It must take a lot to leave your home, young child, maybe even newborn in tow, to walk a thousand miles to a place you’ve heard separates families at its border and uses “outdoor fenced spaces” as “shelter”.
In weighing up the push-pull factor, your push factor must be fairly strong if cages and family separation are the lesser of your two known evils.
America’s inhumane anti-immigration policies have gotten lots of airtime and rightly so, but the stories and motivations of the people at the US-Mexican border have received less focus.
Human beings have always migrated, and countries have always attempted to keep their borders secure. But what’s currently happening at the US border is now being described as “unprecedented”.
On Wednesday of last week, there were 13,000 migrants in the “custody” of the US Customs and Border Protection service. There are usually only about 4,000 migrants in its custody.
Things were so bad last week that migrants were placed in “tents” while they waited to be processed. These “tents” comprised of outdoor areas surrounded by fences and razor wires, where people covered themselves with foil sheets. It was 26 degrees Celsius out.
Some of the thousands of daily migrants also received “shelter” under the Paso del Norte bridge, which links El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
It’s not the case that migrants from Central America make the perilous journey north, unaware of the less than welcoming response they’ll receive at the US border, it’s that they choose that over their lives back home.
When we say Central America, where exactly are they coming from? And what’s it like for them there?
People arriving at the US border are coming from countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This isn’t exactly new. Since the end of the armed conflicts in El Salvador,
Guatemala, and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, thousands headed north to escape war and its inevitable offspring — poverty.
But there is one thing that is significantly different now — it’s no longer male heads of households that migrate north, in order to send cash back home.
“Today’s migrant flow is very different. Yes, there are still male heads of household seeking to pursue the ‘American Dream’ in the US so as to send home a couple of hundred dollars each month to their families. But the crux of the recent crisis at the border is that there are fewer male migrants in their 20s or 30s making the crossing, and many more families, newborns, children, and pregnant women escaping life-or-death situations as much as poverty,” wrote Sofía Martínez, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, in The Atlantic.
It must take a very good reason for a mother, flooded with those postnatal hormones that promote fierce protectiveness, to take her newborn on a long journey only to be given shelter under a bridge, surrounded by razor wire.
What’s happening in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to trigger this kind of action?
There are the gangs, the harassment, rape, kidnappings of women and girls to work as sex slaves, the fear that your child will be recruited into a gang and the reality that your child will be, or has been, killed as a result of gang violence.
In El Salvador, with a population of just over 6m people, about 60,000 people are counted as active gang members. In 2017, the murder rate was 61 per 100,000 people, making El Salvador the second deadliest country in the world, not at war, after Venezuela. America’s had a major role to play in this country’s current unrest.
The 12-year long civil war, that took place between 1980 and 1992, saw left-wing guerrilla fighters challenge El Salvador’s military state and wealthy elite. This elite had a long history in dispossessing people of land.
The US, with an aim of stopping communism in its backyard, (El Salvador is 1,400 miles away from the nearest American border crossing), America supported El Salvador’s right-wing dictatorships with billions of dollars in economic and military aid.
At the end of the 12 years, 75,000 were dead and more than 1m people were displaced to cities all across America, where they worked and sent money home.
Then there was the US immigration policies of the late 1990s. In 1996, with the Democratic president Bill Clinton in the oval office, the US approved the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. So what? This piece of legislation led to mass deportations, where tens of thousands of “convicted criminals” (people with legal status and crimes of a non-violent minor nature) were sent back to Central America in the early 2000s.
This disastrous and often forgotten piece of law has been cited as a key driving force behind the creation of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, the very gangs that Central Americans are fleeing today.
But what if you aren’t fleeing violence, just abject humiliating poverty? Like people arriving to Ireland or the UK right now, some don’t qualify for asylum or refugee status.
You qualify for asylum only if you can show that you have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear that you will be based on these five grounds: your race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or your political opinion.
As the world changes, both with manmade and natural disasters, people are going to move and migrate, for safety and security reasons — for a better life essentially.
Are these people criminals? Leeches? Is it a crime to seek a better life, in a place where you can earn more than €150 a month? Is it a crime to want to rear your child in a community where recruitment to a gang isn’t a daily fear? Is it a crime to want to live in a country where the ground is still fertile enough to grow food?
How we see a person or group of people determines our response to them and their needs. Do we say: ‘No room at the inn’? Or do we deal with the reality of the world as it is? A place where migration is as old and inevitable as time.