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Surge Of Central American Migrants To U.S. Could Rival 2014 Wave


There is a new surge of Central Americans fleeing their homelands for the U.S. The numbers are approaching those seen during the crisis two years ago. That's when tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras made the dangerous trek through Mexico to the U.S. border.

To talk about what's happening now, we're joined by NPR's Mexico and Central America correspondent Carrie Kahn. Hi.


SIEGEL: Is there a short answer to why thousands of Central Americans are again coming to the U.S.?

KAHN: I'll give you a short answer. It's just that the violence is still horrific in these countries and is still pushing people out. That's the simple answer. In El Salvador, gangs and extortion and killings - the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. It's even higher than during the civil war, and it surpassed Honduras, which had held that title for so long.

And in Honduras, the gangs are terrible. Still too, police and high-level political corruption and violence is rampant. And in Guatemala, poverty is terrible. There's a drought killing small - that's really hurting small coffee farmers and driving them off their farms and their livelihood. Violence is a problem there and especially for girls.

There's a statistic for girls under 14 that just kills me. It's just terrible. The Catholic Church says that teen pregnancy is sky high, and the majority of that is through sexual abuse.

SIEGEL: But last year, we saw the numbers of Central Americans apprehended at the U.S. border go down. Why did it go down if violence has remained as bad as you say it has?

KAHN: Another simple answer is that Mexico began its own crackdown. For so long, that southern border with Guatemala and Mexico had been notorious for just being so porous. But the U.S. put a lot of money there in training for border guards, and that really stopped a lot of the traffic getting through Mexico into the U.S.

They stopped a lot of the migrants from taking what's known as the migrant train, The Beast, The Bestia, where they could ride free throughout Mexico, and they hauled them off of that train. And there's also record numbers of arrests. So if you just follow the numbers in Mexico, as the arrests in Mexico go up, the ones in the U.S. go down.

SIEGEL: Well, are the arrests in Mexico going down? What do the numbers look like there at this point?

KAHN: Well, I was just looking at the numbers. We only have them through April, and they are down a little bit compared to last year. So that just means more people are getting through. I think there's a couple reasons for that. One is that Mexico just couldn't sustain the record number of arrests that it was doing at the time. The detention facilities are greatly overcrowded. There aren't enough border guards. There have been record numbers of human rights violations. There's no real asylum process in Mexico, so that couldn't be sustained - those record number of arrests here.

But then the other thing is that the smugglers are getting better at it. They're knowing how to get around Mexican officials. Maybe they're bribing them more. And we've seen that cost smuggling has gone up. So there's a couple of reasons why people are getting through Mexico now.

SIEGEL: And what about the U.S. role in trying to stop the exodus from Central America? Congress just approved three quarters of a billion dollars to go to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Is that helping?

KAHN: Well, the thing about that money is they did pass this record amount of aid to these three countries, but most it hasn't gotten there yet. Congress put a lot of conditions on that money because of the corruption and the human rights violations and the problems with the police in those countries.

So they put a lot of conditions on them, and those measures just aren't in place yet for really vetting those, making sure that the anticorruption measures are in place and that the military is off the street and they're respecting human rights, so it's taking a while for that money to get there. It's going to take a while. Those are long-term solutions. This is a short-term problem we're seeing right now.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on