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There Are Many Reasons Why Central Americans Flee To The U.S.


What exactly is driving Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States? To be clear, the flow of migrants at the Mexican border right now is a fraction of what it's been in some other recent years, but there is a flow of asylum-seekers. And we've called San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, and reached Kay Andrade of the aid group Catholic Relief Services, who joins us via Skype.

Good morning.

KAY ANDRADE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So I'm looking at an International Crisis Group paper. The headline of it is "El Salvador's Politics Of Perpetual Violence" - focuses on gang violence, fighting between gangs and the government. Wow. What's driving the gang activity?

ANDRADE: There's been gang activity in this country historically for probably the last 25, 30 years. But it really ramped up probably in the early 2000 period. And the gangs that are heard about here in this country actually were born on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s.

INSKEEP: Are we talking about MS-13, which is very famous in the U.S. now, or other gangs?

ANDRADE: MS-13 and 18th Street primarily.

INSKEEP: So are you telling me that gangs started on the streets of Los Angeles, immigrants may have been involved, and, at some point, people moved home to El Salvador or were deported to El Salvador and brought the gang with them?

ANDRADE: Mostly it was they were deported in the early '90s when the country was going through a transition from war to peace. And while organizations were trying to rebuild the country after that war, quietly festering was this discontent among young people and feeling that they were completely excluded. And gang members were deported into that situation and found a very ripe space for building a sense of belonging among young people that felt very excluded.

INSKEEP: I can understand someone needing to flee gang violence. But what is it about the violence that would cause someone to say I need to flee the country and not only the country I need to flee Central America, I need to go up and get to the United States?

ANDRADE: Don't choose to flee the country. It becomes a last resort. And so they may have already fled and left their home and tried to find someplace else to live. They may have changed jobs. And it just gets to a point where this is the last resort.

INSKEEP: Are there no safe neighborhoods in all of El Salvador?

ANDRADE: There are, but if you are from an area that's dominated by the MS, you can't go to a neighborhood or area that's dominated by 18th Street. Crossing streets oftentimes will put people at danger. The neighborhoods where a lot of these folks come from are very poor, and people have scarce resources. And so it's not quite so easy going into a neighborhood that does not have gang activity. You need to have a lot more economic resources to be able to do that.

INSKEEP: Is the news from the United States, the separation of parents and children, which has now ended but it did happen, the effort by the attorney general to narrow the conditions for asylum, is that news causing anyone that you've heard of to decide not to flee to the United States?

ANDRADE: Not that I've heard of. I'm sure that people may be pausing on whether or not they're going to go immediately or if they are already en route what their next move may be. But for the most part, people are at their wits end and don't see that there's any other alternative. One of the Jesuit priests here has described it being in a dark, dead-end alley. And migration is a long, dark, dangerous tunnel, but it's a tunnel with a ray of light at the end.

INSKEEP: Kay Andrade of Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador, thanks very much.

ANDRADE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.