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Fear drives young Central American migrants

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Everybody has a theory about why more than 40,000 unaccompanied children have been detained at the border since last fall while attempting to enter the United States without documentation. Republicans blame President Barack Obama’s immigration policies. The federal government has stated that organized crime has spread rumours saying that minors can enter the country without consequences. The governments of Central America say the violence there (which they blame on U.S. drug use and trafficking) is to blame. Pro-immigrant activists say the lack of immigration reform is to blame for the crisis.

I wanted to find out for myself why these minors — mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are coming, so I set out to follow in the footsteps of the exodus. Mirna Couto, Martin Guzman and Scott Monaghan, my production team for an Univision special titled Entre el Abandono y el Rechazo (Between Abandonment and Rejection), joined me as we travelled to the countries that drive migrants away. We also spent time on both sides of the border between McAllen, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico. We covered more than 9,000 kilometres over eight days.

We spoke with presidents, human rights advocates, criminologists, "coyotes" and gang members. We listened to the stories of mothers who struggle to support their children; of young people who find no way to get ahead; and children who just want to see their parents, who left for the United States long ago in search of a better life.

In Guatemala, two-thirds of the population in rural areas lives on less than a dollar a day. But we found evidence of desperate poverty even in the capital. That’s where I met Esvin, a man who recycles garbage for a living (he declined to give his last name). He can make 100 quetzales, the equivalent of about US$12, for a day’s work. Enough, he says, to feed his family. If he knew that his two teen-age daughters could enter the United States and stay, he wouldn’t hesitate to send them.

In El Salvador, a 2012 truce between the country’s leading gangs reduced the number of homicides considerably, but little is left of that agreement, and the number of dead is rising. A gang member who asked not to be identified for security reasons told me that young people join the "maras" because they lack opportunities to work and study. But human rights advocates describe another reality. They say gangs go after young people and force them to join their ranks or pay the price, often with their lives. And many young people corroborate this: They’re not emigrating, but fleeing in fear.

In Honduras, which is considered the most dangerous country in the world, poverty combines with the underlying danger on the streets caused by conflicts between rival gangs and the increasing presence of drug cartels. Being young in Honduras is a risk. According to the National Violence Observatory, more than half of homicide victims in that Central American country are younger than 30. Young people in Honduras have two options: either leave or stay behind and face death.

The danger faced by her three children was what led one Honduran mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to flee northward. I met her in a shelter in Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. "They wanted my son as a hired gun," she told me with tears in her eyes. Emigrating to the United States was not something she had planned, but desperation brought her to the border to contemplate crossing. "If I stayed, it would mean their lives," she told me.

This crisis was foretold. The U.S. had known for several years that the exodus of Central American minors was increasing. Since 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras arriving at the southwestern border has multiplied and reached unprecedented levels. It’s not about political statements here or the Machiavellian schemes of unscrupulous coyotes; it’s because so little importance has been attached to the lives of poor children, alone, threatened, with no incentives or opportunities to get ahead.

The worst part is that just as they are abandoned by their families, their governments or the societies in which they live, they are also rejected by U.S. laws, which do not grant them refugee status. Immigrant children are making the same journey toward the United States in search of the American Dream that immigrants from south of the border have been making for years. They face the same dangers, injustices and abuses as the others. They are risking their lives. Except this time, here’s why the rules should be different: They are children.

Maria Elena Salinas co-anchors the Univision Network’s national newscast Noticiero Univision and the weekly prime-time newsmagazine Aqui y Ahora (Here and Now).

— Special To The Washington Post



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