Children born in such a land face not only the murder of parents and other family members at the hands of local gangs, but also the problems accompanying extreme poverty, such as lack of education, health resources, and a tenable future. Child labor is commonplace, along with sexual exploitation, trafficking, and child marriage. To live in such a place is to live in constant fear for one’s life. Escape means either joining one of the local mara gangs or emigrating to another land. Therefore, despite the dangers involved, unaccompanied minors and families make the trek to the United States, because they see it as a land of opportunity, or at the very least, as a place with more opportunity than their homeland.
In Honduras, 97 percent of murders go unsolved. These murders are often committed by local and international criminal organizations, including the infamous Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13). Their crimes extend far past murder—child prostitution, extortion, and human trafficking, to name a few. This is an everyday reality for the poorest Latin Americans living in these regions, who cannot afford private security or homes in safer areas. While LGBTQ activists fought for marriage equality in the United States, their counterparts south of the border struggle simply to not be murdered. According to journalists, the police often blame the murders of LGBTQ individuals on the victim’s own carelessness.
Even children are considered targets by local gangs and MS-13. In 2014, 200 children died from beatings, suffocation, or gun violence in the MS-13 stronghold of San Pedro Sula. Often, children and adolescents are forced into the organization, either by the coercive power of poverty or by threats from the gang itself. Entrance into the gang is violent, with initiations often including a 13-second “beat down,” which at times leads to the death of the initiate. With governments establishing anti-gang death squads, the careers of these new gang members are often short-lived. To escape this false choice between gang life and crippling poverty, children and adolescents are forced to flee north, often without parents.
The governments are generally unable to provide the resources necessary to protect endangered children and adolescents. Local police forces are often rife with corruption and act with impunity. Legal professionals and advocates placed under police protection are often killed anyways; 95 percent of all these murders go unsolved. With such abysmal prospects, immigration is often the only choice for many of the poorest sections of the population.
To legally apply for asylum is a difficult process. There are many people who are refugees, who do have right to asylum, and yet who are not perceived by politicians and customs and border patrol officials as people seeking refuge. Because of this diminished access, these asylum applicants continue to face poverty and crime. Even for those who are recognized as refugees seeking asylum, difficulties remain. The slow-moving, overworked United States immigration system, with its limited visas and strict stipulations, often forces people seeking to move to the United States to escape death and poverty to wait years—sometimes more than a decade—to legally immigrate. Surviving that long in such harsh conditions is far from guaranteed. To seek asylum in Mexico is incredibly difficult. The Mexican asylum system is very small and is not providing asylum to cases that would merit it. Under the Obama Administration, Mexico has been pressured to deport any immigrants at its southern border. It remains uncertain if the Mexican government will continue the mass deportation of immigrants. If it were to turn a blind eye to the problem, it is possible that border crossing attempts, along with human trafficking crimes, will surge. If the U.S. border becomes more difficult to cross, more and more refugees and migrants may choose to stay in Mexico and other nations in the region, particularly Costa Rica and Panama. The government of Mexico would be faced with problems of job creation, education, and integration for these refugees. For a country facing numerous problems of its own, a renewed refugee crises would be a substantial burden for Mexico.
Migrating to the United States without approval is no small task. Immigrants face a hazardous trek, one that conservative estimates say has led to the deaths of over 6,000 people. Getting to the United States from the Central America requires first traversing Mexico. Such a journey is often hazardous; reports of violence are commonplace, as gangs hold migrants hostage for money. Mass executions are not uncommon. Nor are sexual assault and rape; 80 percent of women crossing Mexico are raped attempting to cross into the United States. The perils of crossing Mexico also stem from the terrain; thousands of miles of desert mean dehydration and exhaustion are met with little medical care. To cross Mexico is essentially to risk death. Many immigrants employ the services of human smugglers, or coyotes. With the United States investing billions of dollars into border security—the Department of Homeland Security requested an additional $42 Billion for the overall budget in 2016—smugglers have begun to take even more dangerous voyages in order to circumvent tightened security. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, because of “more stringent law enforcement, smugglers may use routes or transportation methods that expose immigrants to greater physical and psychological dangers.” This often results in the death of more vulnerable immigrants, typically children and older women, by dehydration and heat stroke. Moreover, as smaller human smuggling operations are slowly taken over by larger drug cartels, immigrants are increasingly subject to rape, murder, and even mass execution. In one instance, 72 people who refused to work for the Los Zetas cartel were lined up and shot in mass. The deaths of people trying to cross the border is a frequent enough occurrence that in Pima County, Arizona, industrial freezers are used to hold the bodies of people who die trying to cross the border.
There is a clear link to the rise and strengthening of these smuggling and human trafficking operations and border security; according to the UNODC, a nonfunctioning immigration system coupled with a tighter border increases the demand for high-risk smuggling. With no clear sign of illegal immigration to the United States stopping, prices are sure to rise, and the power of these human smugglers and traffickers is sure to rise along with it.
Lisa Haugaard of the Latin American Working Group explained, This problem is not dealt with by walls, it’s not dealt with by harsh immigration policy.It’s dealt with by allowing people to live in their homes” peacefully in Central America, without fear for their lives. In the meantime, however, the lives of millions of unrecognized refugees depend on immigration policies elsewhere.
Taken from here