Two weeks ago, Karla arrived at the Texas border with her two very young children, her mother and three siblings under the age of 15. It took the family a month to make the 2,414km journey from their home in northern Honduras, traveling by bus through Guatemala and Mexico. They sold everything they owned to pay a network of people smugglers, who bribed the way clear through checkpoints along the route.
Karla headed north partly because she had heard the US had begun allowing children to enter legally. This is what the smugglers were saying and the family knew others who had safely made it across the frontier, but the main motive for the journey was fear: Karla wanted to get beyond the reach of her father and his contacts in the street gangs that have turned Honduras into the country with the highest murder rate in the world.
Karla said her father was seeking revenge after he was convicted of raping her as a child and sent to prison. He had already hired a gunman to kill her older brother, who fled illegally to the US.
When the grueling journey eventually brought them to the banks of the Rio Bravo, Karla thought the family’s nightmare was finally over. However, after putting themselves in the care of a US customs agent, a new one began.
Instead of being taken to a detention center in Texas for processing, they were sent straight back to Mexican immigration control to be sent home.
“They didn’t even let us speak,” said Karla, who is now staying at a spartan facility in San Pedro Sula, the coastal city that is receiving floods of migrants deported from Mexico. “We are back where we started and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t got a dollar between us.”
The mirage of an open door on the southern US border has triggered a political storm in Washington — and helped fuel an unprecedented humanitarian crisis on the US’ doorstep.
Republicans have seized on the issue, accusing US President Barack Obama’s administration of overseeing a systemic failure of immigration policy and demanding tougher action against illegal immigrants.
Earlier this week, the White House announced plans to introduce fast-track deportations and US$116 million to pay for the cost of transporting unaccompanied children back home, but activists in Central America say the political debate in the US is missing the point.
“All the talk is about the children in the US, but they are relatively well-off,” said Sister Lidia Mara Silva de Souza, a nun from the Scalabrini order that has worked with deportees from the US for decades. “The ones who are the most vulnerable are the ones who are returned to the situations they are running from.”
The vast majority of the child migrants come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — all struggling with levels of violence tantamount to an undeclared regional war. Honduras has a murder rate of about 90 per 100,000 inhabitants, while the rate in Mexico hovers at about 20. In the US it is fewer than five.
Heavily armed street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 impose a reign of terror on entire neighborhoods across the region, which is also a key route for Mexican and Colombian cartels shipping narcotics north.
Drug-fueled corruption, political instability and — in the case of Honduras, a right-wing coup — have all contributed to a situation of institutional collapse. As their states fall apart around them, many Central Americans feel that justice and security can only be found elsewhere.