Becoming a Safe Haven

Soon after Ana Herrera was born in El Salvador, her parents abandoned her. Her grandmother cared for her, but struggled to keep her housed and fed. If the abject poverty wasn’t enough, gangs and violence surrounded her daily. One day, that violence brought her to a breaking point. She witnessed her cousin’s murder by local gang members. Because they knew she witnessed it, she risked being murdered herself. So, she made the choice that countless young people have made in the last several years — she fled.

            Herrera made it over the U.S. border at Hidalgo, Texas, where she was detained and held in two different facilities for about two months. Herrera had turned 18 prior to crossing the border, so while still very much a young person struggling on her own, she isn’t counted among the unaccompanied minors that have migrated from Central and South America with increasing frequency over the past few years. But like unaccompanied minors, she was immediately thrust into the murky legal waters of the U.S. immigration system.

            Herrera is one of thousands of young people who have been forced to flee their home countries to escape the violence brewing in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 1.2 million Central Americans were detained at either the southern Mexico border or the southern United States border. El Salvador, Herrera’s home country, tops the charts for murder rates; in 2015, the small Central American nation saw 108.5 murders per 10,000 people, which is 24 times higher than the U.S. homicide rate. In Honduras, while safety has improved in recent years, the homicide rate is still 62.5 per 10,000 people; in Guatemala, it’s 29.2. This violence is largely attributed to gangs; in 2012, the U.S. Department of State estimated that there were some 85,000 gang members operating across the three countries. These gang members use intimidation, extortion, and torture to profit off of local residents. The dangerous journey to the U.S. is often the only option to avoid being killed.

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Elizabeth Doerr