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Migrants risk the dangerous trip to the U.S. because it’s safer than staying home

For migrants, many from Central America, the United States represents the opportunity for a better life, and sometimes the escape from mortal danger. Nick Schifrin revisits some NewsHour stories of those who made the difficult decision to risk the treacherous journey, then learns more from Jason Marczak of the Atlantic Council.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The challenges of immigration policy begin far from the U.S.-Mexico border.

    The first step is a family, usually Central American, starting a long, desperate journey north.

    For years, the "NewsHour" has reported on the reasons why so many people take such enormous risks to get to the United States.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin revisits a few of their stories.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The primary reason that men, women, and children risk such a perilous passage north is because it is safer than staying at home. For these people, the United States represents the opportunity for a better life, and the southern border of the U.S. is the difficult-to-reach destination.

    Many are from the area known as the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where civil wars in the 1980s left a legacy of weak governance and economies and brutal violence.

    And, as I discovered last year, many of their journeys begin with a little optimism and a lot of faith.

    On this border, the sound of the water is the sound of hope.

    The Suchiate River separates Guatemala from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Every day, thousands of Central Americans cross north, dreaming of more peaceful and prosperous lives. There's no security and no authorities. The rafts are inner tubes with plywood planks. Entire families travel together. Women bring their children.

    Each crossing costs 50 cents, but many can't afford that, so, on this day, the water is low enough to walk across for free barefoot.

    Leading the way in the backpacks are 21-year-old Dilber Avila and his 15-year-old brother, Eduardo Hernandez. They're from Honduras.

  • Dilber Avila (through translator):

    We're very poor there. The house we live in is made of mud. It could collapse on us at any point. So, we went on our way to look for a better life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They're unsure how far north they will go. They have heard the route is dangerous, but they're hopeful and willing to sacrifice.

  • Dilber Avila (through translator):

    This path is tricky. You never know how it will go. With the help of our lord watching over us as we travel, we pray, and he sends angels to help us on our journey.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In total, 450,000 people cross this border every year. Some will just go for the day to shop or sell. But for many others, this is the first moment of a long, dangerous journey north.

    Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are the world's deadliest countries outside war zones. Many of those who flee the violence do make it to the U.S.

    And, as producer P.J. Tobia discovered in 2014, many are unaccompanied children.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Last year, 11-year-old Nodwin survived a journey that has killed many adults. He traveled from Honduras to the U.S. border over land almost entirely by himself. He almost drowned crossing the Rio Grande River near Texas in an inflatable raft.

  • Nodwin (through translator):

    The boat suffered a puncture, and I went under the water, but I managed to grab onto a piece of wood, and that's how I saved myself.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    He says he made this dangerous journey because his hometown in Honduras has been overrun by criminal gangs.

  • Nodwin (through translator):

    Big people force the children to sell bad things, and if they don't do it, they rape them or they kill them.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Nodwin once witnessed a boy his own age gang-raped in a neighborhood park after the child refused to join a local drug gang.

  • Nodwin (through translator):

    They were stripping a kid naked, and I went to tell the kid's mom. Later, I went home, but I didn't want to leave my house, because they could have done the same thing to me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, many of the people who try to reach the U.S. are economic migrants, hoping to make money to help their families back home.

    Many cross illegally, start lives in the U.S., but then are caught, and sent back across the border.

    Then they have to decide whether to try and sneak back in.

    Jorge Rivera Uribe is only 19. His American dream was to provide money for his two sisters, his wife, his daughter, and his mother, who has diabetes.

  • Jorge Rivera Uribe (through translator):

    I don't have money to take care of them. So, I wanted to see if I could earn more money to give them all a better life, so they don't have to suffer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the U.S., he was building homes, making in one day what it takes a week to make in Mexico. But the border is now much more dangerous. Last month, he tried to sneak into the U.S. without paying the $500 charged by local drug cartels. They almost beat him to death.

  • Jorge Rivera Uribe (through translator):

    They told me, if they find me crossing again, they will blow my head off. They don't know I'm alive. If they did, they would have come for me. That's why I want to leave here. I won't let them kill me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the immigrants who are here legally, many integrate and start families.

    Earlier this year, thousands of Salvadoran immigrants and their families were notified they will lose what's known as temporary protected status, and will have to leave the United States.

    And as correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro discovered, that would mean leaving the homes of their births.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Twelve-year-old Dayna worries about leaving the only home she's ever known, as she and 4-year-old brother Andres would have to accompany their parents.

