Gang Violence Pushes Even The Prosperous To Flee Central America
The country is grappling with how to handle the influx of Central American children who have come to the United States over the past few months. And as Central America has become more and more violent, more families have been coming to South Florida too.
Over the last year more than 55,000 families were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s almost six times more than the same time period a year ago.
Florida is one of the top five states receiving this influx of immigrants.
Saira, who didn't want to share her last name due to safety concerns, is a 23-year-old mother. She fled Honduras and crossed the Mexico-U.S. border with her two children three months ago.
Saira lived in San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city that has the world’s highest homicide rate.
“I didn’t leave my country for a better economic status or way of life,” says Saira. “It was because of the violence, the gangs and corruption.”
Saira says she had a good life in Honduras. She had a nice home, a car, a decent factory job. She loved her life until the Maras Salvatruchas, a dominant gang in her city, approached her.
They wanted her to sell drugs at her job. For weeks she refused to work with them and moved from city to city to avoid them.
But one day, they found her at home in San Pedro Sula. One of the gang members put a gun to Saira’s 7-year-old daughter and gave her an ultimatum.
They said she either worked with them, or she'd wake up with her children in black bags. Saira couldn’t go to the police because she says they worked with the gangs.
“In my country they told me: Girl, it’s better to keep your mouth shut rather than full of flies,” she says.
After that, Saira grabbed her two children and headed to the Guatemalan border. She took a boat to Mexico. From there they took buses all the way to the U.S border near San Antonio.
Her last stop was Miami, where her mom Maria has been living for the past 11 years.
Maria came to the U.S. to give her children a better life in Honduras.
The gang harassing her daughter contacted her a few months ago. They asked for $1,000 a month in exchange for Saira’s safety, threatening her with texts and voicemails.
“They told me where I lived [in Miami] and to not be happy to be in the U.S. because they could take me to the Everglades with the crocodiles — they know the area here,” says Maria.
Maria would send $200 to $300 whenever she could. She would make excuses for weeks so it would give Saira time to escape.
“This was not the life I wanted for my children,” says Maria.
Maria stayed in touch with Saira in Mexico, and would send her money for food and bus fare.
Michelle Abarca is a supervising attorney with Americans for Immigrant Justice. She says South Florida has been at the center of this situation for many years.
She says immigrants who have just arrived have other needs besides legal assistance. People that go to Americans for Immigrant Justice for help can get trauma counseling and independent living skills.
“They are survivors,” says Abarca. “They go through this horrific journey. They are confused and scared.”
When Saira talks about her journey to the border, she pauses several times and took deep breaths. She relives moments that made her tremble.
“We know the majority of the people making that journey are raped and abused,” says Saira. “Not only do we put up with the cold weather and hunger, but other type of abuses.”
Saira was sexually abused by a Mexican police officer at one of her bus stops. The officer forced her to leave her children on the bus and took her away.
She says people who go on this journey don't do it without any reason. Everyone has their story, and they do it for their children's future.
Lucio Perez-Reynoso, the Miami program director for the American Friends Service Committee, says immigrants come to South Florida because they feel welcomed.
“They have relatives or friends, and South Florida has been a state that receives immigrants,” says Perez. “It’s an immigrant community.”
Perez says once people are caught by border patrol officers, they are interviewed or transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.
If they contact a family member, they are picked up or sent to South Florida on a bus or plain.
Once migrants are under family or federal care, there is a legal proceeding in front of the immigration courts to determine whether they can stay or be deported.
If approved by the court, people can apply for a special juvenile visa status or defensive asylum. It all depends on their case.
Abarca says people need to remember this is a country of laws.
“We should respect our right and give them a meaningful opportunity to present their case in court,” says Abarca.
Perez is helping Saira and her family apply for asylum. They are still waiting for a court hearing date.
Saira says she would rather live in the shadows than in danger
“I don't care if they don't give me my papers,” says Saira. “What I want is not to go back to my country. If they send me back, I'll go to China or something, but never to Honduras again.”