Previously on this blog we have brought you coverage of Europe’s deepening refugee crisis. An unprecedented event, that Crisis will surely have lasting impact beyond Western and Southern Europe, where waves of humanity escaping the Syrian War and other destabilizing events of the Middle East and Northern Africa continue to seek entry. Indeed, despite our geographical separation from that event, the people of the United States have nevertheless been keenly aware and interested in what has credibly been described as the worst displacement of people since World War II. For good or bad, the European crisis has further been a hot-button topic this campaign year with fears abounding about the United States accepting a role in placing numbers of refugees from the affected regions.
Crucially though, there is an equally serious, be it relatively lower-level, humanitarian crisis which has been underway for the better part of the last decade. Unlike the Syrian refugee crisis, this other crisis hits much closer to home and has affected all our lives in far more immediate ways. What I refer to is the sharp influx of migrants, especially women and/or unaccompanied children from Central America, seeking asylum in the United States. More specifically, the United States has seen a five-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving from a handful of especially troubled Latin American countries. These countries consist of what is known as the “Northern Triangle” region of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
According to the Council for Foreign Relations, nearly 10% of the residents of the Northern Triangle countries have left for the United States. In 2013 alone, some 2.7 million people born in either El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras were living in the United States. A number up from the estimated 1.5 million in 2000. Far and away, these migrants have cited continuous and systemic violence in their countries as the primary reason for seeking entry into the United States by unlawful means. And apparently so compelling are these abuses that some 82% of women arriving from this region pass the Credible Fear assessment utilized by USCIS/DHS to determine qualification for asylum
The identifiable causes of the rampant violence in each country are diverse, but common themes include gang activity, drugs, vestiges of civil war, and cultures of political corruption. Arrivals from the Northern Triangle invariably relate harrowing tales of torture, extortion, rape, domestic abuse and other maladies of societies gone horribly wrong. Honduras has long been considered the murder capital of the world with a reported murder rate of 91.6 murders per 100,000 people. In 2015, the reported homicide rate in El Salvador more than doubled making it, currently, the most violent country in the world not at a state of war.
Why do they come?
A part of my previous blog was dedicated to pointedly rebutting the notion that refugees leave their places of turmoil due to anything other than a last resort. What we discover when looking at the growing Latin American refugee crisis is much the same – becoming a refugee is virtually never perceived by such person as an option. That is similar to the statistical evidence available on the Syrian refugees, data overwhelming point to several confounding facts: i) refuges risk the trip to a foreign country forewarned of the dangers inherent in such a journey; ii) make the trip forewarned of a possibility of immediate deportation and/or detention and iii) with the foreknowledge that they may never see family and loved ones again. In the case of Latin American refugees from the Northern Triangle countries seeking safety in the United States, the foregoing awareness is especially well-founded. Beginning in January of this year, the DHS has stepped up immigration enforcement specifically against newly arrived (i.e. post-2014) members of Northern Triangle nationals present in the United States, including expediting the removal process. Thus the message from U.S. Immigration has been loud and clear – venture to the U.S. at your own risk.
What is strange though is that the evidence suggests that the intended recipients of the message have gotten it yet continue to seek out our borders – why?
Statistics from U.S. asylum interviews of women from the Northern Triangle countries reveal that more than ¾ stated they knew that overland journey to the U.S. would be dangerous or involve risk of life or bodily harm. A DHS study conducted on this refugee phenomenon in 2014 concluded “Salvadoran and Honduran children…come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the United States preferable to remaining at home.” A 2014 Latin American Population Opinion Project (LAPOP) of Hondurans stating an intention to risk undocumented immigration to the United State indicated that 86% believed that the journey would be more difficult than in previous years. 80% of that same reporting group indicated that they believed the chances of deportation upon arrival in the United States had increased in comparison to previous years.
What all this demonstrates is that there is an inverse relationship between policies of deterrence and undocumented migrant travel from the Northern Triangle countries to the U.S.. Put another way, the exodus continues irrespective of the clear and present dangers posed to refugees.
Anyone who proposes to have the singular answer to the question of how to humanely yet effectively stem the tide of a major refugee crisis should, in my opinion, be handed the Nobel Peace Prize, head some internationally renowned think tank, or both. What I’m saying is, I don’t purport to hold any definite answers. However, in light of what is increasingly becoming obvious of the United States’ failing and misguided strategy of aggressive deterrence, I think it may be time to turn our efforts towards supporting elements of stability and prosperity within the countries spawning the crisis. Refugees simply don’t come from places with working democratic systems of government, effective branches of law and justice, or from places with respectable standards of living. To put this point in context, according to this instructive CNBC article, the cost of building just 1 mile of fencing at the U.S. Southern border averages between 2.8 and 3.9 million dollars. If the United States funneled that same money into, say, nonprofit organizations working within many of the Northern Triangle countries, committed to improving the lives of women, children or towards supporting progressive political reform, wouldn’t that be tax payer dollars better spent?