By Paola Fajardo-Heyward
The most recent wave of asylum-seekers is another installment in the complicated relationship between the United States and its southern neighbors. While the conversation about immigration policy takes place, two dynamics are missing from the debate: the reasons that motivate individuals to leave their countries and the conditions that determine their arrival to the United States.
According to the Pew Research Center, migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (known as the Northern Triangle) has increased by 25 percent since 2007. This is not a coincidence: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this region experiences the highest murder rates in the world.
Violence is associated with drug trafficking, gangs, impunity and corruption. A study by Vanderbilt University found that the majority of the population of the Northern Triangle does not trust government officials. Without the rule of law, individuals have few options to seek protection from criminal organizations. Children and women are especially vulnerable. Gangs pursue children and young men so they join their ranks. Likewise, women in the Northern Triangle are victims of criminal violence and in addition, more likely to be abused (physically and sexually) by their partners. Indeed, according to the “Global Burden of Armed Violence” reports, in 2015 El Salvador and Honduras registered the highest levels of female homicides in the world.
While fear motivates individuals to leave their countries, threats continue as they start the journey to the United States. Abuses committed on the way to the border are largely documented; thus, hiring a smuggler becomes imperative. Although costly, smugglers are effective as they operate with the blessing and sometimes the support of drug traffickers. Yet, the routes developed by smugglers, designed to avoid security checkpoints in Mexico, rarely lead to a port of entry. Even though individuals would prefer to cross legally, ultimately it is the smuggler who decides where and how to cross the border.
These conditions explain why families, especially women and children, are arriving at the southern border. These individuals are fleeing their homes in fear. They are asylum-seekers, not criminals. The current policy will backfire, as violence (in the North Triangle) will increase.
Remember, deportees from the United States formed gangs in the Northern Triangle when they were forced to return in the 1990s. The policy of zero tolerance will not deter fearful mothers and fathers forced to make hard decisions in the worst conditions. When I visited El Salvador, I witnessed the people’s strength and their tenacity. I saw them thrive after decades of armed conflict, human rights abuses and violence from criminal organizations. They love their homes and their communities, but as any of us would do, they will not hesitate to leave it all behind to ensure the safety of their children.
Paola Fajardo-Heyward is an associate professor of political science, and director of international relations and Latin American studies at Canisius College.