"They are refugees": U.S. government deporting Central American migrants who fled "extreme" violence

Study: ICE sends refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala back to what are basically unofficial war zones

Published March 4, 2016 7:15PM (EST)

A Salvadoran migrant family on a railway track in Mexico  (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)
A Salvadoran migrant family on a railway track in Mexico (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

The Obama administration kicked off 2016 with a new series of raids on Central American refugees and migrants.

In just over a month from Jan. 1 to early February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, deported at least 121 people, in raids primarily in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.

Most of the people being targeted by raids and deportations have fled extreme forms of violence in Central America. "Sending refugees back will mean certain violence for many families," experts like Suyapa Portillo, a professor of Latino/a Transnational Studies at Pitzer College, have warned.

An explosive investigation by The Guardian found that the "U.S. government is deporting undocumented immigrants back to Central America to face the imminent threat of violence, with several individuals being murdered just days or months after their return."

From January 2014 to October 2015, as many as 83 people the U.S. forced back to Central America were killed.

Immigrants' rights and human rights activists have expressed outrage at the Obama administration's policies. In early February, rights groups delivered the president a petition with more than 130,000 signatures, calling on his administration to end all deportation raids against Central American refugee families and provide them with Temporary Protected Status.

Regular protests have been held in front of the White House and outside of ICE's headquarters in Washington, D.C. On Feb. 23, 14 activists were arrested at a protest in front of the White House. More rallies have been organized around the country.

For years, migrants' rights activists have blasted President Obama for his harsh policies, dubbing him the "Deporter-in-Chief." The Obama administration has carried out more deportation removals of immigrants than any other presidency in U.S. history.

A wave of children fleeing violence Central America entered the U.S. in 2014, in hopes of seeking asylum. American immigration courts have since issued 10,142 deportation orders for unaccompanied Central American minors.

In recent months, however, ICE has accelerated its clampdown on Central American migrants in particular.

A recent study from an immigration policy expert provides more details about the horrible conditions many of these migrants are fleeing.

"They Are Refugees: An Increasing Number of People Are Fleeing Violence in the Northern Triangle," a report by Silva Mathema, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, documents "the staggering levels of violence" in the region.

Most refugees and migrants are fleeing Central America's Northern Triangle region, which consists of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This region endures "extreme levels of organized crime, gang violence and poverty," Mathema explains.

These three countries are among the five most dangerous nations in the Western Hemisphere. Homicide rates in all three are many times worse than murder figures in the U.S.

[caption id="attachment_14423890" align="aligncenter" width="620"](Credit: Center for American Progress) (Credit: Center for American Progress)[/caption]

El Salvador has 108.5 homicides per 100,000 people; the U.S. has just around  4.5 — amounting to 24 times less. From 2012 to 2015, the murder rate skyrocketed almost 200 percent.

An average of one murder took place every hour in El Salvador in August 2015, the most deadly month since the country's nearly 13-year-long civil war ended in 1992.

Some cities in Honduras see even more extreme forms of violence. In 2015, the second-most violent city was in Honduras, and the third-most violent was in El Salvador.

From 2011 to 2013, San Pedro Sula, Honduras was considered the murder capital of the world. By 2015, the city had dropped to the second-most violent on Earth, with 111 homicides per every 100,000 people. And because of limited resources, inadequate training and corruption, roughly 97 percent of these murders were never solved.

In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, the world's third-most violent city in 2015, 109 people were killed for every 100,000. This is a staggering 80 percent increase from just the year before.

A February report by the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, notes that "flight from danger is becoming increasingly common in El Salvador, where the gangs' criminal activities include murder, extortion, kidnap and rape, and now impact people from all walks of life."

"Victims range from school children and bus drivers to business owners, police officers and their families, leaving a growing number with no option but to flee," the U.N. refugee agency indicates.

Women in Central America also face a large burden. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the five countries with the worst female homicide rates in the world.

Gang violence plagues much of Central America. The violence is so extreme that Central American countries are going through what are essentially undeclared internal wars. Refugees and migrants fleeing this violence and seeking asylum in the U.S., therefore, and very much like the refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Moreover, like the wars in the Middle East, external intervention plays a role. U.S. policies in the so-called War on Drugs, in particular, continue to fuel much of this violence.

In the 1970s and 1980s, at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government also backed multiple dirty wars in Central and South America, funding, arming and training right-wing death squads, which were often linked to drug violence and cartels, in order to undermine popular socialist governments and movements. Some of the violence today has its origins in these brutal civil wars.

Naturally, the "effect of this extreme level of violence is the escalation in the number of people fleeing the region," Mathema notes in her report.

U.N. data shows that from 2008 to 2014 the number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans who requested asylum in Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama increased by an enormous 1,179 percent. In the same period, requests for asylum in the U.S. grew by 370 percent.

[caption id="attachment_14423948" align="aligncenter" width="620"](Credit: Center for American Progress) (Credit: Center for American Progress)[/caption]

Displacement rates are at historic highs. Up to 9 percent of each of the three countries' total population has emigrated in recent years.

In short, the plight of people fleeing violence in Central America is not very different from that of Middle Eastern refugees.

U.S. asylum officers interviewed 16,077 women from the Northern Triangle and Mexico in fiscal year 2015. They found that the vast majority, 82 percent, had a "credible fear of persecution or torture."

The beheadings and other egregious forms of violence meted out by extremist groups in the Middle East have been carried out by death squads, paramilitaries and drug cartels for years in Central America. The same kind of violence that takes place in Central America would be called "terrorism" in the Middle East.

The Center for American Progress is calling on the U.S. to "stay true to its commitments to protect desperate people — especially women and children — who are pursuing security."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

MORE FROM Ben Norton