  • Dayna Velasco:

    We don't know how it's going to be over there and how are the conditions it is Salvador. It's like it's kind of dangerous to be there.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Indeed, Enrique Velasco, who has made a good living working construction jobs in California, says he worries about returning to an increasingly violent country.

  • Enrique Velasco:

    My fear is that, a lot of cases, you take all your savings, all your money, and sometimes people can steal everything from you. It's not safe.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    To discover what might await the Velascos, we made the 3,300-mile journey from San Francisco to El Salvador's capital, San Salvador.

    Heavily armed police and soldiers seem everywhere, in response to an epidemic of gang violence in the past two decades, which has emptied entire neighborhoods whose families have fled in terror.

  • Oscar Chacon:

    Last year, El Salvador became again the most violent country as measured by homicide rates in Latin America.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk more about why so many try to get here, and the impact of the administration's policies, I'm joined by Jason Marczak, the director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Jason Marczak:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The problems that we see in the Northern Triangle, that we heard from all of those people who we just heard from, are they getting any better?

  • Jason Marczak:

    There are a lot attempts to improve the problems in the Northern Triangle, but this is a long-term problem.

    This is a problem that's been brewing for quite some time. It's the result of the civil wars in the Northern Triangle and the lack of full reconciliation, the arms, the guns that pervade as part of that, the gangs, the El Salvadoran gangs that were trained in Los Angeles and then shipped back home.

    And so the situation in the three countries is pretty dire. There's high levels of violence, high levels of violence in rural areas, in small — in communities, domestic violence as well. People are oftentimes fearful of even walking out their front door, not only because of what might happen to them, what might happen to their children, forcible gang recruitment.

    And so many people are leaving simply because there's no other option. There is no other option. It doesn't matter how forceful the policies are at the border. People are going to go north, because the alternative is to stay home and to risk their own lives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so they go north, but a lot of them are stopping in Mexico now. More are stopping in Mexico than before. Why?

  • Jason Marczak:

    Well, partly because Mexico stepped up its own efforts.

    And take us back a couple years to 2014, to the unaccompanied minor crisis, when you had 60,000 to 80,000 unaccompanied minors in 2014 entering the United States. And at that time, Mexico decided that it was in its interest as well to be helpful in this regard, and Mexico began a southern border program, as well as Mexico began to do more processing in-country of migrants and refugees.

    So, Mexico has increasingly seen the problems in the Northern Triangle as its problems as well, and has been trying to work collaboratively, much more so than in the past, to try to solve some of those issues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what the Trump administration has done on the border to try and solve those issues, as you just put it, is this policy of up until today separating parents from children.

    They say they hoped that it was a deterrence from people to come to the border.

    Is there any evidence that it actually deterred people from coming to the border?

  • Jason Marczak:

    Immigration is about push-and-pull factors.

    People are — the push factors will continue, people will continue to leave, while the communities remain very violent, and also while there is a lack of economic opportunity.

    The U.S. has committed since 2014 upward of about $2 billion. Most of that money has not actually flowed into the region itself. But this needs to be a long-term plan with a long-term solution.

    You look at what we did in Colombia, 15 years, $10 billion, that's the type of effort, even more so, that's going to be necessary in the Northern Triangle to really improve those economic conditions, but even more so improve the security conditions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, does that mean, at the end of the day, no matter what the policy is on the border, what will have more impact on the flow of people from Central America is actually what's happening in those Central American countries?

  • Jason Marczak:

    Look, people don't want to leave. People don't want to leave their families unless they're forced to.

    And most of these migrants that are coming north are coming north because they have no other option. And if we can give an option for people to stay home, people will take it. The fear of the unknown, of what would happen at the border is oftentimes — that's outweighed by the fear of the known. And the fear of the known is the violence in the countries themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is there anything the U.S. can do at the border to try and prevent people from trying to come across?

  • Jason Marczak:

    What — the real solution — again, the real solution is back in-country.

    In — at the border itself, what's necessary is to have a policy that keeps families together, a policy that doesn't result in more hardship for these people.

    As you saw in the segments beforehand, people have endured an incredibly treacherous journey to come north. And the United States, which has always been a country of welcome — being welcome and open arms, should recognize those — recognize that — how treacherous those journeys were and try to provide the counseling and consultation that is going to be so critical, as people not only endured those journeys, but also left an incredibly difficult, violent situation in the countries themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:


    Jason Marczak, thank you very much.

  • Jason Marczak:

    Thank you very much.

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