show evidence of “credible or reasonable” fear in their interviews with U.S. immigration authorities during the first phase of processing before going to court. He clarified that having a hearing about a credible fear is not synonymous with a petition for asylum. Before leaving their home countries, immigrants should consult an attorney in the U.S. in order to make an asylum appeal.
 
La Prensa, a daily in Honduras has reported on the condition of the minors being held at the various detention centers in the U.S., which include an Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The paper reported that 1,118 minors are being held at a “storage” facility in Nogales, Arizona. According to La Prensa, the minors are being kept in trailers and given aluminum blankets for warmth. The honorary consul of Honduras in the Arizona border town, Tony Banegas, said of the situation “The problem is that few are leaving and many are coming in.” The storage facility, which can hold 1,500 persons, is normally used for illegal immigrants from Mexico. Said Banegas, “When I walk past the fence where they have them, they cry out to me ‘Consul, get us out of here!’ So I tell them, ‘If I could, I would take you right now.’” The paper reported that the minors are being brought to Arizona from other states, including Texas which recently had a spectacular increase in the number of illegal immigrant children travelling alone.
 
The Honduran daily reported that diplomats representing the three Central American nations that have contributed the unaccompanied minors are concerned about their welfare. Joaquín Chacón, El Salvador’s consul in Tucson AZ, said that the “improvised warehouse” now sheltering the unaccompanied minors is in adequate. He said that the shelter was used for Mexican adult nationals who were kept for two days and then repatriated. Chacón said that the Central American minors will be there longer.
Regarding fears of infectious diseases in the shelters, Chacón said that health officials plan to vaccinate the minors now in U.S. custody. This followed criticism, said Chacón, that some minors were dropped off at bus stations by U.S. officials without being provided vaccinations or other medical attention. 
 
According to La Prensa, Guatemalan diplomat Carlos de León said his government was unprepared for the onslaught of children along the U.S. border despite some forewarning in October 2013. De León said that the wave of immigrants came in stages. “First there were mothers,” he said, “mothers with children; now they are children directly.”
 
Comments left by readers of La Prensa on a June 10 article about the Central American minors now in custody in the U.S. were roundly critical of the governments of the isthmus. ‘Guillermo8’ commented, “It’s a shame that the United States has to pay for the mistakes of corrupt governments and that people have to leave behind their native lands.” He continued by saying, “A lot of my friends are Salvadorans and they say that if El Salvador could have the land the Hondurans have, we would work it, but Honduras (they say) are lazy and don’t like to work. Could it be true? You Hondurans have the ability to decide and change the course of your country towards a better future.”


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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