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Why are so many migrants crossing the U.S. border? It often starts with an escape from violence in Central America

“If my country would be OK ... I would not try to cross," said a mother from Honduras hoping to cross the U.S. border with her 7-year-old son.
Carlos Hidalgo Gutierrez, an undocumented migrant from Honduras, with his newborn daughter, Gabriella, while waiting for an asylum hearing outside the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images
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By Suzanne Gamboa, Mariana Atencio and Gabe Gutierrez

AUSTIN, Texas — Patricia de Jesús Flores waited at a homeless shelter on the Mexican side of the U.S. border this week with her 7-year-old son, who she says witnessed a murder on a rooftop — one reason they left their home in Honduras.

Flores, 27, was trying to decide whether to seek entry into the U.S., even though she heard parents who crossed the border illegally were being separated from their children.

She and other families at the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, just across from McAllen, Texas, said their communities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are so racked with violence, so terrorized by gangs and so infiltrated by drug cartels, they had no choice but to leave.

“If my country would be OK, I would be there happily with my child,” Flores told NBC News. "I would not try to cross."

While forced family separations — which President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he would end — was a new way by the administration of dealing with illegal immigration on the southern border, the violence, drug cartels, gangs and poverty ravaging Central America have been driving people to the United States for years. It remains to be seen how far immigration legislation that Congress is negotiating will go to address those root problems.

Salvadoran soldiers patrol in downtown San Salvador after six market sellers were killed in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 15, 2017.Jose Cabezas / Reuters file

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly noted the violence in a May 2017 speech at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.

“There’s corruption there. There’s terrible intimidation," Kelly said, adding that the cartels "are horrifically violent and they hold neighborhoods, cities in a grip of fear that includes police in many cases."

The conditions in what is known as the Northern Triangle of Latin America — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — came to Americans' attention in full force in 2014, when tens of thousands of children arrived on their own at the U.S. border.

For years, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, peaking at over 91 homicides per 100,000 in 2011, according to a United Nations report. The rate has since declined but remains comparatively high; last year, the rate was 42.8 homicides per 100,000.

Such violence hasn't stopped residents of the Northern Triangle from making the dangerous trek north to an uncertain welcome on the U.S.-Mexican border. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, some 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were living in the United States as of 2015, the latest year for which data is available.

The Northern Triangle is home to transnational gangs, such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, both founded in Los Angeles, as well as drug cartels and criminal organizations with origins in the area’s civil wars.

Corruption, weak and unstable government institutions and political turmoil make it difficult for Central American countries to combat the gangs and violence. Early this year in Honduras, protests following the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez turned violent when police and troops used excessive force to quell protests, leaving 32 dead. No police or troops were charged, Amnesty International said in a report, The Associated Press reported.

“Based on our interviews with individuals in immigration detention and at the border about the conditions they are fleeing … the conditions haven’t changed, which is why we are seeing these large numbers of people arriving,” said Alison Parker, director of the Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program.

Border Patrol apprehensions on the southern border so far this fiscal year, which began in October, total 252,187. That’s an increase of nearly 230,000 over the first eight months of 2017, when apprehensions totaled 224,817, according to Customs and Border Patrol statistics.

The unrelenting turmoil of the region appears to still be driving families to flee with their children.

Piedad De Jesús Mejía, a 31-year-old mother from Honduras, had traveled to Reynosa, Mexico, with her four children. She said Tuesday that she had heard about the family separations going on at the border, but “I had to leave without caring about that.”

“I left my country because of the crimes and because we were witnesses when two of my husband’s cousins were killed and now they are looking for us, too,” she said.

In Matamoras, Mexico, Jennifer Figueroa from Honduras held her 3-year-old son, Angel, as she stood on an international bridge leading into Brownsville, Texas.

She had been in Mexico three days hoping to cross into the United States legally and ask for asylum. She said she had left her country because of death threats from the 18th Street gang and had paid a smuggler about $125 to get to the U.S.

Told of the separations happening at the border, she insisted she would not let her son go. “I’d rather ask them to deport me,” Jennifer said.

To deal with the 2014 surge in Central American families and children arriving at the border, the Obama administration and Congress adopted a broad U.S. strategy to address not only what was happening at the border, but also the corruption and violence of the region, experts said.

The U.S. upped its investment in the region substantially, although not to the extent or as quickly as Obama had wanted. He had asked for a $1 billion investment at the time.

A migrant mother from Honduras who is traveling with a caravan of Central American migrants walks with her children to a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico on April 25, 2018.Hans-Maximo Musielik / AP file

“It took 18 months to convince Congress to put $750 million bucks” toward addressing the problems, said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as Obama’s director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. In 2014, the total was about $317 million.

The administration also created “in-country” programs for adults and to some degree children to apply for asylum from their countries. It called on other countries in the region to “step up” and accept people applying for asylum.

“All of those were policies that were developing, and, of course, they’ve all been dismantled by this administration,” Muñoz said.

Although the Trump administration continues to work with the Northern Triangle countries — Vice President Mike Pence is to visit victims of recent volcanoes in Guatemala next week and met with the Honduran president Wednesday —the region’s problems are “so deep and so endemic they cannot be fixed in a couple years,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“People will come either way because they are trying to survive," Marczak said.

During the 2014 crisis, Mexico took a more active role, working to clamp down on illegal immigration through its southern border. Last year, Mexico coordinated with the Trump administration to organize a conference in Miami on what could be done to push for systemic change in Central America.

But the family separations have produced images and stories that have shocked other parts of the world and are harming the image of the U.S. The controversy could slow efforts to bring about lasting change in the Northern Triangle.

“Unfortunately the focus is instead on deterrence on the border,” Marczak said. “The focus needs to be on how to improve conditions in the countries so people don’t leave in the first place."

Suzanne Gamboa reported from Austin, Mariana Atencio from Reynosa, Mexico, and Gabe Gutierrez from Matamoros, Mexico.

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