Melinda Henneberger

Central Americans will keep coming here despite Trump’s crackdown — or because of it

A day on the road with the migrant caravan

The political frenzy is heightening over a so-called migrant caravan heading toward the U. S., but who are the people making the grueling journey? We spent 24 hours with a family as they trekked through Mexico for an up-close view of what’s at stake.
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The political frenzy is heightening over a so-called migrant caravan heading toward the U. S., but who are the people making the grueling journey? We spent 24 hours with a family as they trekked through Mexico for an up-close view of what’s at stake.

Why do they come? Despite the dangers en route here from Central America, the photos of kids in cages, the jokes about shooting immigrants and the reality of family separation?

It’s no mystery, other than to those elected officials who keep suggesting that making our policies just a little crueler, and then a little crueler still, will surely stop asylum-seekers — some of them supposed scammers — from ever leaving home.

To the astonishment of no one who’s met a recent migrant from Central America, it isn’t working: More than 100,000 people were apprehended at or turned away from our southern border both last month and the one before that.

“They’re coming like it’s a picnic,” our president said recently. “Because let’s go to Disneyland.”

Or because let’s try not to die.

In a Skype call with Kansas City-based Unbound — a Christian anti-poverty program that sponsors children, students and elders in 18 countries — a few of the Salvadorans with whom they work in Santa Ana answered the question we shouldn’t really even have to ask: Why does nothing dissuade them?

They asked that only their first names be used out of concern for their safety. And their safety is the whole point.

Cesar, a smiling 23-year-old wearing a cross around his neck and a T-shirt that spells out his love for Jesus in emojis, is in his last year of college. Through Unbound, he’s teaching some of the younger kids in his community to read and at events for the older folks, he dances the cumbia with them “to keep them active. It’s fun to see their vigor.” His problem, though, is the one that “everyone” here has: “We’re limited in which hours we can go out.”

After dark, the streets aren’t safe, but his school doesn’t end until 7:45 in the evening, “so I’m always tense something will happen on the way home.” Why would he be tense?

“I had three brothers,” he begins. Until the morning three years ago when one of them, 21-year-old Francisco, was shot in the head right in front of him. They’d been on their way to school, “near the boundary between two gangs’ territories. They were waiting for us.”

He and one of his surviving brothers moved in with their grandmother after that to get out of the neighborhood, but Francisco’s death wasn’t headline news or anything. “Our population is used to hearing about people dying.”

“Me personally, I’m afraid” to go north, Cesar said. But all of those he knows who have gone did so “because they’re in fear” here, too.

His friend Alicia, who is 21, won a good scholarship to pharmacy school last year, but the bus route to the school where she was accepted is too dangerous, so she’s studying business management closer to home.

Even then, she and her twin sister rent a room together in town because they have to pay gang members to cross into the rural area where their parents live. “One dollar, two, three. It depends on the person and their whim.”

Once, on her way home with her father, they saw a young man being beaten by gang members and could do nothing to stop it. Later, they heard that he’d died.

“I know people who’ve had to migrate under threat” as well, Alicia says. Everybody does.

Her mother, Flor de Maria, will never forget how when Alicia and her twin were in high school, a boy threatened to kill the whole family unless her sister became his girlfriend. Flor walked the girls to school and back every day after that, “and after a while, things calmed down.” Another time, a man threatened to kill the girls if their father, who is a day laborer on a coffee farm, didn’t pay him $40 a week. Which of course, he didn’t have.

And nobody bothers calling the police, I take it? Flor laughs; that’s a no. “No one sees anything. No one does anything. We put ourselves in God’s hands and hope our children make it home every day.”

Elena, a mother of five, tells about the day her husband Carlos, who sells bread from his bicycle, was attacked with a machete. He might not have survived, but “one brave older lady came out with a machete herself” and flagged down a passing pickup truck. The rumor went around that Carlos wasn’t the intended target; it was all a big mistake. But it still took him four months to recover.

An Unbound staff member, Jenny, says everyone she works with in Santa Ana has at least one story like that. “You’d think the rural areas would be more peaceful, but the violence reaches them, too.”

Sure, says site coordinator Yessenia, they do hear all the horror stories about the dangers of human trafficking and all the other risks they’d take in trying to seek asylum in the United States. “But desperation and violence make you ignore that information. We have many families that if tomorrow one of their children is threatened, they’ll leave,” too. Any of us would.

No matter how tough the Department of Homeland Security gets, that universal protective parental instinct is never going to change. Maybe someday, we’ll be ready for some version of the “21st-century Marshall Plan for Central America” that Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro is proposing to treat the disease rather than its symptoms.

But President Donald Trump instead recently announced that he was cutting off $450 million in aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to punish their governments for failing to stop their people from leaving. Most of that aid goes to churches, non-governmental aid organizations, and American groups that fight the very crime and corruption so many are fleeing.

It’s almost as if Trump knows that cutting those programs will only cause more Central Americans to head this way, as will his threat to close our border with Mexico a year from now. Just in time for another campaign about immigration.