Fear Is Driving Young Men Across the U.S. Border

Central American countries are losing a generation because of gangs.
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The border between Mexico and the U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The day of his first kidnapping, Wander’s life cleaved in two. Before it, he was a middle-class kid living in a humid, mountain-flanked Honduran city. Growing up, he had a live-in maid, attended private school, and enjoyed a modest but steady flow of new clothing and electronics. After graduating high school, he drove a bus for his mother’s transportation company. Then, on the morning of June 12, 2009, when he was 19, a quartet of masked men approached his black Toyota Corolla, ordered him to exit, and shoved a pistol against his skull.  

Their goal was simple. They wanted money, and they knew Wander, the child of a small-time entrepreneur, had it.

The men pulled a ski mask over his head. It quickly filled with snot and tears. “I was a boy more than anything,” he said. “I knew nothing about life.” The men kept him for three days, until his mother arranged to pay 70,000 lempiras for his freedom, a sum of about $3,600.

Once released, Wander went to the police, who asked him to identify his kidnappers from a series of photographs. He thrust a finger toward a man he recognized, then left. Days later, that man arrived at his door. The police, Wander presumed, had tipped him off. You ratted us out, the man growled, now we’re going to kill you. Once again: the pistol, the ski mask, the crying. Only through error—his captors left him alone, temporarily—did he escape. 

From then on, Wander was a marked man with a powerful gang on his tail. He shuttled northward, arriving in New York in October 2009. “I couldn’t live in Honduras anymore,” he said one day this winter, a sparse mustache above his lips, his cheeks freckled lightly with acne. “These people are consuming my country.”

Wander is part of a new surge of immigrants crossing into the United States: young Central Americans fleeing swelling violence in countries where the state is too weak or too corrupt to protect them. In fiscal year 2009, just over 6,000 immigrants under the age of 18 were taken into custody by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provides services for unaccompanied immigrant youth after their apprehension. In 2014, the government is planning for 60,000.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The surge has prompted the Obama administration to declare a humanitarian crisis and establish emergency shelters for young migrants in California, Oklahoma, and Texas. It has also forced U.S. officials to face a new round of immigration-related questions: Who should receive safe haven in the country and who should be sent back? And how will courts, hospitals, and other institutions deal with the influx?

Most of the young migrants in government custody come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Seventy percent are between the ages of 15 and 17. And three-quarters of them are male. Over the past decade, massive efforts to root out the drug trade in Colombia and Mexico have transformed Central American countries into critical and hotly contested slices of territory for cartels funneling narcotics into the United States. The wave of child and teen émigrés, experts say, is related to the ascension of these gangs, who feed on the money and manpower that youths provide, and pursue them with an almost-religious persistence.

In 2012, the Women’s Refugee Commission, a research and advocacy group, conducted field studies to examine the causes of this unprecedented influx. Of the 151 young immigrants interviewed, nearly 80 percent said that violence was the main reason young people were fleeing their countries.

“It’s push factors, not pull factors,” said Jennifer Podkul, a senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “These countries are losing a generation.”

Honduran police escort two members of the street gang Mara 18. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Those interviewed by WRC described gangs with “join or die” policies. They spoke of limbs left on doorsteps, and of gang members who used rape to coerce girls into selling drugs. “They said that staying in their country would guarantee death, and that making the dangerous journey would at least give them a chance to survive,” reads a report summarizing the commission’s findings.

Wander, for one, never wanted to leave Honduras. He was comfortable there. In New York, he works 13-hour days for minimum wage at a supermarket, and lives in a partitioned section of a living room. He has two young children back home. (After he fled, they moved with their mother to another Honduran city where they can live more anonymously.) They coo to him over the cell phone he keeps strapped to his waist. Papi, papi, te amo.

He speaks with his mother every day. “Am I happy? No,” he said. “It is wrong what is happening to these hard-working people.”

***

For money, gangs target middle-class people like Wander, whose families can pay ransoms. For manpower, they target young men like Boris, a Guatemalan mechanic of modest means.

In December 2012, when Boris was 21, members of a Mexican drug gang kidnapped him on his way home from work in the department of Escuintla. His captors took him into Mexico, trained him to serve as a guard, and made him commit violent acts he would not repeat to a reporter. “It was a typical kidnapping,” he said during an interview this fall. “I was shut in for a long time, tied up, without seeing anything. They threatened me. If I didn’t work for them, I would die, and my whole family, too.”

After a month, he escaped, slipping out of the cartel’s compound in the middle of the night. “I was close to the [U.S.] border. So I crossed the river: swimming, alone.”

Once in Texas, authorities picked him up. Like many immigrants caught at the southern border, he was given a “credible-fear” interview—a screening allowing him to demonstrate that he could make a case for asylum in front of an immigration judge at a future date. The standard for passing this interview is fairly low, and those who do are allowed to stay temporarily in the United States as they apply for permanent asylum, which grants a person permission to live and work in the country. More than 36,000 people successfully made a credible-fear claim in 2013, up from about 14,000 in 2012. Many are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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