The humanitarian crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico continues to develop, and Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. keep arriving at ports of entry to give themselves up and be processed. Refugee shelters and holding areas swell as officials and volunteers desperately try to keep up with the human waves. If we don’t want this situation to happen again in the future, we must study the myriad factors that have coalesced to create the current crisis.
First is the economic hardship faced by many of the refugees in their home countries. Central American economies have struggled to create jobs and opportunities for their citizens. A look at history helps explain why countries in that region throughout modern history have seen stunted economic growth. Since independence from Spain, foreign firms have treated Central America as a plantation to be milked for its riches. The very term “banana republic” originates in Central America, and refers to the power that foreign fruit, agricultural, and mining companies had in controlling local governments for their benefit. This resulted in revolutions, strife, and hardship for Central Americans that still exist today.
Corruption throughout the spectrum from the federal level to the local mayor contribute to the poverty and lack of trust in government. Corruption allows the creation of a dark underworld, which in the case of Central America, means organized crime and gangs that prey on local merchants. They also pressure young men and women to join their ranks, often without any recourse other than death. Refugee families are claiming that they are being forced to leave or have family members killed by these ruthless elements. Governments in these countries appear to be helpless or unwilling to address their gang and crime problems.
Human traffickers have stepped up their game to make money off of the misery by encouraging desperate people to make the trek north to the U.S. They are telling migrants that it is easy to gain asylum in the U.S. and that they will be received with open arms, even though the Trump administration has curtailed immigration to the U.S. and publicly spoken against the Central American migrants. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drug cartels seem to be diversifying their business model by offering paid protection for transporting the migrants from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border. This, in turn, has resulted in larger caravans of asylum seekers because they believe the safety in numbers strategy will keep them from individually being picked off by drug cartel members who will pressure them for payment.
U.S. asylum policy has played a major role in creating the crisis. The U.S. generally grants asylum to people who fear persecution based “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” At face value, fleeing violence or criminal elements in a country would not necessarily qualify a person for asylum. However, there have been immigration judges who have ruled that because women and children (especially in the case of gang recruitment), are particularly targeted by organized crime, thus they are a “social group.” Some judges have granted asylum if they believe that the applicant qualifies for protection based on the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture.
Finally, the way we secure our southern border is also a factor in attracting migrants.
The U.S. government has built the border fence on U.S. soil north of the Rio Grande from El Paso to the Gulf Coast, and north of the actual border from Santa Teresa to the Pacific Ocean. It does this to allow for easy maintenance of the fence without having to notify the Mexican government. It also allows Border Patrol agents to be stationed south of the fence to intercept any illegal crossings. However, the U.S. generally allows migrants to apply for asylum once they step on U.S. soil. This fact allows immigrants to cross the river or dirt border from Mexico, walk to the fence, and find themselves on U.S. soil surrendering to Border Patrol agents, who are bound to take them into custody and begin processing their asylum case.
Due to the surge of asylum-seekers, a backlog of cases, and a shortage of immigration judges, it could be years before a case is heard. Because the Border Patrol and volunteer organizations have limited space to hold migrants while they wait to be processed, many who are deemed low-risk are released to the general public. Many then travel to family members already in the U.S. If their case takes years, a lot of migrants will have children who are automatically U.S. citizens, who could potentially assist their parents in gaining citizenship. Some will never show up for their hearing, taking their chances to live illegally in the U.S.
The U.S. government must understand and address these factors that are pulling Central American migrants to the southern border like iron to a magnet. If each of these issues is not individually resolved, we can expect to see a steady flow of asylum-seekers from Central America and other regions in our hemisphere that know that there are cracks in the system that can be manipulated.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.