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.

Boris passed the screening, and spent three months in a detention center for immigrants. Then he moved to Queens to be with his father, a laundromat employee who had arrived in the United States 14 years earlier. Boris’s children live in hiding in Guatemala.

“We’ve been aware of the gang problem since 1992. But it’s gotten really virulent in the last couple years,” said Anne Pilsbury, director of Central American Legal Assistance, a non-profit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that helps immigrants attain legal status. Pilsbury founded the organization, which operates out of the basement of a church, in 1985 to assist migrants fleeing Central America’s civil wars. She’s 70, and had hoped to retire by now. But starting in 2012, she began to see “a dramatic increase” in the number of clients who told her they were fleeing gang threats. Her office sees 10 new clients a day, she estimated, half of whom are under the age of 21. Some are as young as nine.

A Central American migrant sleeps atop a wagon while waiting for the freight train "La Bestia", or the Beast, to travel to northern Mexico and the U.S. border. (Jorge Luis Plata/Reuters)

One day last fall, Ricardo, then 18, and Antonio, then 14—brothers from Honduras—walked into Pilsbury's office, dressed in slacks and button-down shirts. Ricardo told his story in giant gulps, as if he were gasping for air. 

The brothers grew up near the city of El Progreso. When Ricardo was 16, members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs began to appear in the streets of his town, extorting shop owners and competing to recruit students. One day he was walking with a cousin when several gang members approached, demanding money. The cousin lashed out verbally. The men responded with bullets, killing him.

Ricardo ran, a move that began a months-long game of cat and mouse. He lived in hiding while gang members searched for him. “I had never smoked a cigarette,” said Ricardo. “I had never taken a drink. Only: from school to home, from home to church. These were very strong things for me.”

At one point, gang members shot a cousin they mistook for him. The cousin lived, but Ricardo fled to the United States, bringing his brother with him. Along the way, they were abandoned by their smugglers and wandered, starving, for days.

The brothers arrived in the United States in April 2013. After months in custody at separate detention facilities, they were reunited with their father, a building manager in Brooklyn who had immigrated to New York in 2002. He came to the city to make money for his children, and that income helped his sons live comfortably in Honduras. But it also made them targets. Ricardo studied engineering and computer science, said his father. “The gangs see that my son could be a special element for them, to help them become more powerful. Because he can work in a bank, in a business.”

***

While the number of young Central Americans crossing into the United States has grown, few will find legal safe haven in their adopted home. Some will qualify for visas designated for victims of specific abuses, like human trafficking or parental abandonment. But immigrants who haven’t suffered these particular crimes—including Wander, Boris, Ricardo, and Antonio—are left to apply for asylum. “The real story here is that there are not adequate forms of relief for all those who need protection,” said Podkul, of the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Asylum petitions are rarely approved. Last year, the government granted asylum to 153 Guatemalans (3,253 applied), 181 Salvadorans (4,291 applied), and 92 Hondurans (2,354 applied). The flood of applications has also created an enormous backlog. At the end of fiscal year 2013, the United States had more than 350,000 pending immigration cases, a figure that has climbed steadily in recent years. To qualify for asylum, seekers must prove that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Every asylum claim is different. But cases for these young people often center around one of two questions: whether people threatened by a gang are members of a “particular social group,” or whether their refusal to cooperate with the gang qualifies as a “political opinion.” The Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest administrative body for interpreting immigration law, has so far narrowly defined these terms. Several decisions in 2008 and 2014 have made it difficult for those citing a gang threat to win asylum.

In some instances, winning involves proving to a judge that a gang has taken on state-like power, making resistance a political act. “We have won cases,” said Pilsbury. “Despite the bad case law.”

In El Salvador, Pilsbury explained, a post-civil war power vacuum has created the space for gangs to flourish. “Over the last decade they have grown to the point where they function as the state. They impose taxes. They recruit, just like the military, and they buy off politicians. In Honduras, it’s even worse.”

“We’re never going to give asylum to every kid in El Salvador who is afraid that they might be recruited by a gang,” she continued. “But we should be giving asylum to every kid that has taken some visible affirmative act in defiance of gangs.”

Wander’s asylum case will be heard in August 2014. If the judge rules in his favor, he will have the opportunity to bring his wife and children to the United States. If his request is denied, he can either return to Honduras, or begin an appeals process. A final decision could take years.

One morning this December, Wander rode the No. 7 train to work, peering out over his adopted city from the elevated track. He misses his children, he said, and driving his white-and-green bus to places “where the pavement ends.”  

He also thinks about his mother, who remains in Honduras, where she pays a weekly tax, called la renta, to the local gang for permission to operate her business: 200 lempiras, about $10, for each car and bus she owns. His mother had planned to name him “Wonder”—“like maravilla in English,” he explained.

But she confused the spelling, he said, and he’s been “Wander” ever since.

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

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