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Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson yesterday toured the warehouse in Nogales, Arizona, where some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children who’ve illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year are being held.
Republicans blame Obama administration policies for the recent wave of child immigrants. The White House blames gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The picture from Guatemala is more nuanced. Mike McDonald, who writes for Reuters from Guatemala City, says the Guatemalan government is trying to inform people that U.S. policy towards new immigrants hasn’t changed, and immigrants fed up with gang extortion are being duped by coyotes who smuggle them across the border.
McDonald discusses the view from Guatamala with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
The Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is warning Central Americans that there is no free pass to live in the U.S. It's all an attempt to stem the flow of thousands of unaccompanied children who've been crossing the border illegally. There are a number of theories about why that has been happening. Republicans have blamed the Obama administration's immigration policies. The White House blames gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. And we want to get right to the source for answers. So we called up Mike McDonald who writes for Reuters news agency in Guatemala. He's with us via Skype from Guatemala City. Mike, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
MIKE MCDONALD: Hi, thank you for having me.
HOBSON: Well, and what would you say is driving this wave of children immigrating, especially?
MCDONALD: Well, you know, I think there's a lot of factors. I think, especially in some of these rural communities, farming villages, sort of on the outskirts of Guatemala City and some of the very rural areas, I think one of the main factors is just a lack of economic opportunity in these villages. A lot of the fathers of these families have migrated to the United States in previous years in search of jobs - in search of opportunities in the United States, in order to make a higher wage in the United States. And with better wage in the United States, they send back a pretty good portion to their families back via remittances. And so what you're seeing with some of these child migrants is that they're going to reunite with their fathers that have been in the U.S. for a while and I think that's part of the reason why you're seeing this sort of influx of children - of women and children that are crossing the border now.
HOBSON: But the economic opportunity hasn't changed dramatically in the last six months. So why are so many people coming now?
MCDONALD: There's been some talk here - these coyotes which are the people smugglers, which help the immigrants reach the United States, they've been telling immigrants, in the past year or two, that they would qualify for some sort of residency under the immigration reform that's in the U.S. Congress at the moment. They've been sort of using that and are manipulating some of these communities. You know, the correct information might not be reaching these communities. So some of these people smugglers have been telling them that if you go now and you cross the border now and you're a child or you're a female, you're going to qualify for some sort of residency. And in some of these communities, you know, these people have been believing this, right? So I think that's also helped increase the numbers this year and last year as well because child immigration is nothing new. I mean, there's been family reunification going on for years. But it's just in the past year or two that we've seen this large spike in the numbers.
HOBSON: But what is the incentive for these people smugglers to be spreading this misinformation. Because, obviously, in this country, you would say that immigration reform bill, which did pass the Senate, is not going anywhere in the House right now. It's not likely to become law this year. So why are they spreading this misinformation?
MCDONALD: Right, well, it's a business. And for every person that they take to the United States - I mean, these coyotes, these people smugglers, they charge anywhere - I've heard anywhere between $5,000 going up to $10,000 to take somebody to the U.S. And they use these pretty elaborate networks that they have set up. They used their contacts in Guatemala and they have somebody bring them to the Guatemala-Mexico border. And there they hand them off to somebody else. So there's a financial incentive for these people smugglers and they're businessmen. And they're basically making a sales pitch, right? So for every person that they take, I mean, that's $5,000 or $10,000 in their pocket, right? So they're doing business and they're using this as sort of a sales pitch.
HOBSON: Why are the parents allowing their kids to go? Or are they? Do they have any say in the matter?
MCDONALD: You know, it's not an easy decision for them. And in a lot of these cases, it's the father that's in the United States and it's the mother and son or mother and daughter that are here in Guatemala. You know, mothers hear from coyotes. They hear from their neighbors that, oh, well if you go now - so-and-so told me that if you go now with your child, you're not going to get deported. And you're going to qualify and you can reunite your family. And if you reunite your family, you can qualify for some sort of residency. I mean, it's something that children are hearing from their classmates. It's something that mothers are hearing from their neighbors, from the coyotes, and from the people smugglers. I mean, the word spreads and it spreads via mouth. You know, it's a decision that sometimes the mother makes and sometimes they make together.
