El Salvador,Central America,United States,Central American University,Gang,Gangster,Refugee

Why tens of thousands of kids from El Salvador continue to flee to the United States

February 16, 2017
in Kids

Why tens of thousands of kids from El Salvador continue to flee to the United States By Kate Linthicum | Photography by Carolyn Cole Feb. 16, 2017 | Reporting from Sonsonate, El Salvador The death threats started last spring. Sixteen-year-old Mauricio Gomez answered a phone call from an unknown number and heard a nasal voice on the line. Give me $400 by the end of the week, the gangster warned, or I’ll kill you and your family. “Do you understand me?” the voice continued. “We can cut you into pieces.” Mauricio, a lanky high school student who wore thick-framed glasses, hung up the phone, shaking. He had no idea who the gangster was, and he didn’t have $400. He had to flee, Mauricio decided, but unlike the thousands of “unaccompanied minors” from Central America who braved the trek to the U.S. border in hopes of winning asylum, he applied for an Obama administration program that would allow him — just possibly — to join family in the United States. But would the program take him? And could he survive the gangs until it did? Although a fierce military crackdown on El Salvador’s two main warring gangs has chipped away at violent crime in the last year, this tiny Central American nation remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth, with a per capita homicide rate more than 15 times that of the United States. Children as young as 9 are recruited for gang membership. Extortion is rampant, with gangs squeezing street vendors, restaurant owners and even grandmothers for cash. Last year, nearly 1 in 4 people were victims of a crime, according to a poll conducted by Central American University, which also found that more than 40% of Salvadorans hoped to leave the country within a year. In certain areas, such as Mauricio’s hometown of Sonsonate, located on a strategic drug route on the Pacific Coast, many people rarely venture out after dark. The specter of violence is driving increasing numbers of asylum seekers to nearby countries, such as Costa Rica and Mexico, while thousands of others attempt the perilous 2,000-mile journey to the U.S. A record 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran children were apprehended at the U.S. border in the fiscal year that ended in September, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It was an 87% increase over the year before. More than 27,000 minors or adults traveling in family units also were apprehended; that was a 150% increase. After the threatening phone calls continued, and menacing-looking men started loitering outside the house, Mauricio and his family decided last summer to test the new program created by President Obama that allows Central American children with at least one parent living legally in the U.S. to apply for refugee status while in their home country. More than 10,000 young people have applied for the program, which was designed to protect children from the risks of the migrant path...

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