ESCAPE: "Emilio" says he still wants to reach the United States, even after being held hostage by a smuggler. (SANTIAGO BILLY PREM)
The freight trains that migrants frequently ride atop in crossing Mexico to reach the Texas border are notoriously dangerous, too. Many migrants fall off. Just last week, one such cargo train carrying 1,300 migrants derailed in southern Mexico, although no injuries were reported.
But like the other teenagers, Emilio, a fifth-grade dropout, had no job back in Honduras, and he says he often went hungry.
“Being in Honduras, because we don’t have jobs, it occurred to us that it was easier to just mug someone,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. Emilio — not his real name — adds that he didn’t steal, just that it was the only alternative he and other young Hondurans have. “When we were hungry, we endured it. ... Some days, you would eat. Other days, you wouldn’t.”
At the shelter in Guatemala City, Carbajal has seen about 70 to 80 such migrants already this year, more than all of last year. A native of Mexico who studied at a Chicago seminary and once ministered to farm workers in Canada, Carbajal says immigrants in the United States have been spreading the word “that there is easy access to the U.S.” and that minors are now treated more leniently than adults, or, as Carbajal puts it, there is a more “lawful” immigration process for minors than for adults.
“Somehow they shared the news with their places of origin, and this woke up a wave,” Carbajal says. “People felt they should just go because it was easier.”
Carbajal’s account appears to bolster complaints by Obama’s critics that the administration’s immigration policies, including the practice of reuniting captured migrant children with relatives in the United States while they await deportation proceedings, have helped fuel the surge of migrants. Administration officials insist that they are following a 2008 sex-trafficking law — signed by President George W. Bush — that gives additional legal protections against immediate deportation to child migrants who aren’t from Mexico or Canada.
The U.S. Border Patrol has captured more than 52,000 unaccompanied young migrants since last October, double the number apprehended in the same period a year earlier. The data include Mexican citizens, but the increase has come entirely from three Central American countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Carbajal, who calls the situation a “forced migration,” insists that the broader immigration problem stems from pervasive violence, deep poverty and economic inequality that plagues Central America, which matches the reasons the administration and many Democrats cite for the influx.
“It’s not fun or tourism. It’s a way to survive and to find in other lands what they can’t find here,” Carbajal says, adding that “militarizing” the U.S. border won’t solve the problem. “We need projects for development to actually relieve this situation.”
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, nearly five times that of Mexico and twice that of Detroit. The Department of State’s travel warning for the country says that even the national police are known to commit murder and homicide. More than half of the citizens of Honduras and Guatemala live on less than $4 a day, and Guatemala has one of the world’s worst malnutrition problems: About half of all Guatemalans suffer from moderately or severely stunted growth.