Late last month, Honduran teenager Elder Cruz was detained by Mexican immigration authorities near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and deported to Honduras.
But that isn’t stopping the 15-year-old, an orphan who says he plans to try his luck at the U.S. border again in the coming months because “[Donald] Trump is no longer president of the U.S. and there’s a new one,” even though he doesn’t know the name of President Biden.
“My friends have told me that with the new president, it will be easier to enter the U.S.,” said Mr. Cruz, who lives in the violent Villeda Morales slum near the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula.
Across parts of Mexico and Central America, the source of most illegal immigration to the U.S., many would-be migrants don’t follow the ins and outs of U.S. immigration policy. But many agree on one thing: It is probably easier to get in with Mr. Biden than with Mr. Trump.
Accurate or not, that perception is a key factor in fueling the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors and families currently turning up at the border. In January, 5,707 minors, mostly teenagers, arrived at the border alone, up from 4,855 the month before. That number is expected to jump again when February data is released this week.
The surge highlights the difficulties faced by the new U.S. administration in overhauling what it calls Mr. Trump’s draconian immigration policies without sparking a new wave of migrants that leads to a crisis at the border. It also threatens to overwhelm U.S. government shelters for children.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Since the death of his mother more than two years ago, Mr. Cruz has led a wandering life, eating and sleeping in different houses of friends. He says he eats once or twice a day because he doesn’t earn enough money to buy food.
“I can’t read or write, so I can only work as a bricklayer and earn very little,” he said. “I’m going to travel again and hope to get into the U.S. I want to have a better life, there’s nothing to do here.”
The Biden administration has stopped the Trump administration policy of returning unaccompanied minors back to their home countries, instead holding them in a U.S. government shelter before releasing them into the U.S. after a Covid-19 test. The minors are handed over to an adult sponsor or family member, pending immigration proceedings to determine whether they can stay or should be deported.
While the administration casts this as a more humane policy, Republicans in Congress say it is encouraging more minors to turn up at the border, filling up shelters and potentially sparking a crisis.
The administration is also slowly unwinding the Trump administration policy that forced adult asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases went through U.S. immigration courts; the majority of asylum cases are eventually turned down. The Biden administration has started to allow in some of those who have been waiting in some cases for years in Mexico.
Even as it makes these moves, the administration has tried to tamp down expectations among would-be migrants, telling them via social-media messages that changes in the system will take time.
“We are not saying, ’Don’t come,’” Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week. “We are saying, ’Don’t come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly [asylum] process to them as quickly as possible.’”
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala put out a short video via Twitter on Saturday warning would-be migrants about the risks of trying to enter the U.S. illegally, including an arduous and dangerous journey through Mexico. #ATripinVain, read the message, which included a testimonial from a presumed migrant saying she regretted having undertaken the journey north.
That message—asylum seekers are welcome, but not yet—is ambiguous and fueling migrants’ hopes, said Gabriel Romero, the head of a migrant shelter in southern Mexico.
Mr. Romero’s shelter in Tenosique, near the border with Guatemala, served some 6,000 people in January and February, more than the total 5,000 for the whole of 2020, when the pandemic almost halted migration flows, he said. Currently, he is attending to 250 people, most from Honduras. Of those, 25 are unaccompanied minors and around 100 are family members.
One migrant is a 17-year-old who left Honduras in November in the hopes that the new U.S. president would be more welcoming to young people like him. He ran out of money in southern Mexico and got a humanitarian visa that allowed him to work a few months. He said he planned to resume his journey north in the coming days.
“I think it will be easier now for us to enter the U.S.,” he said by phone from the Tenosique shelter. “[Biden] looks friendlier, he looks like a good person. He doesn’t have a bad heart like Trump, but is a good-hearted man.”
Many would-be migrants are in constant communication with relatives who are already in the U.S., who advise them on how and when to leave when conditions are more favorable, said José Luis González, a Jesuit priest who heads the Guatemala branch of the nonprofit Jesuit Migrant Network.
“News of what’s happening in the U.S. arrives pretty quickly to these communities. When you change the message or the policy, that has an immediate impact in the communities of origin,” he said.
While illegal immigration overall to the U.S. is down over the past two decades, the number of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador arriving to the U.S. southern border began to increase a decade ago. Border apprehensions reached a peak in 2019 at 76,000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Migration slowed considerably last year during the pandemic, when fear of getting Covid-19 made many migrants stay home. But the underlying factors causing migration have all grown worse. Endemic poverty, poor crop yields because of extreme weather, gang violence, the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic and two hurricanes that hit the region in November are pushing young people to head north.
In the Guatemalan Mayan town of Colotenango, migration has picked up in recent months after a lull during the pandemic, according to Gloria Velásquez, a single mother whose income depends on remittances from four of her six siblings in the U.S.
“People here say it is a good moment to leave, to be at the border,” said Ms. Velásquez, 32. “The rumor is that children are allowed to enter.”
She said she has been considering going with her 10-year-old daughter Helen Ixchel, or sending her alone.
Usually the family finds a “trusted person” in the community, who is often a deported migrant who knows the route well, to bring the children to the border, with the hopes they can reunite with relatives in the U.S., Ms. Velásquez said. But she said she has been postponing the decision as she considers the journey to be too dangerous.
Haydee Garcia, who manages a program to stop minors from migrating north for the Save the Children charity in Joyabaj, another Guatemalan municipality, said that in the past few months, more people are considering making the journey to the U.S.
Florencio Carrascoza, the mayor of Joyabaj, said the massacre of at least 16 Guatemalan migrants in Mexico in January has frightened some would-be travelers.
But he said that despite the fear, migration is difficult to prevent, no matter which U.S. administration is in charge. “The American dream is something we all have,” he said. “Immigration is very hard to stop.”
—Santiago Pérez and José de Córdoba in Mexico City contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Montes at firstname.lastname@example.org
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