HOBSON: What about the theory that the drug cartels are trying to increase all of this traffic, of children immigrating across the border, to distract border agents from watching what they're doing?
MCDONALD: You know, it's really complicated. There's a lot of smuggling that goes on along these borders, a lot of smuggling - not only of people, of drugs. There's smuggling of commodities - I mean, along the U.S.-Mexico border. You know, when sugar prices go up in Mexico, you can see Guatemalans smuggling sugar into Mexico. So there's just - I mean, there's so much smuggling going on in these networks. They're sort of interconnected along the borders. And so, you know, some of them are probably doing one of three. Some of them are probably doing all of the three things - smuggling commodities, people and drugs. So the extent that they're using it as a distraction, I'm not sure. I think, you know, you get along these very porous borders and anyway the smugglers can figure out a way to make a dollar, they'll probably do it.
HOBSON: Is the message from the Obama administration and Secretary Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, getting through in a place like Guatemala? He recently wrote a letter to the people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, that was in some of the media there, warning them not to cross the border illegally and that they won't be allowed to stay in the United States.
MCDONALD: Right, you know, I think the message has gotten through very clearly to the Guatemalan government. I don't know if the message makes it as far as some of these rural communities. I know that the governments here have really picked up on that message. For example, the Guatemalan government is going to launch a campaign next month. They're going to distributing, I think, 70,000 little flyers, pamphlets into some of these communities, explaining to them that they won't qualify for the immigration reform. But, you know, these communities are very isolated and they don't always have access to media. And they're not checking social media sites as often as people would think in the United States. So they get their messages via radio, via print, newspapers. And to the extent that that reaches the communities, I mean, I don't know. And these communities - these coyotes, they've built sort of a level of trust, throughout the years, with these communities because they take immigrants three or four times. And, you know, these immigrants come back deported and then they go back again to the United States with the same coyote and the same networks. And so they sort of believe the coyote more or they trust the coyote more because they've known them. They've established a relationship throughout the years. I mean, the message has gotten through to the governments here, but, you know, to the extent that reaches the communities, I don't know if it reaches everybody, to be honest.
HOBSON: What about this argument that the gang violence is just so bad that people have to escape it in these countries in Central America? Is it so bad? You live there.
MCDONALD: You know, it is bad in certain parts. In Guatemala City, one of the main concerns in some of the areas of the capital city and some of the urban areas, mainly, are the extortions. There's these street gangs in Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa in Honduras, in San Salvador in El Salvador, that run these very elaborate extortion schemes and they extort local businesses. They extort transportation hubs - buses, taxi drivers, residents. So I think that, you know, to a certain extent, that does happen. You know, but, again, I think it's, you know - the trip is so violent itself. There's sexual abuse that happens along the route. There's kidnappings. There's murders. There's extortion that happens along the immigration route. So I mean, the immigration route, itself, is probably as violent, if not more violent, than some of these communities, right? So I think some of these families that live in these urban areas that are forced to pay an extortion to local gangs - I think if they have a family member in the U.S., who is working in the U.S. and sending remittances back here, that helps alleviate the extortion fee, to a certain extent. So, you know, it is a factor. But, you know, I think the overriding factor is just the lack of economic opportunity in a lot of these areas - even some of the major cities. I mean, the minimum wage here just isn't very high. And so, you know, violence is a factor. But it's - you know people don't have the money to buy things. They're going to look for opportunities elsewhere, right? So I think that is one of the driving factors and family reunification, as well. I mean, once the father is there, then the family wants to be back together, right?
HOBSON: Mike McDonald writes for Reuters news agency in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Mike, thank you.
MCDONALD: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And stay with us. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.