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South of the border | The World Weekly

The USA is home to one-in-five of all international migrants, some 46.6 million people. It is estimated that currently around 11.1 million of these migrants are “non-citizens”, who entered the country illegally, or whose documentation has expired. Almost three quarters of those are Mexican or Central American, principally from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Under President Donald Trump it is becoming more and more difficult for such migrants to enter the US. However, reforms to US immigration policy are set to have the most impact south of the border.

Mr. Trump is keen to fulfill one of his most controversial campaign promises. Construction companies recently unveiled models of the infamous US-Mexico border wall. “The prototypes of the wall in San Diego are highly symbolic of a toughening of immigration policy,” says Edith Zavala, executive director of the Central America and Mexico Immigration Alliance. “They are a clear signal to the migrant population that the government is going ahead with its promises.”

The drive for mass deportation under President Trump has already begun. Immigration reforms include the expansion of accelerated deportation processes and the termination of several programmes which allowed unauthorised migrants to regularise their status. 

Thousands of Nicaraguans are set to lose their short-term deportation relief, no longer deemed eligible for Temporary Protection Status (TPS). Some 195,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans will soon discover whether they face the same fate. Central American children can no longer join parents who are lawfully present in the US by applying for refuge.

President Trump also ended the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals programme, which granted temporary protection to around 800,000 beneficiaries who were brought to the US as children.

President Trump's agenda has only led to a rise of fear and anxiety within these immigrant communities. This is affecting the safety and security of my fellow Mexicans and Central Americans.” - Guadalupe Mora, a Mexican living in the US

The other side of the border

Stringent immigration controls and mass deportation drives officially aim to increase security, and to keep fears of terrorism, crime, and unemployment at bay. But how do those forced to leave the US adapt to life on the other side of the border?

“Many immigrants facing deportation have much stronger ties to the US than to their countries of origin,” Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told TWW. Migrants who arrive to the US as children may have no memory and little culture awareness of the country they are forcibly returned to. Others, who have lived in the US for a number of decades, often have no family members left in their birthplace. Many have partners and children, as well as large networks of friends and colleagues, who are nationals of the country they are obliged to leave.

“I feel as if I came here [to Mexico] without papers,” Ruben Rojas told Human Rights Watch. “I am filled with despair. I do not have anything to do here. My life is in California.”

US Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants who have crossed the border from Mexico into the United States

The reintegration process can be long and taxing. Language and cultural barriers mean deportees struggle to secure jobs and gain access to housing, healthcare and other services. Travelling without identification and with few belongings, deportees sometimes lack the immediate resources to travel from the US-Mexican border to their final destination.

“Finally, they face issues of family reunification,” says Aracely Garcia-Granados, executive director of Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together. “Since 2016 the majority of deportees have tried to bring their US-based family to Mexico. However, the children are often American citizens, and their parents must find the economic means to bring them to Mexico legally.” 

Beyond the individual and emotional impact that deportation entails, such immigration reform can have a lasting effect on the socioeconomic stability and security of Central America. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in particular suffer from widespread gang-related violence, a problem closely linked to migration and deportation.

The emergence of two of Central America’s most notorious street gangs is linked to deportation. Established in Los Angeles in the 1980s, MS13 and Barrio 18 were predominantly made up of young, undocumented Salvadoran migrants fleeing the civil war. Many believe that large-scale deportation campaigns, which targeted gang members, facilitated the expansion of the criminal groups. Now, non-criminal deportees are likely to arrive back to gang-controlled areas where movement is limited, citizens are subject to violence and extortion, and children and adolescents become targets for recruitment.

Gang activity is not only a problem for recent deportees, but is often the root cause of migration from Central American countries. A recent study revealed that 40% of Central American migrants interviewed cited “direct attacks or threats to themselves or their families, extortion or gang-forced recruitment” as the main reason for fleeing their countries. In total, 43.5% had a relative who had died from violence in the last two years, and 57% of Honduran and 67% of Salvadoran migrants reported that they never felt safe at home.

“Although the effects will only be perceived in the long-term, the current security situation in the region suggests that none of these countries are ready to receive a new wave of deportation,” Sofía Martínez, an analyst at Crisis Group told TWW. “Capacities to provide legal counsel, shelter, social reintegration or even transportation for returnees across Central America are scant.”

Stuck in transit

Some Central American migrants, deterred by increasingly tighter US borders, have opted to settle in Mexico instead. In 2016, more than 8,100 foreigners sought asylum in Mexico, almost three times more than during the previous year. Mexico, once a country of transit, is increasingly becoming the final destination.

In a similar vein, more Mexicans are remaining in their home country or choosing to return to it. Detentions of Mexicans crossing the border into the US have dropped significantly in recent years, and net flows have reversed as more Mexicans now leave the US than enter it each year. 

Migrant communities have long passed through Mexico, home to the world’s largest migration corridor. Pressure from the US, as well as internal concerns surrounding the country’s capacity to cope with the influx of migrants, have led to a tougher stance on migration. 

Central American migrants ride on top of a freight train during their journey north through Mexico to reach the United States

“We are seeing a militarisation of the southern Mexico border,” explains Alessio Mirra, a representative from La Casa del Migrante Saltillo, a non-profit organisation that protects undocumented migrants in Mexico. “Public policies are coming into play in Mexico with the ultimate aim of preventing migrants from remaining in the country, and even stopping them from crossing the southern border.” Many urge Mexican authorities to increase support for returning citizens and deportees, as well as the growing migrant population.

For the time being, Central American migrants continue to move northwards, seeking better economic opportunities and fleeing gang-related violence. The journey to the US, and the process of establishing and maintaining a life there, has always been difficult to navigate. Now, it seems, there may be a few too many obstacles in the way.

“The wall”, Ms. Zavala says, “is already being built. These anti-immigration measures send a message to those thinking about crossing the border: that they are just not welcome”. 

Deterred or deported, it now appears that more and more Central American migrants must face up to life on the south side of the border. 

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