Fleeing sex slavery should be grounds for refugee status, right? Not for girls from Honduras and El Salvador, whose plight is largely ignored by immigration bureaucracies in the United States and Mexico. Many get caught in Mexico, trying to make their way to the United States. Those who get to the United States often end up in deportation proceedings, caught by a policy that refuses refuge to victims of Central American gangs.
The Guardian reported that nearly 15,000 12- to 17-year-old girls from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been arrested in Mexico since 2014. A Honduran girl was captured by a gang and held for seven days. She can’t talk about what happened. The Guardian talked to her mother, Isabel:
“According to Isabel, her daughter cries at night, when she thinks the rest of the family is asleep. ‘She hardly eats, she’s traumatised, she’s not the same. My daughter was a model student in Honduras, she wanted to be an architect. Everything changed, for all of us, in one day,’ said Isabel.”
A girl from El Salvador fled with her father, and now lives in Mexico, hoping to be granted refuge there. Her mother and siblings are still back in El Salvador, living in fear.
“Rincón is anxious and tearful – and she has started self-harming. ‘It feels like I’m trapped. I miss my mum. Cutting myself feels like a release. I just want this all to end,’ she said. She recently turned 18, and wants to finish high school.”
While public attention has turned away, the violence in Central America continues, and so does the terrified exodus of refugee families. The New York Times reported in November 2016:
“As the violence and impunity have soared in the Northern Triangle, so has the number of asylum claims from those countries, according to the United Nations. Nearly half of those asylum seekers this year have sought sanctuary in the United States. But migrants are increasingly viewing other countries in the region, including Belize, Costa Rica and especially Mexico, as asylum destinations.”
The Times talked to “Alberto,” who never planned to leave his native El Salvador:
“He and his wife had stable jobs and supportive friends and relatives, and their five children were happy.
“But a local gang tried to recruit one of Alberto’s sons as a drug mule and beat him up when he resisted, the family said. A gang leader approached his daughter, then 10 years old, and told her that he was going to make her his girlfriend. Then Alberto and his family received a phone call threatening to kill them if they did not turn over the children for the gang’s use. The corpse of a boy even appeared on the street in front of their house.?
The family tried to start a new life in northern El Salvador, but the gang found them again. They fled further north. Though “Alberto” still fears the gang could find them, he and his family have applied for asylum in Tapachula, Mexico.
According to BBC, “Mexico estimates that more than 400,000 undocumented migrants try to cross its southern border every year.” Mexico increased its border enforcement and deportations, beginning in 2014, with U.S. aid and encouragement.
As I wrote at the beginning of 2016, “The U.S. government responds [to Central American refugees] by denying them asylum, imprisoning them in detention camps for months on end, and targeting them for raids and deportation. This U.S. hardline policy toward Central American refugees will not soften under a Trump administration. The only way we can change the policy is by changing the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens – and by supporting the work of those who are representing and defending refugees.
One way to begin: Support the Advocates for Human Rights.
“For those Central American families who make it into the United States, The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal services to help them seek asylum. For migrants who are not located in the Midwest, The Advocates helps them, too, with its Asylum Helpline that connects families released from U.S. immigration detention centers across the nation with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Helpline at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.”