WASHINGTON – Immigration experts warned Wednesday that Central American immigrants, targeted by recent deportation raids, are being sent to their deaths in the Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The raids, started by the Obama administration last month, detained mostly women and children. U.S. officials said the operations were meant to deter Central American families from streaming across the southern border with Mexico in a repeat of the 2014 border crisis.
The raids, mostly in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, have sparked outrage among Latino communities and advocacy groups across the U.S.
During a press call Wednesday hosted by immigrant-rights group Alianza Americas, experts discussed the reasons behind the families’ decisions to leave the Central American countries, including strong gang presence and extreme poverty conditions.
“Central Americans are fleeing from places controlled by criminal organizations, where the presence of the state is almost non-existent,” Carlos Dada, former editor of Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, said during the call. “The crisis is not at the southern border, the crisis is what immigrants who reach the border are fleeing from.”
Experts argued that weak economic activity and corruption prompt Central Americans to immigrate to the United States.
Esther Lopez, a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and executive vice president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International, said the union doesn’t believe the influx of Central American refugee families is a result of lax U.S. immigration enforcement.
Instead, she said, people are escaping Central America because of the dire situation of corruption and poverty that affects the area.
Lopez said her organization and its partners documented the “destructive impact” of U.S. trade and immigration policies in Honduras. And she said it is clear that the Honduran government favors corporate interests over the necessities of its citizens.
She said the Department of Labor in Honduras reports that 60 percent of Honduran employers violate the minimum-wage laws, which set wages at less than $1 per hour.
“The lawlessness, the violence, the lack of decent work opportunities requires that we (the U.S.) shift our foreign policy measures in the region to focus on job creation, meaningful protection of labor and human rights,” she said. “This would reduce the pushback that breed the desperation that drives refugees from their homeland.”
Not all, however, believe it is the U.S.’s responsibility to rebuild these countries’ political and financial systems. Mark Krikorian, executive president of the Center for Migration Studies, told Medill News Service it isn’t really up to the United States to reduce corruption and improve stability in these countries.
“We can help, but those societies have to develop on their own,” he said in a phone interview. “We can’t say that we’re not going to enforce our rules because the real problem is root causes, because root causes are a long-term issue and in the long term, we’re all dead.”
Krikorian said he believes any effort to deal with root causes of illegal immigration has to be accompanied with border enforcement by the U.S. government, including deportations and tighter border security.
“It needs to be much more widespread but more importantly we need to prevent it from ever getting to this point,” he said. “Somebody coming from Central America … should not even be permitted to apply for asylum because those people should be sent immediately back across the river.”
But Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher San Diego State University and the University of California Santa Barbara, and one of the participants in the Wednesday call, said the U.S. can’t just deport these people without taking into consideration the conditions they’re being sent back to.
In a forthcoming report to be released by the American Immigration Council, Kennedy found cases in which people deported from the U.S. and Mexico became murder targets.
“Over half are murdered within eight months of their reported deportation, most telling, the largest number of such murders occur in the municipalities with the highest homicide rates, likely pointing to why they left in the first place,” she said.
Under World Health Organization classification, all three Central American countries suffer a homicide epidemic, with El Salvador having the highest murder per capita in the area at 104 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Altogether, the three countries reported more than 17,000 homicides in 2015.
“Unfortunately, El Salvador closed 2015 as the most violent country in the world without official conflict, without war,” said Dada, who teaches journalism at Yale University. “We are getting the same death rates that we had during the civil war, the only difference is that now it isn’t political violence, it is (gang violence.)”