While border security continues to dominate the immigration debate, the root causes of migration to the United States are rarely discussed, according to Camilo Perez-Bustillo of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Tex.
“We’re addressing symptoms,” he told America, “not the causes.”
The Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy is an example of that, he said. Under the policy, immigration officials return a number of asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases are decided by the U.S. immigration court system.
The Department of Homeland Security said the policy addresses the escalating number of asylum claims and the backlog of 786,000 pending cases. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen said the policy removes “one of the key incentives that encourages people from taking the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place.”
“We’re addressing symptoms,” Camilo Perez-Bustillo told America, “not the causes.”
Most of the asylum seekers coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, three Central American countries that have been plagued by poverty, violence and gangs for years. The “Remain in Mexico” policy does not address the underlying factors that drive asylum seekers out of their home countries, according to the Rev. Pat Murphy, the director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Baja California. Furthermore, D.H.S. is not broadly enforcing the policy, he said.
“They’re definitely trying it out [at the San Ysidro point of entry], but it’s not being tried in big numbers,” Father Murphy told America. “There hasn’t been a big effect on us.”
The administration said the policy would be expanded this week. Thus far, only 240 migrants have been returned to Mexico under the policy, according to reports. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported that 76,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in February.
Father Murphy said one of his current guests at the Casa del Migrante shelter had been sent back under the policy. “They didn’t explain anything or give [the asylum seeker] any indication of where to go,” he said. “They just gave him a date to return to the port of entry in four months.”
Border bishops from Texas and northern Mexico expressed their “total disagreement” with the policy in a statement issued March 4.
Border bishops from Texas and northern Mexico expressed their “total disagreement” with the “Remain in Mexico” policy in a statement issued March 4.
“It will force Mexico to organize camps for tens of thousands of refugees, thus effectively undermining their right to seek asylum in the United States, and depriving them of the support of family members on U.S. soil,” the bishops wrote of the policy. “It will effectively put out of their reach the exercise of their right to procure legal representation in their case before the court.”
Furthermore, the bishops argued that the policy could lead immigrants and asylum seekers to circumvent legal means of entering the United States through ports of entry. They may instead attempt to enter “through high-risk locations in order to avoid the authorities.”
Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said the conference supported the critique issued by the Texas and Mexico bishops.
“We urge the administration to reverse this policy, which needlessly increases the suffering of the most vulnerable and violates international protocols.”
“We urge the administration to reverse this policy, which needlessly increases the suffering of the most vulnerable and violates international protocols,” he said in a statement. “We steadfastly affirm a person’s right to seek asylum and find recent efforts to curtail and deter that right deeply troubling. We must look beyond our borders; families are escaping extreme violence and poverty at home and are fleeing for their lives.”
The “Remain in Mexico” policy is part of a larger pattern of deterrence, according to Mr. Perez-Bustillo, which includes turning away asylum seekers, the separation of families and “metering,” a process by which immigration officials limit the number asylum seekers that enter the United States on any given day.
Despite the efforts, Mr. Perez-Bustillo said, humanitarian workers in El Paso have noted an uptick in migrants arriving at the border, especially from Guatemala. An overwhelming number are coming from indigenous communities in that country, he said. Guatemalans make up more than 90 percent of the most recently arrived immigrants, according to The New York Times.
Families that used to migrate within Guatemala to harvest coffee are now searching for jobs beyond its borders.
“Clearly something is going on in Guatemala,” said Mr. Perez-Bustillo, who recently traveled to the country to look into the root causes of the exodus. The Guatemalan civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and in which the U.S. government played a role, continues to have an impact on everyday life, he said. More than 200,000 were killed and 500,000 were displaced during the war.
Paul Townsend, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Guatemala, said the country is also experiencing its fifth consecutive year of decreased rainfall. Families that work with C.R.S. are reporting a 30 to 80 percent decrease in the corn crop and the bean crop has dropped by 67 percent, Mr. Townsend said.
“Not only are people hungry in the moment, but they have also been destabilizing their assets,” he said in an interview with America. “They are selling anything they can to sustain themselves.”
“How do we make Guatemala a place where they want to stay? We want to encourage foreign assistance to address these push factors.”
The plant disease called coffee rust has decimated plantations in the region, Mr. Townsend said. The price of coffee has also dropped from $1.30 per pound in 1983 to $0.36 per pound today, he said. Some farmers re-planted their coffee plantation only to find they could not make their money back. The coffee crop is also affected by the drought. Families that used to migrate within Guatemala to harvest coffee are now searching for jobs beyond its borders.
Lack of education and access to health care is leading young people in rural areas to ask themselves what kind of future they have in Guatemala, Mr. Townsend said. In the city, families are surrounded by gang violence. And indigenous communities, which make up 40 percent of the Guatemalan population, are often isolated from aspects of the country’s social structure.
“People leave because of poverty, including health and education, food insecurity and violence,” he said. “There are lots of ways we can attack this,” Mr. Townsend said, explaining that C.R.S. has implemented a variety of programs to address these systemic issues, including water-smart agriculture, employment opportunities and youth programs.
“How do we make Guatemala a place where they want to stay?” he said. “We want to encourage foreign assistance to address these push factors.”
Sean Carroll, S.J., the director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Mexico, has also seen an increase of migrants from Central America. But he noted a sharp increase in migrants from the Mexican state of Guerrero.
“We hear there is a lot of violence there,” he said. “I talked to a woman who said the gang came and told them to leave their home immediately. So they did.”
Violence in parts of Mexico will only increase the flow of migrants going north, Mr. Perez-Bustillo said. Migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala often do not feel safe in Mexico, he said, noting the 2011 San Fernando Massacre, in which 193 mostly Central Americans were killed and buried in mass graves.
“Our staff and partners in Central America witness the suffering there and fight against it,” Bishop Vázquez said. “Our government must adopt policies and provide more funding that address root causes of migration and promote human dignity and sustainable livelihoods.”