*I am no where near an expert in this topic, and what I’m going to share is just scratching the surface of a very complex issue.*
**For the sake of easy reading/comprehension and because my thoughts on this issue are a bit disorganized, this post is going to be pretty choppy. Sorry I wasn’t an English major.**
Have you heard the story of the person who kept seeing bodies floating down the river every day, so they rescued them, but never questioned where the bodies came from? 1 I believe Americans should start thinking about the reasons undocumented immigrants are leaving their home countries in the first place, rather than focusing solely on the U.S./Mexican border and those who have made it to the US.
No one wants to migrate. No one wants to leave their house, family, community, country, culture, customs, etc. I’ve been out of the U.S. for nine months and I can’t wait to be home. Imagining leaving for America for the rest of my life is a terrifying thought (many immigrants cannot, for safety reasons, return to their home country). Not to mention the myriad of dangers faced in actual transit: rape, robbery, assault, amputation from falling or being pushed off “La Bestia,” dehydration, starvation, sickness, and death.
So then, why do people leave their country? Let’s break it down:
There are many economic reasons why people are forced to leave their home. In Mexico, the peso is dropping in value rapidly and the minimum wage equals about $4 USD a day. That alone is not much for a family to survive on. If someone in the family loses their job, there may not be much else they can do.
If a farmer depends on his or her crop to feed their family, a bad crop season can be devastating. (Mining which extracts minerals from the earth and leaves harmful chemicals in their place is a sure way to destroy crops and pollute or dry up water sources. Mines are a big topic to be discussed another day. I’ll just leave you with: mining and fracking is bad!)
When NAFTA and CAFTA (North/Central American Free Trade Agreement) were passed, America’s and Canada’s economies benefitted immensely from selling corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, beef, pork and poultry2 to their southern neighbors for prices cheaper than it cost to produce those crops in Mexico and Central America. Not surprisingly, tons of Latino farmers lost their livelihoods and many moved to urban cities or the U.S. in the following years.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch (1998 – affected Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and Hurricane Stan (2005 – affected Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Mexico, Guatemala) can (and did) wipe out entire communities leaving little hope for salvaging homes, crops, and personal transportation. These disasters don’t discriminate between socio-economic standing, and can force even successful professionals to flee their homes in search of a new start.
Gang violence is a big problem especially in Honduras and El Salvador. (Some say these gangs are essentially exports from the U.S., but again, that’s another topic for another day). In 2014, 43 of the 50 cities with the highest murder rates in the world were in Latin America. (Cities in the US and South Africa made up the 7 others.)3 Political violence is horrendous in Mexico, with more than 20,000 reported “disappearances” since 2006.4
To be clear, gangs and political violence do not only affect gang members and politicians. In San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the world’s capital for homicides) many deaths are the result of innocent citizens getting caught in the cross fire of bullets from gangs fighting for territory. In Mexico, if you get too involved in political protests or activism, you can be sure you end up on the government’s Black List. There’s a monument in Mexico City (ironically built with stolen funds) that lists people who were disappeared or assassinated by the government for speaking out against corrupt officials and/or fighting for justice.
Some gangs work like the Mafia, collecting “war taxes” from businesses in their communities. I heard a story of a man who ran a successful corner store in his neighborhood. The local gang collected a weekly fee from the businessman. When they saw that he was doing well, they upped their fee (I believe to $100 USD a week). The owner told them he couldn’t afford that amount, and the gang replied that if he didn’t pay, they would kill his wife, then his kids, etc. This is just one story, but I am certain this is common practice for gangs.
Discrimination based on sex, race/nationality, religion, or political opinion
If a person is experiencing discrimination in their country of residence for one of these reasons, they are eligible to seek asylum and become refugees. I know extremely little about the politics and history of this, but others have told me that in the past, the U.S. has made decisions on whether they grant or deny asylum based on whether we “approve” of their government.
This year I’ve had the privilege of hearing the stories of many migrants staying Mexico City. Here are questions raised by a man from El Salvador that he wishes Americans would ponder:
“Why does the U.S. government spend so much money militarizing the border? Why don’t they send the military, or at least the money, to the countries where the migrants are from?” (I hear this as, “Why don’t they invest in us – help develop our cities and our countries so that we don’t have the problems that force us to leave in the first place?”)
“Why do Americans call migrants “delinquents” when we are the ones fleeing delinquency in our home countries?” (This man worked in the armed forces in El Salvador for many, many years with delinquent youth. He is especially frustrated being called a delinquent by the media, when he spent his career combating delinquency in his city.)
“Why is it so easy for Americans and Canadians to come south and so hard for us to go north?” (I hear this question in the context of me coming to work in Mexico for a year without a visa, while my host mom had to have an interview at the U.S. embassy and pay a huge fee for a visa to visit the U.S. for a two-week Christian conference.)
Perhaps America is approaching the issue of undocumented immigrants from the wrong angle completely. Maybe we need to start asking ourselves why people are leaving their countries, how our international policies influence that, and how we can help combat the issues I explained above.
P.S. Shoutout to MCC Mexico and Guatemala, which I know have projects that allow people to stay in their host communities rather than resorting to emigration.