Rumors Motivate Central American Kids To Set Out For U.S. Border

Steve Inskeep talks to Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center and Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News, who's in Honduras, about what's driving the influx of young illegal migrants.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's clarify what's driving Central American families to send kids to the U.S. Unaccompanied minors have caused a crisis and a debate. Republicans contend President Obama's policies have encouraged people to come. The administration says immigrant smugglers are spreading irresponsible rumors that people can escape violence. So let's go to the source. We reached two people who've been talking with people in Honduras. One is Eric Olson of the Wilson Center, who recently visited that country. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News is there now.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Smugglers and other allies started spreading the whole idea of amnesty in the United States and saying this is the time - the time is now. And people started using social media to get the word out to say this was a window. You had to leave.

INSKEEP: People are being told you can get amnesty in the United States if you act now, as they say...

CORCHADO: If you act now.

INSKEEP: Television commercials.

CORCHADO: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: Eric Olson is here in our studios. He's been a number of times to Central America in recent weeks and months. What were you hearing in those trips?

ERIC OLSON: Well, a lot of the same things, frankly. I was in poor communities outside of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. And they said that several months ago some of the coyotes, the traffickers, started coming around and sort of making this pitch to people. And because the situation is so violent, because there is such an absence of any real state presence that could protect them, that could provide for them, they're very vulnerable to these kind of pitches to go now. You can be with your parents. Parents in the U.S. are actually sending money and saying come now. This is the opportunity. So there's a lot of confusion. It's not just one factor. It's not just these rumors. It's this long history of family migration, violence, failing of the state to provide security - all of those factors play in.

INSKEEP: But, of course, a lot of those factors have been around for a while. Somehow, this sales pitch seems to be working in a different way. So let me get a little more specific about what it is. I would imagine that if I'm in San Pedro Sula in Honduras and someone says, go to the United States. You can get amnesty now. I might then ask, why? What is the why that people are being told?

CORCHADO: The why, at this moment, is saying if you have relatives in the U.S. or if you're a victim of violence in Honduras, there is leniency. There's a new attitude on the part of the government that once you get there, you're handed over to the Border Patrol. You will go into detention. You will get a permit, a document that will allow you to roam in the United States. And they see that as the best thing to the situation they live now. I talked to a 12-year-old and I asked him, why take this risky journey north to the Texas border? And he explained to me very bluntly, he said, look, it's tough to live without hope. And they're hope is kept alive by these rumors of some kind of amnesty in the United States.

INSKEEP: On a practical level, is something actually different? Is there some basis for this rumor that people can more easily get a way to stay in the United States?

OLSON: The coyotes, the traffickers, aren't being held to truth in advertising standards, right?

INSKEEP: Sure.

OLSON: They manipulate the situation to their favor. So they tell part of the story. There have been some changes in U.S. law. There is an obligation of the U.S. to listen to the stories of these children coming from Central America to determine if they're legitimate claims of persecution. That's in the statutes now. But they don't go into those details that it's a cumbersome process, that you need a lawyer, etc., etc. They just hold out hope to people who are hopeless, so that they take the chance and pay the money.

INSKEEP: Is President Obama's deferred enforcement, for some people who are in the United States without documentation, a part of this - the so-called equivalent of the Dream Act?

CORCHADO: It's kind of a convoluted message. I mean, we asked people specifically that question. And they don't really know the details. But they will tell you, we know something is new. Something has happened that children are allowed to stay. That children who haven't seen their parents in years, can now be reunited. We press them on specifics and they really don't know the specifics.

INSKEEP: What about just the fact that there has been talk of immigration reform in the United States for several year? Has that penetrated? Is that in any way part of this rumor?

CORCHADO: Absolutely, I mean, I've heard from several people who said at night you watch the news and, you know, newscast will lead with, you know, the talk about the immigration reform. But they don't really know details. I mean, they just know that it's the faintest little sign of hope that you cling to. Even if you hear that 9 out of 10 people didn't make it, you have to believe that you will be that one exception.

OLSON: You know, I think that's exactly right. There are a lot of bad stories and we tend to focus on that. But if you're sitting there in the midst of gang violence and extortion, there's always one positive story. One person you've heard of that's made it through OK - been reunited with their family. And that's what people tend to focus on that there is a way to get through.

INSKEEP: Eric Olson of the Wilson Center is here in Washington. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News is San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Thanks to you both.

OLSON: Thank you.

CORCHADO: Thank you.

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