Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming
On Wednesday, July 9, I paid a visit to a coyote at his house in Chalatenango in northern El Salvador. This coyote, who wishes to remain anonymous—I’ll call him “José”—is one of the oldest veterans of his profession. A man of over 50, stout like a tree, José explains that coyotes used to be beloved figures in their communities rather than vilified. “People would greet you on the streets, bring you gifts,” he says. “Today, many see you as a criminal because so many new coyotes engage in deception.”
José started guiding people to the United States when it wasn’t illegal to do so—at least not in El Salvador. His career took off in 1979 amid the escalating civil war. At the time, he would publish ads promoting his business in newspaper classified sections. Safe trips to the United States, a typical ad announced. This coyote has never used the train known as “The Beast” to cross Mexico and reach the US border; his methods are safer and his services more expensive. He ferries migrants north using a chain of Central American and Mexican coyotes whose movements he coordinates by phone. They travel by bus and pay bribes to Mexican police officers and Border Patrol agents with whom they have established “agreements.” He charges $7,500 per person.
I ask José how he would explain this new wave of migrant children. “I laugh when the media says children are going by themselves. Not one of them goes alone—all of them are taken by coyotes,” he boasts. “If I were undocumented in the US, how am I going to tell my kid, ‘Come on over!’ No, that’s not how it goes.”
José no longer advertises in the papers; these days, his clients are referred to him by word of mouth, which has an astounding power in the world of migrants. Despite the tremendous distances traveled by them—and the dozens of US cities in which they live and hide without papers—these migrants seek each other out, they congregate, they gather at the same restaurants and send remittances to their families in Central America. Most working-class Central Americans either know a coyote personally or know someone who knows one. If a mother in Los Angeles sees that her neighbor’s children have made it into the States, she will want her own kids to come as well; then another mother will do the same, and then another and then another, until you have 52,000 children crossing the border.
In the United States, coyotes are generally perceived as ruthless criminals on the level of narco-traffickers. But those fleeing the violence in their native countries would make that trek with or without them; what the coyotes do is make the journey easier. They are part of our communities, and often they’re our only hope. Tragically, evidence suggests that for most Central American families separated by the treacherous expanse of Mexico, the possibilities for reunification remain almost nil.
José thinks there will be a mass crackdown on coyotes in Central America, triggered by US pressure. Ambassador Zamora confirms that Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has circulated instructions for such a crackdown in his country. José thinks the United States might call for the extradition of certain Central American coyotes, an idea that to Ambassador Zamora does not seem outside the realm of possibility. One thing is certain: the Obama administration’s record number of deportations has only given coyotes like José new customers.
Of the $3.7 billion President Obama has requested from Congress to deal with the child migrant crisis, only $295 million will be set aside for the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to better control their borders and create conditions to ameliorate the lead causes of mass migration. If we assume that a budget represents a government’s vision, then the US government believes that its responsibility to Central America in this crisis amounts to less than 8 percent. But the violence in Central America is far more than 8 percent of the problem.
The United States is not looking into creating a family reunification visa, nor has it announced any plans to grant asylum or refugee status to thousands of children who risk death in Central America if they return. Instead, the US government plans to continue deporting immigrants and financing Central American governments to combat their coyotes and better patrol their borders.
Cracking down on coyotes will surely slow the flood of children coming to the United States for a time. The Obama administration may also approve quicker methods for deporting children, which will diminish the flow as well. But none of these policies get to the heart of the matter. Central American mothers and fathers will continue to seek ways to be reunited with their children; they will continue to try to get them out of violent places and keep them safe. And if no one offers a better alternative, coyotes will continue to be their only way to do this. The children will not stop coming.
Read Next: James North on “How the US’s Foreign Policy Created an Immigrant Refugee Crisis on Its Own Southern Border”