In July of 2014 I visited the town of Murrieta, Calif., where immigration protesters blocked the arrival a busload of Latin American women and children and (briefly) ignited a national conversation about the large numbers of unaccompanied minors who were coming into the United States.
At the center of much of what went on in Murrieta seemed to be Diana Serafin, a candidate for city council who told me she used her mailing list to help mobilize the initial protests. In her opinion, most were coming not due to fears for their lives, as the press was reporting, but for the opportunities they might gain here.
“Everyone that was interviewed in Spanish said they heard they got free amnesty if they came,” she told me. “I’m sorry, I could never put my grandchild on a train into a strange country. Something’s not right,” she argued.
This idea of abandoning one’s children came up repeatedly in our brief conversation. “How can any mother do it?” she wondered aloud, again and again. I posed the idea that her own very natural puzzlement suggests just how terrible things were in the countries from which the children were coming.
She disagreed. “If that were true, we’d be hearing about it more in the news. Think Mexico—when all those thousands were being killed, we heard about that.” Why wouldn’t we hear more in the media about the uptick in violence in those countries down there, she wondered then.
As much as many Americans were concerned about the welfare of those children, the bigger question of what was going on in Central America never did get fully answered. As is often the case today, most media outlets just seemed to repeat the same two or three stories and/or quotes, day after day, with little in the way of longer term investigation. (A depressing game to play: The next time you see a national news story with a sensationalist element—like Sony Pictures getting hacked or Katy Perry kicking nuns out of their house—check out news reports from different parts of the country. The stories are almost always the same, sometimes verbatim. Staffs slashed to a dire minimum and money based more on clicks than reportage, in most places today our news is like a dog eating its own vomit.)
National Public Radio reporter Kelly McEvers had the same question—why did all these children from Central America show up here? Even accepting the official reports that a country like El Salvador has terrible gangs, “How can a bunch of dudes with tattoos and baggy jeans terrorize an entire country?” she asked. “That I do not get.”
But unlike most of us, who forgot about the story a few weeks after the protests ended, McEvers went to San Salvador a year later to investigate. In a recent, extraordinary episode of N.P.R.’s new “Embedded podcast,” McEvers offered her report on a country in crisis, after gangs furious with government crackdowns began murdering bus drivers on the city’s busiest routes.
On the day McEvers was reporting, seven drivers were killed before nightfall, and a bus was machine-gunned. Things were so bad that schools were closing, dozens of bus routes were shut down and the army had been called out to ensure other routes continued. People struggled so much to get to work; in place of buses, pick-up trucks overloaded with fearful riders drove the city. And nothing the government did seemed to have any positive impact; in fact, McEvers reports people getting so anxious there was widespread talk of a coup to try and pacify the gangs.
McEvers describes police so afraid for their own lives that at press conferences they cover their faces, they’re identified only by their last names, and TV cameras only film their feet or their badges. And gangs run the neighborhoods to such a degree that if you have a business in one gang’s neighborhood, you either have to pay “rent” to them or give them one of your children—a boy to join the gang or a girl to marry into it. A local journalist helping McEvers relays the incredibly horrific story of a mother told by a gang member, either give me your 13-year-old daughter to marry or I’ll kill you and her grandmother. Two years later, the girl has two kids; her husband beats her and them; and he forces her to take drugs.
“She got involved in a dark, dark world without asking for it and without deserving it,” the reporter tells McEvers. “It is very difficult.”
After 24 hours in San Salvador, McEvers’s colleague and translator Jasmine Garsd, asks the local reporter (whose name was not used to protect him) why he stays here. How does he do it?
“I’m a very spiritual person,” he explains. “Honestly, the last five years...” He pauses, then begins to cry, gently hitting the steering wheel to try and calm himself. “For the past five years I’ve been a part of a Catholic community, and we meet every week. This practice has filled my heart with faith, hope and the belief that even though I work on the streets, God is with me. There’s no one else I can trust.”
He describes going home every night to his daughter. “How did your day go?” his daughter asks. “Tell me what you saw.” “To have to say, ‘I saw five dead bodies today,’” he explains. “I can’t tell her. And so I lie to her. I say we went to the beautiful beach and saw a beautiful mountain. Even though she’s seen the television.”
Again he begins crying. So does Garsd. “I don’t like her absorbing all this. My daughter is everything. And that’s why I work so hard, for her to never lack anything.”
In December Mother Jones reported that 10,600 kids traveling by themselves were apprehended trying to cross the border in October and November. That’s roughly the same number as 2014. Most came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where the violence has been worst.
One month later, though, N.P.R. reported that while Cuban migrants are being welcomed into the United States, Salvadorans are being deported. In a news conference, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte explained, “There are clear consequences for those who don’t follow migration laws. The laws of the United States have not changed. Those who don’t have documents will be repatriated.”
Repatriated to what remains an open question.
Jim McDermott, S.J., a screenwriter, is America’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.