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Understanding why so many migrants are at the US-Mexico border

Posted at 12:51 PM, May 11, 2021

Right now, there are thousands upon thousands of people along the U.S.-Mexico border waiting to seek asylum in the United States. The reasons why are complicated, but experts explain they stem from old and new crises.

Claudia Villa is an immigration attorney. She says immigration waves come and go with every new administration. However, before the Biden administration, she says there were already a lot of migrants stuck at the border due to pandemic regulations put into place by the Trump administration.

“So now, you have immigrants that were already there, and add to that new immigrants that are trying to make their way to the United States," Villa said. "So there’s just a lot of chaos occurring. Generally, immigration courts are very backlogged as it is.”

Most of the migrants are coming from three countries in Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This area is called the Northern Triangle. Claudia says it remains one of the most dangerous places in the world with high levels of government corruption, gang violence and climate changes.

“In the past few years, there’s been about two at least Category 5 hurricanes that have hit the area and really devastated the agriculture,” Villa said.

She says gang violence is one of the main reasons for so many minors at the border.

“There are a lot of gangs that pretty much act with impunity in that area of the world," Villa said. "Young children – particularly boys – are being recruited by these gangs and so the families send their children away to keep them safe because once you’ve been targeted to be recruited by a gang member, if you’re not in, then you’d get killed for not joining the gang.”

One man from El Salvador named José says he and his family left their home country due to gang violence. He asked that we don’t show his face or share his last name because his family has been threatened by the gang. He says it’s so highly organized they could be targeted in any Latin American country. Unfortunately, Villa says waiting in a border town isn’t that much safer.

“Individuals who have been waiting at these makeshift camps have experienced further victimization at the border through cartels and other people who are just looking to take advantage of individuals who are in really bad circumstances,” Villa said.

Jessy, a woman at one of the makeshift camps, explains why she has to keep a close eye on her children.

“I have been here for 37 days… almost 38. It’s been very complicated because there have been practical problems. People have wanted to kidnap our kids here. People have come to do a lot of bad things. The truth is that the police sometimes come by, but it doesn’t feel safe.” (In Spanish: Yo… que estaba aquí estos treinta y siete, treinta y ocho días casi. Ha sido bien complicado porque han habido problemas prácticamente. Han venido personas querer a sequestrar niños acá. Han venido personas a querer hacer muchas cosas malas. La verdad es de que la policía de vez en cuando pasa, pero no es nada seguro.)

These migrants say they’ve risked their lives to seek asylum in the U.S. because they’re desperate for a better life. Immigration experts say there’s a lot of misinformation that makes people nervous about migrants – but the people fleeing their countries are generally the ones who want to do good in society.

Ernesto Canstañeda is an associate professor in the department of sociology at American University in Washington D.C. and he's the director of the Immigration Lab. Castañeda has written books about the history of the U.S.-Mexico border and what he believes people should know about migration. He says there’s another element attracting people to the border.

“Most of them have established family members here – immediate family members or grandparents or uncles who are willing to sponsor them,” Canstañeda said.

If given the opportunity to lawfully seek asylum or be reunited with family, Canstañeda says there wouldn’t be as many people at the border at once.

“A big problem is a lack of personnel, and large numbers of people that have been funneled and are arriving all at the same time," Canstañeda said. "But that doesn’t mean we’re going to keep having the same thousands of people from here on.”

Villa says the immigration system is currently hard to navigate, and becoming a U.S. citizen has become much more difficult in the past 25 years. She believes immigration reform is the answer to a lot of these problems. Canstañeda agrees, while acknowledging we need to find a way to better the circumstances in the Northern Triangle.

“So, it’s good to tackle the root causes and that’s the good approach that Vice President Harris is going to work on, but that’s going to take decades to fix," Canstañeda said. "So, we have to work on that front. We have to work on immigration reform for the people who are already here, but we also have to process the people at the border.”