“Most immigrants from Central America who are crossing illegally into the United States are driven by economic reasons, not fear of physical danger in their homeland.”
—Views of Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), who visited Guatemala and Honduras in July, as reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Crippling poverty and lack of economic opportunity are undeniably important push factors driving children as young as five to flee their Central American homes, and head to the United States border. Nonetheless, the most commonly cited reason for the recent surge of unaccompanied minors migrating to the U.S. is violence, especially gang violence at the local and community levels. Much of this violence is directed at young people, many of them of gang-recruitment age. By several accounts, it has worsened in the past few years, coinciding with the current wave of unaccompanied child migration.
1. Numerous mainstream media reports have been documenting the increased violence as a factor inducing young Central Americans to flee. A few examples:
- In the July 9 New York Times, Frances Robles reported from the La Pradera neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where seven children were murdered in April alone. “The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,” a terrified mother of two in La Pradera told Robles.
- In the July 9 Washington Post, Terrence McCoy profiled an anonymous girl who fled El Salvador because she feared sexual violence at the hands of gang members. She explained that a local gang member had decided that he “liked” her, which ultimately put her at risk for “sexualized killing,” something that has become all too common in the region. “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” she explained the United Nations refugee agency that has been helping her.
- In a July 11 New York Times op-ed, author Sonia Nazario explained the correlation between the violence raging in Central America and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States. She profiled several young children who stated that fear of gangs and localized violence were their primary reasons for coming to the United States. Milagro Noemi Martínez, a Honduran teenager who attempted the journey north last year, explained how grave the violence is in Honduras. “Here there is only evil … It’s better to leave than have them kill me here,” she said. Now she says she is ready to try the journey again because the violence has not improved, stating that “I hope God protects me. I am afraid to step outside.”
- In the July 13 Washington Post, Pamela Constable profiled Allis Godoy, a Honduran mother living in Washington, D.C. “In the past two years, reports of gang violence have skyrocketed in Godoy’s homeland, where the per capita murder rate is one of the highest in the world,” Constable reports. “The growing danger made her determined to bring Madison to the United States before she reached adolescence and became a target for gangs and other predators.”
- In the July 15 Washington Post, Joshua Partlow reported on why Honduran children migrate to the United States. The primary reason that he observed was violence. Alvin Rolando Baide, a resident of the Chamelecon neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, explained to Partlow that “They [the two main gangs, 18th Street and MS-13] bleed you … They demand 80 or 90 percent of your salary … They go from house to house and threaten the residents. You have to pay them or you have a limited amount of time before they’ll occupy your house.”
2. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind.
The homicide rates in these three countries support the many reasons parents and children cite for coming to the United States in such large recent numbers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2013 Global Study on Homicide, Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. El Salvador has the fifth highest homicide rate of 41.2 per 100,000 people, and Guatemala has the sixth highest at 39.9 per 100,000 people.
The map below, prepared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in May [PDF], shows the towns of origin of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border during the first 4 ½ months of 2014. With the exception of the relatively peaceful Guatemalan highlands, the principal communities from where migrants leave are those suffering some of the worst of the violence. “Salvadoran and Honduran children,” the CBP document concludes, “come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home.”
3. Many Central American children coming to the United States might qualify for asylum or protection based on violence they have suffered, or face a credible threat of suffering, in their home countries.
According to a recent report by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees [PDF], 72 percent of unaccompanied migrant children the agency surveyed from El Salvador, 38 percent from Guatemala, and 57 percent from Honduras have potential international protection needs. This means that, upon further evaluation, there is some likelihood that they might qualify for asylum or some other protected status in the United States or third countries. Indeed, in the United States, “64.7 percent of the unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum this year got it,” according to a U.S. government document obtained by the New York Times.
It is abundantly clear that many unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence in their countries and seeking safety and protection in the United States. To claim that fear and violence play an insignificant or secondary role in the crisis, or that the unaccompanied children coming this year are mainly economic migrants, is at odds with the facts.