Mothers Karen Soto, center, and Dioninda Pérez, right, hold their daughters while they sleep at the Greyhound station in El Paso. Both left their native Guatemala to escape entrenched poverty. After Pérez’s money was stolen in Agua Prieta , Soto bought food and drinks for both families.

Last of a two-part series

Women and children crossing the U.S-Mexico border is the story of the moment — but migration from Central America is not a new trend.

Yes, the numbers are up — Border Patrol agents along the Southwest have detained more than 100,000 families and children traveling alone in the first eight months of the fiscal year.

Migration to the United States from Central American countries has nearly tripled since 1990. Now, the sons and daughters of those who left are taking the same trip their parents once made.

“The fact that we are seeing younger people coming is an additional dimension of the phenomenon, but it’s not new,” said Ruth Piedrasanta, political science professor at Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City.

There are many theories about why so many more people — particularly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — are coming to the United States.

Critics of President Obama say his lax immigration enforcement and policies are fueling the surge.

Rumors are spreading throughout communities in Central America that women with children and pregnant women were given a permit, or permiso, to stay. But essentially the women and their children are being released because the government doesn’t have enough detention centers to hold them.

Unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada go through a different process and are often reunited with family members already in the United States while their immigration case is pending.

many reasons to Flee

Experts say Central Americans have left, and continue to leave, for various, and complex, reasons: civil wars, entrenched poverty, natural disasters, a desire to reunite with family members, and, more recently, increased violence.

“The rumor may be a tipping point,” said Lauren Heidbrink, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at National Louis University in Chicago. “But it’s not as if they hear a rumor and everyone ups and leaves.”

Migrating, they say, is the last resort for many.

“One point I would really like people in Arizona to understand, is that people from Central America have tried everything to stay,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, a University of Arizona associate professor at the Center for Latin American Studies.

Some of those efforts, she said, include agrarian reform that was defeated by a U.S.-sponsored coup, the assassination of leaders promoting local development projects by the military in the 1970s and the genocide of the 1980s.

Guatemalans started arriving in cities such as Los Angeles and New York in the 1950s and their number continued to rise through the decades, accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s during the peak of the 36-year-old civil war and a collapse in coffee prices.

“Unfortunately, from the 1950s up to the ’90s, the United States supported the military dictators in Central America,” she said. “We were on the wrong side of history.”

Oglesby was one of 50 expert witnesses to testify last year at the trial of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt, the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his own country and in the place where the crimes took place.

During the 1980s, one-tenth of the Guatemalan community was forcibly displaced in less than a year. Hundreds of thousands became refugees, crossing the border into Mexico or going into hiding in the mountains. Others began to make their way to the United States.

“It’s an important root of what we are seeing today because the patterns of migration were established by that violent displacement,” Oglesby said.

poverty a major driver

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it was estimated that 1 in 10 Guatemalans leave their country, the vast majority for the United States, Piedrasanta said.

About 1 million Guatemalan immigrants live in the United States. While more than half are in the country illegally, others have become citizens and legal permanent residents from war-related asylum claims or through relatives.

In the 1980s Tucson gained national attention for starting the sanctuary movement, where faith-based groups opened church doors to Central Americans fleeing civil wars backed by the United States.

Guatemala has been among the countries with the largest income inequality in the world. More than half of the country’s population lives in poverty and about the same percentage of children under age 5 suffers from chronic malnutrition. Percentages are higher in indigenous communities.

In San Marcos, where the largest share of Guatemalan migrants come from, 65.5 percent of its population lives in poverty and 20 percent in extreme poverty. About 14 percent of the population leaves, Piedrasanta said.

“We are talking about economically and socially depressed areas,” she said, “The fact that they border Mexico makes it easier.”

Many of the parents who left in the 1990s invested in a better home and on their children’s education, Piedrasanta said. “But that bet that educating their children to increase their human capital and improve their lives is crashing with the lack of job opportunities, especially for young people.” About 70 percent of Guatemala’s population works in the informal market doing subsistence agriculture or odd jobs.

Cartels, Debt factor

Recently, increasing violence in parts of Guatemala, specifically around the capital and border areas, has been added to the list of contributing factors for migration.

Guatemala’s geographic location — midway between Colombia and the United States — makes it a haven for transnational organized crime groups, including human and drug trafficking organizations.

The Mexican government’s offensive against the cartels has also forced traffickers to move drugs to Central America first, said a report by Crisis Group, an independent, nonprofit organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.

The entry point of choice is often Honduras, where a 2009 coup weakened an already fragile government. From Honduras, drugs pass into Guatemala, where family trafficking networks work with Mexican cartels to transport them to the U.S.

“In parts of Guatemala I’m seeing that more and more younger children are vulnerable to the cartel violence,” Heidbrink said from Guatemala.

Others leave because they have debts to pay.

Since 2007, there have been more than 500,000 deportations of Guatemalans from Mexico and the United States, Guatemalan government data show.

“People sign over their deed to pay for the trip with a 10 to 15 percent interest rate,” Heidbrink said. She recently published the book, “Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests.”

Smugglers give migrants three opportunities to make it across the border, but if they get apprehended and sent back to Guatemala before they pay their debt, they lose whatever they put up for collateral — usually their house — and they end up paying rent to the person who loaned them the money, on top of the interest on the loan, Heidbrink said.

“They get in this spiral of debt,” Heidbrink said. “There are no jobs, so they end up coming again.”

brokering solutions

The only way to change this, experts say, is to address the root causes of migration: investing in job creation, giving people power to make their own changes and renegotiating free-trade agreements.

The Obama administration says it’s trying to do just that by requesting $3.7 billion to deal with what the president has called a humanitarian crisis related to this summer’s surge in border crossings.

A piece of that money, $295 million, would go to help repatriate and reintegrate migrants to Central America, to help the governments in the region better control their borders, and to address the underlying root causes driving migration.

Helping the countries people are leaving and making sure money gets to the people, experts say, is the best chance at curbing the flow of women and children now crossing the border.

“Unless conditions change here,” Piedrasanta said, “people are going to continue to leave.”

Contact Star reporter at or 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo