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Child Migrant Crisis Stemmed By Border Security Build-Up


We look back now on the story that made big news in 2014 - tens of thousands of children illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to flee terrible violence in Central America - in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They made a harrowing journey across Mexico to seek refuge in the United States.

We've called two of our reporters who followed that story closely this year NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City and John Burnett in Texas. Welcome to both of you.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Great to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, give us a quick overview of the situation for child migrants from both of your perspectives. To begin with, is there still, John, a flood of children trying to get into the U.S.?

BURNETT: No, there's not. The humanitarian crisis that the - President Obama mentioned over the summer is over. The crossings of Central Americans fleeing the violence has really downed sharply. And in its place, there's this massive border security buildup from the state of Texas, both with the National Guard and with just Texas state troopers everywhere. But not many people are coming across.

SIEGEL: And, Carrie, is that because things are any better for these kids in Central America than they were this year?

KAHN: Well, the short answer to that is no, they're not better. It's only been a few months. And these are endemic problems of gangs and drug trafficking and violence. And they're definitely not going to be fixed in a year or two.

SIEGEL: You both spent a lot of time this year on this story. I'm wondering if there are some especially vivid impressions that remain with you of covering the unaccompanied kids coming up from Central America.

KAHN: I think one thing that sticks in my mind still is seeing these children from Central America. And they were mostly young boys that I met in Central Mexico riding the trains up to the U.S. They just looked so tired, and they talked about how hard it is to be a kid in Central America. And just one other image that sticks with me - I talked to about 20 kids in a shelter for returnees in Guatemala. These boys had been held in an empty warehouse by smugglers for 15 days with just rice to eat. And they were stuck there and kidnapped, literally, until the Mexican army rescued them. And those images just still stick with me.

BURNETT: What I remember is talking to a lot of these kids when they came across - and the harrowing stories that Carrie certainly heard - but really the scenes that turned border patrol stations into orphanages and complaints from border patrol agents that they were acting as babysitters - well, that's all over now. And these unaccompanied kids have moved on to live with loved ones and family members farther in the interior where they're not as worried about the border patrol.

There was one - some brothers that I met from San Salvador, I met in June in their lawyer's office and then later in their mom's Salvadoran restaurant. I went back on Sunday to go talk to them. And now they're both high school freshmen - Gerson, who's 15, and his big brother, Darwin, who's 18. And so I asked him to compare for me life in San Salvador and what life was like here in Texas.

DARWIN: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So what he was saying is that the schools in El Salvador, they're very impoverished. And here, if there's a problem, you call the cops, and they actually help you. They don't abuse you. His mom says they've been to immigration court once. They have a date to return. But as we know, immigration courts in the U.S. are so backlogged that it could be years before his case is resolved. And meanwhile, he's learning English and enjoying barbecue and American football.

SIEGEL: Carrie Kahn, what is it that is deterring other kids like Darwin from making the trek now? Is it Mexican patrols? Is it what the Central Americans are doing? U.S. discouragement? What would you say?

KAHN: I think there's a combination of a lot of factors. One thing the U.S. did was make it very clear in Central America that you will not be given automatic entrance into the U.S. That helped quite a lot. But most - what I have seen that has been most dramatic is the border buildup along Mexico's southern border. You know, for much of the year, we have been asking Mexican officials for their numbers of how many people they've been deporting from Mexico. And they are skyrocketed over last year of how many Central Americans have been deported from Mexico - 107,000. That's the official figure. That's nearly a third more than last year. And I've seen it.

There's a checkpoint nearly every 11 miles. And they've also - what they've done is to really prevent people from boarding those infamous freight trains that you see of hundreds of people on top of the freight trains that go all the way through Mexico to the U.S. border. That's really stopped a lot of Central Americans. But I must say that what I also saw in southern Mexico was that as impressive as the border buildup is, it can be evaded. And I met many Central Americans who now walk literally hundreds of miles to avoid these checkpoints.

SIEGEL: John, I just want you to square what seem to be two conflicting impressions here. One is the official word that if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you'll be put in detention; you'll be sent back; you'll be flown back home. On the other hand, the boys whom you interviewed who seem to be doing very well and made a smart decision to come up North and connect with their mother. I mean, which is more true - if you get through the country, you're in great trouble or you've made it to your destination?

BURNETT: Well, the fact of the matter is there's case law which says that you have to handle kids differently, and you can't lock them up indefinitely, and you need to let them go to a relative or a sponsor in the inside of the country. So with a notice to appear in court, you'll be able to go wait with a loved one. It's completely different if you're an adult mother with a child. They will lock you up now.

KAHN: If I could just add in there, I think that message has gotten home to Central America. And the message of how difficult it is now to get through Mexico has also gotten home. But at the same time, and as we look to the future, the situation in Central America is not much better than it was at the height of this crisis. And just some quick numbers, in Honduras - nearly 1,000 children were killed this year. In Guatemala, 500 kids under the age of 18 were killed this year. The situation is still as dire as it ever was.

SIEGEL: Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. John Burnett in Austin. Thanks to both of you.

BURNETT: Pleasure, Robert.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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