The True Origins of the Border Crisis

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A toddler sits on the floor with other detainees at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on June 18, 2014, in Brownsville,Texas.
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The U.S. Border Patrol has detained more than 52,000 migrant children since last October, about 18,000 more when comparing the same period in 2013. As Washington debates the future of the border, reporters at the Arizona Republic decided to go to the source—to the countries these children are leaving behind—to document their journeys to the United States.

As he reported from Honduras, Mexico, and into the United States, Bob Ortega, a senior reporter at the Arizona Republic, discovered that U.S. immigration policies have very little impact on a child's decision to leave their home country.

"The notion that has been put forward by many people that Obama's immigration policies are somehow enticing children to come north simply doesn't seem to be true," Ortega tells The Takeaway's John Hockenberry. "It's really clear, first of all, that a significant portion of these children—probably more than 60 percent—are coming north because they're fleeing violence in their home countries."

While in El Salvador, Ortega spoke with two boys that were considering coming north to the United States. He says that the pernicious gang activity in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is contributing to the mass migration north.

“One of them had to spend the last four months of high school hiding in his house because the gangs had threatened him,” says Ortega. “The only way he was able to finish high school was his teachers were sending packets home for him to work on. Two of his other friends who were in a similar situation fled—one of them fled to the U.S. and was deported back to El Salvador. He was murdered within a week of his arrival.”

Ortega says he also spoke to a woman that has three daughters aged 19, 16, and 10. The family had attempted to move north, though they were later stopped and deported from Mexico, after a gang in San Salvador tried to lay claim to the teenage girls.  

“She fled with her daughters,” says Ortega. “When I spoke to her, she was desperate. She of course did not have her job anymore, and did not feel like they could go back to their house because that would not be safe. She said she could not rely on local authorities because they were doing nothing, and had done nothing to protect her or her family.”

When looking back on recent history, Ortega says there are clear connections between extreme violence in places like El Salvador or Guatemala and the United States. In addition to gang violence, Ortega also notes the U.S.'s historic influence in the instability of these countries.

"When you talk about the roots of violence and the kind of societal violence that you're seeing in these countries right now, that is not something that springs out of the blue," he says. "That is something that springs out of a long, violent history."

The U.S. involvement in El Salvador's and Guatemala's civil wars, along with the American military's use of Honduras as a staging ground in Nicaragua's war against the Contras, has helped to contribute and develop the violence in these countries.

"We have huge military build-ups in all of these countries with a lot of U.S. involvement," Ortega notes. “When those civil wars ended, the people who were involved in a lot of the human rights abuses, who were involved in a lot of murders, remained in positions of power within the political and security structures there.”

In addition to these Central American civil wars, Ortega says that natural disasters in the 1980s and 1990s displaced many in the region and caused individuals to migrate to the United States in decades passed.

“There’s already a significant community here,” says Ortega. “Some of those people got involved with gangs here in the U.S.”

Gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, also called MS-13, and Calle 18—the two dominant criminal organizations in Central America—both have their origins in the Los Angeles area. Ortega says that when the United States deported large numbers of people who had criminal records, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were not informed by the United States that these criminals would be returning to their nations.

“They were not prepared for them, and they were caught off guard,” he says. “That has continued to be an issue and a very sore point between those governments of those countries and the U.S.”

He also argues that U.S. border policies have led many migrants to change their routes. Today, most are forced to make their way through areas controlled by drug cartels. As Ortega explains, "The drug cartels essentially control the human smuggling routes into the U.S."