María Concepción Martínez Rodríguez, operations director at the Jesuit-run day center for migrants in Torreón, Mexico, receives migrants who arrived after riding atop trains March 5, 2021. (Credit: David Agren/CNS.)
TORREON, Mexico — Migrants riding atop northbound trains break from their trips to refresh at the Jesuit-run day center in this industrial city, about 500 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas.
On a recent weekday, Josué — a skinny Honduran teenager with short hair and stud earrings in both ears — was among the migrants waiting for breakfast, along with a chance to shower and claim a fresh change of clothes.
When asked why he left Honduras, Josué, 17, mentioned several motives, starting with street gangs, which he says killed his father and 13-year-old brother.
“They target young people,” he said. “If you don’t pay them extortion you have to join them.” He also spoke of twin hurricanes that battered Honduras in November and “left us homeless.” The first hurricane ripped off the roof and the second knocked down the walls, he said.
Josué also yearned to reunite with relatives living in the United States.
“I’m seeking a better life there,” he said.
Child and adolescent migrants like Josué are heading toward the United States in increasing numbers.
U.S. border officials detained 561 unaccompanied minors March 15. In February, more than 9,400 children and teenagers crossing on their own were stopped, a 60 percent increase from January, according to The Associated Press.
Border officials also reported detaining 97,000 migrants trying to enter the country illegally in February, figures not seen since 2019.
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a March 16 statement.
Most of the detainees are single adults. Most — along with some families being stopped — are returned quickly to Mexico under health provisions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayorkas said.
But he added, “We are encountering many unaccompanied children at our southwest border every day. … We are encountering 6- and 7-year-old children, for example, arriving at our border without an adult. They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration’s practice of expelling them.”
Why large numbers of minors — and migrants in general — are arriving at the U.S. border in increasing numbers remains a matter of dispute.
In Torreón, the day center, which is seeing an uptick in unaccompanied migrants and families, received few migrants over the spring and summer due to the pandemic, but that trend is changing.
“The pandemic is no longer an impediment for migration,” said María Concepción Martínez Rodríguez, operations director at the Torreón center.
The motives for migrating largely remain the same, according to migrant shelter directors and Catholics working on migration issues in Central America: Poverty, violence and political problems. There was also the devastation of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which left thousands suffering poverty, hunger and homelessness.
“Violence, extortion and people’s lives being threatened has continued” due to gangs not ceasing activities during the pandemic, said Scalabrinian Sister Nyzelle Dondé, director of the Honduran bishops’ migrant ministry.
“Corruption and impunity in this country are increasingly more severe, and that makes people leave with no possibility of staying here,” she added.
Franciscan Father Gabriel Romero said his shelter — La 72 in Mexico’s southern Tabasco state — is hosting 30 unaccompanied minors. He attributes the arrival of so many young migrants, in part, to changes in Mexican law, which forbids immigration officials holding minors in detention facilities.
“They can’t detain them, so they allow them to pass freely,” Romero said.
The change of government in the United States also encouraged migrants, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador telling reporters, “They see (Biden) as the migrant president.”
Jesuit Father José Luis González, coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Network in Central America and North America, attributed some of the migrant outflow to messaging confusion, along with disinformation spread by human smugglers trying to drum up business.
Even as the Biden administration tells migrants the border is closed, Central Americans hear stories of changes in U.S. policy — such as extending Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans and ending the Migrant Protection Protocols scheme — and see images of some migrants and asylum-seekers entering the United States, he said.
“On the popular level” in Central America, González said, “people have only heard there’s a new president who is favorable to migrants.”
On the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros — opposite Brownsville, Texas — Father Francisco Gallardo worked with asylum-seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols, under which they were forced to wait in Mexico as their claims were heard in U.S. courts.
Even though the asylum-seekers still have court dates, he said, “They think it’s nothing more than crossing (the border.) They don’t know that they have to continue the process to enter the United States legally.”
The Biden administration wants to restore the asylum process, which was curtailed by during the administration of President Donald Trump. Shelter operators say it will take time to reverse actions taken during the Trump administration.
“People don’t hear the whole story. They hear: asylum and border opens,” said Scalabrinian Father Pat Murphy, director of a migrant shelter in Tijuana. “We get 20 or 30 calls a day about asylum. … Even though you tell them ‘no,’ they try rephrasing the question hoping that you’ll say ‘yes.’ They just can’t capture the idea right now.”
A tent camp of asylum-seekers recently formed at the border in Tijuana. Father Murphy said people are occupying the camp “so they can be first in line, not understanding that there is no line” for asylum.
The migrants stopping at the day center in Torreón cited hardships at home as motives for fleeing rather than U.S. politics or possible border policy changes.
Juan Francisco Dubón, 39, departed Honduras after hurricanes wiped out his corn and banana crops, then destroyed his home in Santa Bárbara, Honduras.
“I no longer have a home,” he said.
He had not planned to leave. From 2008 to 2011, he had worked installing air conditioners in Houston and saved enough to buy a farm and build a four-room home, but he said he could not feed his family of five after the hurricanes.
Dubón was traveling north on his own, even though he acknowledged many migrants believe bringing a child might facilitate entry into the United States, since they’re not supposed to be held in detention for more than 72 hours.
When asked why he did not bring his children, he responded: “I’m not brave enough to ask them to make that sacrifice. It’s best that I try it on my own. If I make it, I know that in two or three years I can recover my farm.”