To hear it from the Trump administration, there’s little reason to feel empathy or compassion for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, even as children are being torn from their parents and locked away in chain-link cages.
Under fire for not rescinding the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that has led to thousands of separations, Trump tweeted Tuesday that undocumented immigrants ― some of whom he’s called “animals” ― will continue to “infest our country” if he doesn’t get tough. The day before, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen downplayed disturbing images and audio from child detention facilities by insisting the children were being “well taken care of.” Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, followed up on Tuesday by blaming the entire situation on migrant parents.
“The parents of these illegal alien children, they need to make better decisions,” he told CNN. “Like I hope I’m making the right decisions for my children, they need to do the same.”
This much should be obvious, but Latin American migrants aren’t treating border crossings like college co-eds taking a jaunt to Tijuana. The decisions many migrants say they’ve faced before seeking refuge in the U.S. likely have nothing in common with the ones Homan faces as a parent. For some, it’s quite literally a matter of life and death.
The Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the most dangerous in the world, and they’re not the only Latin American nations experiencing serious problems. The region is suffering from political instability, corruption and extreme levels of poverty and violence, all fueled by decades of failed U.S. foreign policy.
Hundreds of thousands of people have left homes in these countries in search of safety in recent years, often after being threatened or victimized by gangs, government officials or partners.
Yet the Trump administration has shown little interest in considering the circumstances that led people to pay thousands of dollars to take or send their children on a bruising and potentially deadly journey across the border. Instead, it’s taken steps to make the endeavor as painful as possible by subjecting children and parents to additional trauma.
Below, we’ve compiled interviews with migrants that help illustrate the desperate conditions many people face before uprooting their lives and fleeing to the U.S.
Last year, a 26-year-old Salvadoran migrant named Guadalupe told the New York Post that she had no choice but to leave her home.
Like so many others, Guadalupe’s family had been targeted by the “maras,” local gang members who showed up at their door demanding “rent” soon after her husband started a small electrical company.
“My husband didn’t have that kind of money,” she said. “We couldn’t go to the police because [the maras] would find out and then definitely kill you.”
They murdered her husband anyway, shooting him 20 times.
“I knew then I had to leave or they would kill me,” she said.
New Yorker reporter Sarah Stillman interviewed dozens of undocumented immigrants for a January story on the high stakes of deportation. One woman, a young Honduran mother identified as Elena, had been denied asylum and deported after being apprehended at the border. She later returned to the U.S. with her children because she feared for their lives.
Back in her home town, Elena was assaulted at gunpoint by the man she’d fled. He tortured her, holding a lighter to her skin. Other gang members cracked her thirteen-year-old son’s skull. She fled, with her kids, to a tobacco-farming town in western Honduras, where the man who’d been pursuing her found her again. Once more, she escaped to the U.S. This time, authorities agreed that Elena’s fear—and the threat to her kids’ lives—was credible. But ... she is barred from receiving asylum because of her prior deportation.
Márcio Goulart do Nascimiento completed the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border from his home in Brazil earlier this month, bringing along his wife and two children, ages 9 and 15, he recently told The Guardian. When border patrol agents apprehended his family near El Paso, Texas, Goulart do Nascimiento went to jail and his children went into the custody of immigration services. At a recent court hearing, he explained that police in his hometown of Vitória had offered him no protection.
“I wanted to go file a complaint against a drug house in my neighborhood,” he said. “So I went to the police station to complain about this drug trafficking spot and they told me if I filed a complaint I would be killed. That’s when I decided to flee with my wife and children to the United States. I learned yesterday they killed my landlord because he helped us flee to the United States.
“Please forgive me. I came with my entire family because I did not want us to be killed.”
Just after he finished his statement, Goulart do Nascimiento had a seizure. Other prisoners caught him, and a court worker managed to sit him in a rolling chair as his body went limp and his eyes shut.
A Mexican migrant recently told The Associated Press that he was hoping to obtain asylum in the U.S., because he felt it was the only place he’d be safe from the terror of both gangs and corrupt police.
Alejandro Arroyo said he fled Apatzingan in western Mexico with his wife and their 14-year-old son, hoping asylum would bring them to his wife’s family in Gilroy, California. The 48-year-old said criminal gangs killed his nephew and brother-in-law, and he feared he and his son would be next.
They initially sought refuge in Tijuana, but requested U.S. asylum after being robbed by local police.
“I do not feel safe” in Apatzingan, Arroyo said, “and I do not feel safe here.”
Nelda, a 15-year-old Honduran girl, recently told BuzzFeed that she’d joined a migrant caravan in order to escape sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence are pervasive in Latin America, with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras recently ranking first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of female homicides globally, according to a report by the United Nations refugee agency. Experts say the lack of protections from authorities at home is one reason for the growing proportion of women migrants fleeing to the U.S.
“My uncle sexually abused me for 10 years. I still can’t sleep because of all the trauma. When I finally told my mom two years ago she filed a report with the police. He threatened to kill me and my family if we didn’t take it back. He has gang ties because he sells drugs for them. I left with my mom and 13-year-old sister. My plan is to get to the US, enroll in college, and make some opportunities for myself.”
With gangs and other criminal armed groups exerting control over many communities, women often end up effectively being forced into sex slavery, Nelly, a young Honduran woman, told the United Nations refugee agency.
“The gangs treat women much worse than men. They want us to join as members, but then women are also threatened to be gang members’ ‘girlfriends,’ and it’s never just sex with the one; it’s forced sex with all of them. Women are raped by them, tortured by them, abused by them.”
Even when law enforcement isn’t corrupt, they may be powerless to help, said Norma, the wife of a police officer in El Salvador, in an interview with the United Nations refugee agency. She explained that a gang had attempted to extort her family, and sent members to attack her when she refused to pay.
“Three of the four raped me,” she said. “They took their turns…. They tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream. They took off my clothing. They then threw me in the trash.” She said it happened because her husband is a policeman, and she worried her children would also be harmed. “They’d kill me. Gangs don’t forgive….I knew if they didn’t harm me, they’d harm my children.” Without any way to find protection, Norma fled to the United States. Even her husband, the policeman, felt powerless to act. “He feels so useless…he wants to protect me, to do whatever he can for me.”
Jean Stevenson Dorvil, a Haitian migrant, had already spent a year trying to make it to the U.S. when he spoke with NPR last month from a shelter in Tijuana. He had previously relocated to conflict-stricken Venezuela, where his family remains, before continuing north toward the border in hopes of finding better economic opportunities.
“Right now it is very difficult to live in Venezuela,” Dorvil says. Basic things are extremely expensive and jobs are scarce. The situation in Haiti is even more bleak. He says if he is granted permission to live and work in the U.S., his life will improve. There are jobs there, he says.
“I’ve got my family in Venezuela to help, my family in Haiti to help, every month I send them money,” Dorvil says.
Like a lot of people here, Dorvil says returning home is not an option.
Some Central American immigrants are also hoping to escape persecution based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, amid frequent targeted killings of LGBTQ people. A May story in the San Diego Union-Tribune featured interviews with transgender members of a migrant caravan, including a Salvadoran woman who said that other transgender people in her hometown had been hacked to pieces with machetes. The victimization continued as they traveled across Mexico, and only around 20 of the 35 transgender members of the caravan ultimately made it to Tijuana, where many said they planned to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Some of us have been kidnapped, assaulted, and disappeared,” said Ivan Mondragon, 30, who organized the transgender group. “Some have been forced into sex work. Here in Tijuana, one of our girls was assaulted, someone broke her rib and we haven’t seen her since she posted a video on Facebook after she was beaten.”