A Conversation on Central American and Mexican Migration and Asylum Seekers
A translator shares their first-hand knowledge to shed light on the humanitarian crisis
In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of migrant refugees coming from Central America to the United States. Many flee for their lives and a part of those who flee for their lives enter the United States requesting asylum. According to the American Immigration Council, to win asylum an individual must prove there exists a “‘reasonable possibility’ that he or she will be tortured in the country of removal or persecuted on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
To discuss the individual experiences of asylum seeking youths from Latin America, Stories of Latin America sat down with John Jacobs, a volunteer Spanish translator for children who seek asylum in the United States. Based in the western United States, he teams up with pro-bono attorneys who work to help children win asylum. To protect the identity of John and the asylum seekers, we changed his name and left out identifying details of the asylum cases.
Stories of Latin America: What have you learned about the Central American migrant crisis through your work as a translator for children seeking asylum?
JJ: First, it is important to note that while the majority of people coming to the United States who flee violence and persecution in their home countries are Central American, a good number are also Mexican. I have worked on cases for Mexicans who flee similar albeit slightly different situations to those in Central America. It is important to point this out because the Trump administration had argued that Mexico should be considered a safe country where Central Americans should be able to apply for asylum. This policy, known as “Remain in Mexico”, has been continued by the Biden administration. By forcing Mexico to take the Central American asylum seekers, it keeps them out of the United States. However, Mexico is not only a very violent country (its severity depending on where you are) but its own citizens are also fleeing to apply for asylum in the United States. As such, I think we should call it the crisis of uncontrolled violence and persecution in Mexico and Central America.
In terms of what I have learned, there is so much. How to work with trauma impacted people. The details of how difficult these people’s lives were in their home countries. How all cases are quite similar. How these people’s lives might be safer in the United States in the short-term but that this life is both economically and politically insecure. How important NGOs and/or charities are to the survival of these asylum seekers. Without pro-bono legal representation and other social services, these asylum seekers would be left out in the cold. These are just a small number of things I have learned.
Stories of Latin America: You said all cases are quite similar. What do these cases have in common?
JJ: They all involve out of control gang activity that targets innocent people.
Often, the victims are teenage boys devoted to evangelical churches. The boys will spend time with church youth groups proselytizing in public spaces. This exposes them to insults from gang members. The gang members themselves are often classmates of the boys proselytizing. The gangs will first taunt the church members and then tell them to quit the church and join the gang. The boys refuse, their lives are threatened, and then they quickly flee. Family members often flee with the boys because they have seen gangs take out their rage on entire families even if the gang’s original target was just one person.
It’s the classic case of middle and high school kids teasing each other. It moves quickly to harassment and then violence. The difference between the youth teasing and harassment we see in the United States and in Central America is that the teasers in Central America have weapons and the power of a gang. Moreover, the police and schools in Central America are terrified of the gangs or co-opted by them. Even if there are youth gangs and weapon possession in the United States, the schools and police usually work to check the gangs. As such, those in authority in Central America do nothing to stop the gangs. Out of control kids with weapons run many communities. In so many cases the kids say, “We called the police” or “we talked to teachers” but “nothing happened” or “the police told the gangs and then things got worse for us.” This is true in cases I’ve done with people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
I’ve also translated cases where teenage girls are sexually harassed by gang members. They say things like “be my girlfriend” and when the girls do not accept or outright refuse after a few days or weeks, the gang members get aggressive. Neighbors do not help the girls because they know that if they do, the gangs will go after them too. The girls’ families feel threatened because, as I noted above, gangs will kill entire families.
The kids who are targeted will often be the only ones to actually leave the country for the United States, however. It is very expensive to pay a smuggler, or coyote, to smuggle you across the U.S.-Mexico border. Moreover, just getting across Mexico is a challenge. You can face kidnapping and extortion from cartels and corrupt officials.
The family members will often flee to other parts of the country in which they live. In multiple cases I translated, the parents sent their kids to the United States who were threatened and went to live in a very remote area of their home country. It was so remote that they could not get cell coverage. The attorneys and I had to talk to the parents to get another testimony of what happened to support the case. We had a tough time scheduling a call because of the issue of cell service.
