Pictures of migrant caravans heading north from Central America through Mexico towards the United States have been in the news as of late. In the heated rhetoric, these groups are often portrayed as a violent invasion.
Unlike other migrant waves of the past, this current movement is not about people looking for jobs in the U.S., but fleeing out of fear of violence in countries disrupted by civil unrest and warring gangs.
In March 2015, we traveled to El Salvador as Peace Corps volunteers in service to youth at various schools. Our mission was helping youth prepare for employment once they completed their education. Projects varied by school, but ranged from teaching life skills to robotics programming.
We listened to a common and recurring theme during our interactions with youth: “How do I get to the United States?”
The young people of El Salvador commonly trek the migrant trail towards the U.S. alone and without parental supervision and guidance. It’s expected and accepted. They said it had to do with economics. However, something not often talked about as a valid reason for leaving is fear.
Persistent fear is a normal part of life in Central American countries and was a constant weight on everyone’s shoulders. We received constant reminders not to go out at night because of the potential for assault or robbery. The communities where we lived during our stay had forgotten what it felt like to be free of fear. In fact, few were fortunate enough to remember feeling that way.
This fear was constant and prevalent in both the old and the young. Historical trauma was evident in the way grandchildren told the stories their grandparents experienced during the war, as if they had lived through the conflict themselves.
This fear was so pervasive and normalized it was no longer a valid reason for leaving the country.
Today, we volunteer with a local organization helping connect Central American asylum seekers in Tucson — and across the state of Arizona — with their sponsors in the U.S. Working with other students from the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, asylum seekers have shared their stories about their journey to the U.S. They conveyed the lack of job opportunities in their respective countries as a major reason for their departure. They tell of how they escaped shootouts between gangs and police, about how gangs force their children to join criminal organizations, and about death threats to loved ones because they could not afford to pay extortion to the local gangs.
We are struck by the stories, listening to them now from this side of the border.
It’s important to understand that many people coming to the U.S. seeking asylum are not simply looking for jobs. Parents are struggling to provide a safe environment to raise their children and, like many parents would, they search for a life where they can be free of conflict and violence. They seek to escape the constant emotional state of fear, free of violence; memories of such freedom that they themselves have lost over time.
Leaving your entire life behind is not an easy decision to make. Their decision to do that speaks volumes about what they have endured and all they are willing to risk for a better life. They courageously risk their lives and safety, experience exploitation along the way, travel under severe weather conditions, encounter discrimination, and cope with loneliness and alienation. It’s more than economics. Where is our humanity?
As Jimmy Carter said, “The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.”