Central Americans Are Still Fleeing & the U.S. is Pushing them Back at Two Borders: How Will Dem Presidential Hopefuls Respond?

Ever since last summer and fall when the U.S. media heavily covered the massive waves of children trying to escape threatening conditions in Central America, I’ve been keeping my eye on the responses of politicians. Last week at the first Democratic Party presidential debate, candidates unanimously agreed that substantial immigration reform is necessary. The most popular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are both proposing comprehensive immigration policy overhauls (Sanders has been getting flack for a 2007 vote against an immigration bill, despite his thorough explanation of the guest-worker component of the bill in last week’s debate, and Clinton has been increasingly praised since her meeting with DREAMers back in May, her appointment of a DREAMer to run out Latinx outreach program, and her statements in last week’s debate). I am eager to follow Clinton and Sanders as they outline the immigration reform they intend to bring about. Meanwhile, I hope more of the American public reads about this issue as headlines again spread news of unaccompanied minors choosing the perilous journey to the U.S. to escape gang violence and corrupt societies.

“The desperation in Central America driving people north has not abated. The escape route for many migrants has, for now, just shifted.” — Azam Ahmed for The New York Times

Most Americans tend to focus on immigration from Mexico to the U.S., without considering the experiences of those coming from other tumultuous Central American countries separately from those of Mexicans coming to the U.S. Cities in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, have been increasingly unstable, and particularly the youth sees hope in El Norte. San Pedro Sula in Honduras, for example, has been overtaken by gangs, prompting many Honduran youth to leave. Those fleeing such cities must confront multiple borders, including the southern Mexico and U.S.-Mexico borders, both of which pose significant challenges to undocumented migrants.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sonia Nazario became quite popular a couple of weeks ago and is bringing this issue to the mainstream. I find Nazario’s piece to be one of the most compelling and through articles that explains this current status of immigration to the United States. In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, Nazario explains the backwardness of U.S. policies that end up deporting Central Americans, including many children and young adults, to their deaths. She also exposes how Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was pressured by the U.S. to create a Southern Border Plan to crackdown on illegal crossing into Mexico, thus, impeding migration to the U.S. These new policies have led to all sorts of human rights abuses in Mexico’s southern border region.

While some news sources are reporting decreased numbers of children crossing into the U.S., Azam Ahmed for The New York Times makes the important point that attempted immigration to the U.S. has not slowed; rather, children are simply being stopped further south, thanks to Peña Nieto’s Southern Border Plan. Ahmed writes, “The desperation in Central America driving people north has not abated. The escape route for many migrants has, for now, just shifted.”

These children, when stopped at either Mexico’s Southern border or the U.S.-Mexico border, face new dangers. Those deported are especially vulnerable; many of those who fled death threats from gangs are killed swiftly after returning to their home country. As coverage of this issue continues and gains more attention in popular media outlets (including in powerful multimedia projects and documentaries sharing the stories of young migrants), I anticipate both Sanders and Clinton will be called upon to elaborate in more sophisticated terms their plans for immigration reform. I hope that the two also specify how these plans will address the younger migrants with very limited opportunities in their home countries. Until then!

Photo credit: Sonia Nazario’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Refugees at Our Door” showing an immigrant shelter in southern Mexico (photo by Katie Orlinsky).

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