Stories of Latin America: You mentioned earlier that in Mexico it is a little different. How so?
JJ: I have worked on fewer cases from Mexico. Does this mean there are fewer people coming from Mexico seeking asylum in the United States in the last five or so years? In terms of total numbers, no. This report from Homeland Security shows a high number of Mexicans filed for asylum from 2015-2017. However, given that Mexico’s population is far higher than Central America this means on a per capita basis fewer are coming as asylum seekers.
This report lists the top 10 countries where people actually granted asylum in 2018 came from (this is different from requesting asylum). Mexico isn’t in the top 10. Moreover, the media reports I have seen focus heavily on the Central American asylum seekers which leads one to believe there are more overall.
Additionally, the characteristics of the Mexican cases I have done involve sudden murders of people family members who asked the police for help because a gang member was selling drugs next to someone’s house. The police were corrupt and told the gang. The gang retaliated. The families flee. However, the stories of kids being forced into gangs and refusing are not cases I have had from Mexico. Does that mean it doesn’t happen? I’m sure it does happen frequently in Mexico, too. It’s just that it seems to be happening to a greater degree in Central America. Key phrase, though, is “seems to be” based on my experience.
Lastly, while entire regions of Mexico are dominated by gangs, my sense is that in Mexico there are regions far less impacted by gangs than others. This is based on what Mexican friends have told me and my own experience traveling in different regions (situations can always change). I feel totally safe in some parts of Mexico while others I would not. However, I would not feel safe in most of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. I could be wrong but that’s my sense based on what I mentioned.
Stories of Latin America: What are the living conditions for the youth asylum seekers in the United States?
JJ: Hard, uncertain, cruel and often lonely. One group of asylum seeking siblings came to the country after their caretaker was killed by gangs. After entering the country, they were brought by the U.S. government to a grown relative’s house in the western United States. This relative, however, did not have papers. This meant she was terrified that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would show up some day and take her away and leave the kids without a caretaker again. ICE had her address because she took the kids in. She had no choice and wanted to take the kids in but it meant she exposed herself to ICE.
These siblings go to school. The caretaker works in agriculture to take care of them. This isn’t enough so she also uses food banks. Seven people live in two rooms (they share their apartment with another family member and their kids). When we interviewed the family, they kept the lights off to presumably save money on electricity. There was no carpet, just concrete floors in the house. The living conditions were similar to some of the poorer conditions I had seen in Guatemala but we were in the United States.
For kids who come and have no family, they often are put in foster homes. Many of the other foster kids do not speak Spanish and the asylum seeking kids usually do not speak English. The foster parents often do not speak Spanish either. It is lonely. Very lonely.
Stories of Latin America: Could you explain some of the challenges of working with trauma impacted youths?
JJ: It takes effort to establish rapport and trust with people who you do not know under “normal” circumstances. It is very hard when people flee terrible violence and have no idea if they will be sent back to their countries. The translator, attorney and legal pro-bono organization are basically the only lifeline these people have to stay in the United States and instinctually these people know this. However, it does not mean they will just tell you everything they know. We tell them many times that the more details they tell us the easier it is to build a case for asylum. Easier said than done.
Often people will keep details that are really helpful for building an asylum case buried for months. When you finally get the details, you want to say “Why didn’t you tell us this months ago?” You have to be really patient. You have to continue helping them even when it might seem like they don’t want to help themselves. It can wear you down.
Of course it is more complicated than that and they do want to help themselves. However, when you think of the security we have here as U.S. citizens compared to their precarious situation we cannot even start to comprehend what these people are going through.
It is also common that the kids have trouble in school. They act out in class or get into fights. This heightens the stress levels of adult caretakers who do not have papers. If their kid gets into a fight at school and the police are involved, they ask if they will get deported. Some kids also have nightmares and wet the bed. Many saw their family members murdered in front of them. The trauma will stay with them forever. This is all on top of having to fight a legal case to remain in the United States. If their cases are denied, they might get deported. They know this. And to them, deportation means death. They will go back to their countries and are sure the gangs will go after them.
If you have follow up questions for John or Stories of Latin America, please leave them here and we can follow up with another piece.