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Number Of Central American Asylum Seekers Increases Despite Child-Separation Policy


The Trump administration's zero tolerance crackdown on families who cross into the U.S. illegally is starting to get back to migrant home countries, particularly those in Central America. U.S. officials say they are prosecuting and detaining every person caught and taking children from their parents. It's unclear, though, if this harsher policy is a deterrent yet. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Dozens of migrants who recently traveled to the U.S. border in a caravan through Mexico are keenly aware of President Trump's crackdown, like 24-year-old Maria Serana (ph). She's speaking from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detention facility near San Diego, Calif. She's been there since asking for asylum for herself and her two children at the border more than four weeks ago.

MARIA SERANA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says on the 8th of May, guards told her her children needed to come with them. She says her eldest son, 7 years old, took the hand of his little sibling, who is 2, and started walking away. When they saw their mother wasn't following them, they started crying.

SERANA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: It's difficult to hear Maria. The connection over the detention center phone is not great, and she breaks down crying often. She says she's been told that her children were taken to a shelter in New York. She says she's only been able to speak with her oldest son, who just cries on the phone to her.

Thirty-seven migrants have signed a formal complaint about conditions in the San Diego facility which they call inhumane. In a statement, ICE says it is committed to ensuring the health, safety and welfare of all in our care and that they are looking into the inmates' complaints. While migrants and their advocates already in the U.S. say President Trump's zero tolerance policy is in full swing, it's unclear if that message is fully getting relayed back home.


KAHN: At this migrant shelter in Mexico City, a couple dozen women, men and children are just finishing up the afternoon meal. All are from Central America, mostly El Salvador and Honduras. I could only record the migrants if I agreed not to use their names. All were fearful that gang members back home could find them through information in a press report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This man from El Salvador who came with his wife and two kids says he's heard about Donald Trump's policy - not too many specifics, though, just that the president doesn't like migrants and won't let them in the country. Their story is a familiar one these days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The wife says gang members began extorting them for money. It didn't matter if they weren't making enough in their small bakery. The gang wanted their money, and you had to pay it. One day, they demanded $5,000, or they would kill them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The husband says they couldn't come up with it, so one night they just shut the doors and left, making it look like they went to a friend's for dinner or to a party. They never went back. They say they're too afraid to go to the U.S. and don't want to be separated so have decided to stay put in Mexico City. U.S. officials and charity workers in Central America say news is trickling back about the Trump administration's policies. But Kay Andrade of Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador says families who have no other options at home are still heading to the U.S.

KAY ANDRADE: The risk of migration even with all of these barriers is still less than staying here.

KAHN: She says she's heard parents say their child is safer in a U.S. shelter alone than on the streets of El Salvador. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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