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Central Americans React To Trump's Zero Tolerance Border Policy


In the early days of President Trump's new border policy, before officials under pressure began denying that there was any policy, they were frank about their goals. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told NPR the zero tolerance policy referring all migrants who crossed the border illegally for prosecution and separating families was meant in part as a deterrent to future migrants.


JOHN KELLY: But a big name of the game is deterrence.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And so family separation stands as a pretty tough deterrent?

KELLY: Could be a tough deterrent, would be a tough deterrent.

INSKEEP: So is it working as a deterrent? Let's talk this through with NPR's Carrie Kahn, who covers Mexico and Central America. She's on the line. Hey there, Carrie. Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what sense do you have, if any, about whether migrants are feeling deterred by all these news stories of families separated at the border?

KAHN: Well, I think, the short answer to give you right now, it's just too soon to tell. You know, the best measure of whether - about migrant flows is the U.S. apprehension figures at the U.S.-Mexico border, and as of May this year, the numbers are still up. The trend is still pushing upward, and also, we're seeing more families coming. On average, it takes about a month for migrants to make it to the border from Central America so many people may have been on their way or starting out when this new Trump administration policy began to really get widespread attention. The June numbers come out in about two weeks so that may tell us a little bit more about whether there's a deterrence or not. But, you know, I just have to add from talking to many migrants over the years that when you make the decision to flee, those that are in real fear for their life, there isn't a whole lot of calculation about the U.S. asylum policies. People are just trying to get to safety and run. That's pretty much it. And they believe the U.S. will provide that safety. A lot of times, that's the calculus. It's not much more than that.

INSKEEP: Migrants are telling you they feel if they stay where they are, they may be dead.

KAHN: Yeah. And they just pack up and run.

INSKEEP: So let's listen to something that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, said yesterday. Nielsen is blaming the Trump administration policy on Congress, insisting that Congress should get its act together and change a variety of immigration laws, and also insisting that the U.S. is welcoming, to a degree, to asylum-seekers. Let's listen.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We are a country of compassion. We are a country of heart. We must fix the system so that those who truly need asylum can in fact receive it.

INSKEEP: Do people in Central America see the United States as a country of compassion at this moment?

KAHN: Well, I think what we're hearing right now out of Central America is not a lot from government leaders. They've just been silent, and they haven't really wanted to, you know, stand up or say anything against the Trump administration policy. But, you know, that news is getting back, and it's covered in all the regional papers on TV and in radio talk shows. So it's being talked about widely. And a lot of the commentary, interestingly, though, on social media in the region and in op-ed pages are criticisms of their own government. They're criticized sharply for not standing up to the Trump administration more, and they're criticizing their own leaders for not doing more at home to stop the violence and the gang warfare that's, you know, actually sending the migrants north in the first place.

INSKEEP: Well, that's an interesting point because people are fleeing chaos. They may well ask why they have chaos.

KAHN: Yes, definitely. And that seems to be what's being talked about in Central America.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.