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Why Central Americans flee to the U.S. despite "zero tolerance"

Behind the global furor over America’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy are tens of thousands of adults and children — most of them from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — who have risked extortion and sexual violence along the journey, and now separation from their families upon arrival. So why take those risks to reach the U.S.?

Data: United States Border Patrol; Chart: Kerrie Vila /Axios

The big picture: This is not just a U.S. immigration crisis —it’s a Central American refugee crisis which started around 2013 and has continued to this day. In these countries, fear is often the primary motivator, rather than economic incentives.

By the numbers

  • Families: Nearly 200,000 parents and children have been apprehended crossing the Southern border from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in under three years, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
  • Unaccompanied minors: Beginning in 2013, the number of children apprehended at the border without a parent has spiked, with more than 200,000 coming from the three countries since that time. This year, the vast majority have come from Guatemala.
  • As these numbers have risen, there has been a dramatic decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, both among children and adults. In 2000, 98% of those apprehended at the southern border were Mexican. Last year, just 42% were.
  • For the first time last year, the U.S. received more asylum claims than any other country in the world, according to new UN data, with 43% coming from Central and North America. However, the U.S. only made decisions on one-fifth of those applications, leaving hundreds of thousands in limbo.

Behind the numbers

  • El Salvador has by far the highest murder rate in the world. Rates of violent death there are higher than in every war-torn country except Syria, according to a recent study.
  • There are more than 50,000 members of violent gangs across the three countries, per the International Crisis Group. Extortion is a fact of daily life in cities like San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, and carries with it the threat of violence. Turf wars between two Salvadoran gangs have displaced some 300,000 people, per the AP.

What it looks like: A Salvadoran woman waiting in Tijuana with her husband and three children, one of whom is just ten months old, told El Pais that the family fled after she was repeatedly threatened by a gang member who had become obsessed with her. She said the child separation policy “hasn’t changed my mind” about trying to cross into the U.S. and seek asylum.

“If my children can stay there, I have hope that I will be able to see them again. In my country, the only thing that awaits me is death.”
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