Will stepped up enforcement stop the flow of Central American migrants?


Diana Aguilar, 23, waits for a bus ride home after being deported from McAllen, Tex. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

Her slender wrists still red from the handcuffs, she stepped off the airplane on the 36th day of her journey, back where she began.

Diana Aguilar paid $4,000 to her smuggler, which would afford her two more chances at crossing illegally into the United States, but one deportation was enough.

“This is my first time, and it will be my last,” the 23-year-old said. “This was a bad experience.”

The Obama administration has accelerated its deportations of Central American migrants to try to discourage people such as Aguilar from entering the United States illegally. During the past year, the number of migrants crossing into south Texas, particularly children traveling without their parents, has risen sharply.

In the past two weeks, the United States has dispatched two airplane flights to San Pedro Sula of deported migrant women and children — about 100 people. And the number of adult deportations to Honduras — at just under 23,000 — has set a pace to surpass last year’s total, according to the Center for Assistance to Migrants, a nonprofit group that assists deportees when they arrive at the airports. Mexico, which can deport Central Americans by bus, has been sending children back in even higher numbers.

Protesters gather in Boston rallying against Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to let illegal Central American migrant children stay on military bases in Massachusetts. (Reuters)

“We’ve never had deportations like we’re seeing now, of children,” said Valdette Willeman, the organization’s director. “We’re not prepared here to receive children. This center wasn’t built for that.”

In recent weeks, the attention to the immigration crisis seems to have changed the perception among many would-be travelers about how they will be greeted if they reach the United States. The rumors that had spread widely earlier this year that Central American women and children would be granted “amnesty” if they reached U.S. soil prompted many families to leave.

“I want to be very clear about something: Violence and poverty have existed in our region for a long time. But what created this problem also has a lot to do with the lack of clarity in U.S. immigration policy,” the Honduran first lady, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, told reporters recently.

But the stricter enforcement along the route and comments by Obama administration officials that children would be deported seem to have dispelled the notion of easy entry to the United States. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is flying up to 10 planeloads per week to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and has reduced the time needed to process deportations. The Obama administration is also considering a plan for Hondurans to apply for refugee status in their home country, where gang violence rages.

When deportees land at the airport here, they are given a bag with toiletries, food staples such as flour, sugar, rice, beans and coffee, and a small stipend for bus fare home.

Some of them say the new difficulties involved in reaching the United States will not deter them from trying again.

“I think most people will try to go back,” said Jorge Vazquez, a 30-year-old construction worker from Tegucigalpa who was deported from Texas this week. “Because when you have kids, you have to try to help them get ahead. I’m going to wait and save, and as soon as I have enough money, I’m going to go again.”


A Honduran girl and others wait to register at the government run center for migrants after being deported from Mexico while traveling to the U.S. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

Others, such as Aguilar, say they can’t stomach another failed attempt. Aguilar set off by bus from Honduras last month with a group of 45 other migrants because she couldn’t find work in her home town. Two of her brothers, whom she hasn’t seen for eight years, live in Baltimore, she said, and they helped pay for the smuggler.

At one point, she said, each passenger had to pay 100 pesos (about $7) to Mexican police to let the bus pass. The smuggler arranged other payments to drug cartels, such as the Zetas, when they passed through their territory. Twice a day the group ate simple meals, such as eggs and tortillas, and along the way they slept on the floor in safe houses they called “bodegas.”

Her group was divided in Reynosa, the Mexican border town across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Tex., where most of the recent wave of migrants have crossed. After two days trying, Aguilar said, she crossed the river by boat and made it to a safe house in McAllen, but she was stopped at an immigration checkpoint on the way out of town.

Aguilar said she was in U.S. custody for about eight days, moving among various detention centers. At times she was shackled by the wrists, ankles and waist.

“They treat you like you’re an assassin,” she said. “People will always look for a way to go back there, but I’m not going to try again.”

“I think I was lucky, because thank God nothing happened to me,” Aguilar said. “I heard so many stories of people who were found dead along the way, dead children.”

There is just one thing she will remember fondly: the flight home.

“It was my first time on an airplane,” she said.

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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