Nation & World

Central America turmoil, not U.S. policies, may be behind surge of child migrants

Wilson Coxaj, looking braver than his 16 years might merit, left his village in Guatemala’s highlands earlier this month and is making his way to the United States. It is a perilous journey.

If he’s successful, he’ll join what U.S. officials are calling “the surge” _ the dramatic increase in child migrants flooding across the U.S. border, creating what President Barack Obama calls an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Coxaj, whose thick black hair and short stature denote his Mayan roots, spoke with the determination of someone needing to provide urgent economic support for his single mother and younger brother. He said he would find his way alone.

“I am not with a coyote,” he said, referring to the paid human traffickers who usher some migrants northward. “I’m just trying to guide myself through instinct.”

Children from the northern tier of Central America and from Mexico are flooding into the United States _ 47,017 from Oct. 1 to May 31, the Department of Homeland Security says _ cramming Border Patrol stations and forcing U.S. officials to set up temporary facilities for the children at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.

Nearly all the child migrants are crossing the border at the southernmost tip of Texas, U.S. officials say, meaning they travel through Mexico’s lawless Tamaulipas state, an area under the firm control of organized crime. The only likely way for them to do so is to travel with coyotes working in collusion with crime groups.

“This is an influx that we are seeing at really only one place along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity under the terms of the White House briefing, referring to the Rio Grande Valley, which divides Tamaulipas from Texas.

The unaccompanied minors are not following traditional routes. Perhaps that is why a visit to Roman Catholic-operated shelters housing hundreds of migrants in southern Mexico turned up just one unaccompanied young person: Wilson Coxaj.

No matter what has spurred the avalanche of minors, or how they are traveling through Mexico, the soaring number of child migrants spurred President Obama last week to declare an “urgent humanitarian situation” because of the soaring numbers of unaccompanied child migrants.

Since then, the White House has employed Lackland Air Force Base (1,200 minors) near San Antonio, Texas, and prepared installations at Fort Sill, Okla. (600 initially, and later up to 1,200) and at Naval Base Ventura County near Oxnard, Calif. (575 minors).

Republican lawmakers have blamed Obama for the influx, saying lenient enforcement of immigration laws and the holding out of potential amnesty is drawing migrants from Central America, particularly children looking to be reunited with a parent already in the United States.

“President Obama is responsible for this calamity,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said last week.

But visits to a temporary Catholic-operated shelter in Mexico City and permanent ones in Ixtepec in Oaxaca state and Arriaga in Chiapas state indicate that the cause of the influx is far more nuanced, and that much of it is driven not so much by U.S. policies as by the turmoil in Central America that propels people to flee north.

Street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 highest homicide rates, compels youths who refuse to join the gangs to flee.

“In my colony of Montreal (in the El Salvador capital of San Salvador), the Mara Salvatrucha dominates the streets, and they wanted me to join them to sell drugs,” said William Alberto Molina, who left his country last year at age 17 and has remained in Mexico. “They don’t give you an option. The only option is to leave the country or join the rival gang.”

“Violence in Central America is pushing these kids out,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington-based group that provides pro bono lawyers for minors facing immigration hearings.

“This is more refugee-like than immigration,” she said. “Even if kids are reunifying with family members (in the United States), that’s what refugees do, too.”

Young said the average age of unaccompanied children apprehended by border agents has dropped. “There are a lot more kids under age 12, and the percentage of girls has risen from 25 percent to 40 percent,” she said.

“I think the goals these kids have are safety and reunifying with family. I don’t think they are necessarily trying to game the system,” said Elizabeth Frankel, a law professor and associate director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago.

“There’s been no policy change in regard to kids that could explain this uptick,” she said, saying a “push” factor was more likely the “incredible increase in violence and threats posed by gangs in Central America.”

Honduras, which sits astride a major drug trafficking corridor from the Andean region, has seen part of its north coast turn into lawless no man’s land.

The Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest who is perhaps Mexico’s best known advocate for migrants, said he accompanied a group of Honduran migrants as they met last week with the consul general of the Honduran Embassy in Mexico City.

“He said to them, ‘You should think about what you can do for Honduras.’ They just exploded,” Solalinde recalled, describing the reaction of migrants who told the consul general that the government has done little to rein in criminals, forcing them to leave their homeland.

When adolescents take off from Central America, he said, they “band together with others from their hometowns. Nobody protects them.”

In the Catholic shelters that provide free lodging and meals to migrants, workers say they aren’t seeing much of an increase in minors traveling alone.

“There are maybe five a week,” said Carlos Bartolo Solis, director of the Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Arriaga, the nearest point to the Guatemalan border where migrants can climb atop freight trains heading north.

“What has increased are children aged 10 to 12 who are traveling with their mothers,” said Rene Vigne, a Frenchman who works at the Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers on the Path) shelter in Ixtepec.

He scoffed at reports that the number of unaccompanied migrants had surpassed some 6,000 a month crossing into the United States.

“There’s no avalanche of minors,” Vigne said. Doing a back of the envelope calculation that some 180,000 migrants arrive in Mexico every six months, Vigne added: “Are you telling me that nearly one in four is an unaccompanied minor? That’s stupid. That is pure fantasy.”

But a diplomat from Central America based in Arriaga, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t have permission from his head office, said many of the child migrants travel in groups under the custody of coyotes, staying in safe houses rather than shelters, out of sight of the employees of Catholic shelters.

“We counted on one train that there were 75 minors on board,” he said, referring to the freight line known as La Bestia, or “The Beast,” atop which thousands of migrants hitch a ride every few days.

The diplomat said few minors are like Wilson Coxaj, the 16-year-old literally alone on the journey. Most are in groups under the control of an adult.

“These kids aren’t alone. They go accompanied by someone,” he said.

Once they get near or across the border, he added, the groups disintegrate.

For his part, Coxaj said he wants to find work in the United States to send money back to his single mother and little brother. His U.S. destination is unclear. He knows the names of only New York City and Los Angeles. Yet he was confident that he’ll find the kind of job that eluded him in his Central American homeland.

“For a factory job (in Guatemala), you need school certificates,” he said. “I only completed second grade, so it’s difficult for me to get those jobs.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled President Barack Obama’s first name.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee