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FEATURE-Poverty, violence drive Central American exodus to U.S.

Source: Reuters - Mon, 30 Jun 2014 14:47 GMT
Author: Reuters
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Unaccompanied minors ride atop the wagon of a freight train, known as La Bestia (The Beast) in Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jose de Jesus Cortes
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By Gustavo Palencia

EL GUANTILLO, Honduras, June 30 (Reuters) - Pregnant and with a young child in her arms, 17-year-old Andy Lizette Navarro says she has lost hope for the future in her semi-deserted mountain hamlet deep in rural Honduras, and dreams of America.

There are precious few options in El Guantillo, which lives primarily from corn, beans and coffee grown in the mountains all around. Many residents are unemployed and rely on seasonal work harvesting the coffee to scrape by.

Most young men from here migrate north, and the hamlet is now made up predominantly of women, children and the elderly.

"Here, in this village, there is no future for me and my children," Navarro said outside her family's modest, dirt-floor adobe home, explaining why she will soon risk the long journey north. "We have to leave."

El Guantillo is typical of villages across Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that spew out a steady stream of migrants seeking work and a better life in the United States.

Driven largely by poverty and gang violence at home, the wave has swelled again in the last few months, although with a new dynamic as more children make the trek, many traveling without parents or relatives to care for them.

President Barack Obama is asking Congress for over $2 billion in emergency funds to deal with the surge. He also plans to boost security on the southern U.S. border and speed up the deportation of migrants, including children, back to their home countries, a White House official said on Sunday.

The push is aimed at persuading people like Navarro to stay at home rather than take the long, dangerous journey.

But she says her sister Rosa, 18, made it to St Louis, Missouri with a young daughter earlier this month after paying a human smuggler, or "coyote", $3,500 to help her through Guatemala and Mexico and across the U.S. border.

"If my sister can make it, I can too," she said.

Two months pregnant and with her son not yet 2 years old, Navarro plans to travel soon before it becomes too difficult.

During the eight months ending June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them from Central America. That was double the previous year's tally and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through.

Coyotes are spurring on migrants by putting out the word that pregnant women and unaccompanied minors are treated more leniently and allowed to stay in the United States, although the Obama administration insists they will be returned home.

"Rumors are being spread that the United States will receive and help young people and children and their mothers and fathers who get in illegally," said Iris Acosta, who grew up in El Guantillo and teaches at the school here.

She said parents pulled 22 children aged 5 to 14 out of the school between February and May, all bound for the United States.

EXODUS

Local residents estimate more than 1,500 people, or around a third of the population, have deserted the village over time, especially in the last 15 years.

Many homes sit empty although others - some large, well made and brightly colored - are springing up, built by migrants who have spent years in the United States but plan to return home some day to a nice house and with some savings.

Navarro, a single mother, earns up to $7.50 a day during the coffee harvest but it only lasts a few months a year and she has no other work.

Almost one-fifth of Hondurans live on under $1.25 a day, the World Bank says, but it's not just poverty that sends them packing.

Health and education services are bad, violent youth gangs effectively control sections of major cities and towns, and U.N. data shows Honduras has the world's highest murder rate at 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people.

Fabian Gutierrez, a local coffee grower, said he plans to hire a coyote to get his 16-year-old son Fabricio to Miami, where the boy's uncle has been living for years, rather than have him look for work in Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa.

"Here there is no future, no work. He has finished his basic education and if I send him to Tegucigalpa with a cousin the gangs could kill him or he could turn into a gang member himself. It's better to send him to the United States."

Recent U.S. policy changes have sparked confusion and contributed to the rising numbers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave its officials discretion in 2011 to weigh various factors in apprehension, detention, and deportation, particularly in the case of minors.

Then, in 2012, the government said young illegal immigrants who had been in the United States since 2007 and met requirements including no felony convictions could apply for a two-year authorization to stay and work.

Coupled with the fact that fewer children were being deported, many Central Americans are under the impression that U.S. immigration policy has become more lax.

But risks abound on the trip north: murder, robbery, sexual abuse and serious accidents on freight trains.

Locals say five villagers from El Guantillo have lost limbs after falling off Mexico's infamous "La Bestia" freight train. Thousands of migrants sit on top of the train as it heads north and falls are frequent.

While fewer Mexicans are crossing into the United States, pushing down the overall numbers, more and more Central Americans are making the journey. Relentless violence is a major reason.

"If youths want to go out to play, they kill them ... if they want to study, they face threats. It is overwhelming them," said Ana Zelaya, secretary of a rights group in El Salvador that helps relatives of dead and disappeared migrants.

The U.S.-Mexico border is some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) long so is difficult to properly police. And while for years illegal immigrants would cross in more remote areas to cross, lawyers say many minors now turn themselves in as they are often simply sent to live with relatives pending immigration hearings.

The favored crossing point is the Rio Grande valley on the Texas border, where 37,621 unaccompanied children were stopped between October and mid-June, up 178 percent from a year before.

In Guatemala, where about 54 percent of the population is poor according to U.N. data, villages are also emptying.

San Jose Calderas, which is tucked away among volcanoes around 40 miles (64 km) from Guatemala City, offers little in the way of work beyond subsistence farming of beans, corn and vegetables.

A couple of local families raise chickens to sell eggs, and the remaining men look for scarce jobs in construction.

It is mainly poverty that pushes people to leave this area.

"There is no work for the men here, much less for women," said Maria Gomez, a 33-year-old mother of four who lives off the money sent home each month by her husband working in Iowa.

When U.S. authorities raided a meat-packing plant in Iowa in 2008 and deported some 300 workers and their families, half were from San Jose Calderas. Few were deterred and many, like Gomez's husband, used coyotes to return to the United States.

(Additional reporting by Mike McDonald in San Jose Calderas, Guatemala, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, Gabriel Stargardter and Liz Diaz in Mexico City and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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