As President Joe Biden grapples with increasing numbers of migrants arriving on the southern border of the United States, Republicans have been eager to frame it as a crisis that he invited by loosening some of his predecessor’s draconian immigration policies. In reality, Biden has repeatedly, publicly, and in no uncertain terms urged migrants not to come to the US.
But that kind of messaging isn’t necessarily persuasive. That’s because the factors driving people out of their home countries are complex and often have little to do with US immigration policy.
Many of the people arriving on the southern border are fleeing dangerous or unlivable conditions and likely felt they had no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere — as is their right under US and international law.
Most are coming from the three countries that make up Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — which for years have suffered from gang violence, government corruption, extortion, and some of the highest rates of poverty and violent crime in the world. The pandemic-related economic downturn and a pair of hurricanes late last year that devastated Honduras and Guatemala in particular have only exacerbated those longstanding problems.
In 2019, the last year for which there is relevant data, migrants from those three countries accounted for roughly 70 percent of people apprehended at the southern US border.
But that border has also become a place where people from all over the world seek refuge.
Vox spoke to several people currently pursuing asylum claims in the US who came from Guatemala, Cameroon, and Cuba about why they decided to leave their home countries and journey to the southern US border, and what it took to get there. For them, it wasn’t even really a choice, but a survival instinct in the face of certain danger.
Here are their answers, translated and lightly edited for clarity. Names have been changed to protect their identities and the integrity of their asylum cases in the US.
Hernan is from Guatemala. When he arrived at the US-Mexico border, he was placed in the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, under which he was forced to wait in Mexico for a chance to obtain asylum in the US. He is now living in the US while continuing to pursue his asylum claim.
Why he decided to leave: I was running away from gangs that wanted to kill me and wanted to recruit my children. I had to escape with my whole family. My wife and I had to abandon everything — our house, everything.
It’s difficult for people to enter the United States, but we wanted to be in a different place where we could be free. I arrived at the border and had to wait in Mexico, in the MPP program in Tijuana. I managed to get out of there and get here, thank God, although we have been separated from my wife for 14 months. People are trying to reunite us again.
What his life is like in the US: I am working in a vineyard right now. I am so happy to be here that I feel like I could cry. I have the freedom to walk around, to go to church, to leave the house without fear. It’s a very big change. My children have never been able to study, and they are so happy that they grab their pencils, waiting to go to school. It will be a good life for them.
Why he’s worried about people back home and on the border: I worry a lot about people back in Guatemala, but I know that I can’t do anything for them because they stayed there. For me, it’s painful. I don’t sleep a lot. I have not had much communication with them, except for my sister, who is also suffering a lot from all of this. I tell her just to come and get to Tijuana or another part of the border and ask someone for help. She is the only person who I am communicating with right now, and she is tormented.
What’s happening does hurt me — it hurts my soul. I worry about people still there on the border. They’re suffering a lot, hoping for an opportunity in Tijuana. I don’t know when they will get it.
Abraham is a student from Cameroon, where 80 percent of people speak French and the rest speak English. In 2016, English speakers who primarily reside in the western part of the country started protesting their perceived marginalization and underrepresentation in the country’s central government, giving birth to an armed separatist movement that continues to seek independence.
Since then, government security forces have violently repressed anglophones and cracked down on freedom of expression; armed separatists and other groups have also committed widespread human rights abuses, with civilians often caught in the crossfire and displaced.
Why he decided to leave and how he got to the US: At this point, being an anglophone in Cameroon is a crime. When speaking with friends, you can’t even speak in English — you’re obligated to speak in French. So, we are fighting for our rights. The government sees it as retaliation. And if you are doing anything contrary to what the government wants, they target you, and the end result of it is they want you dead.
I’ve experienced marginalization by my own government for peaceful protests and speaking out publicly. My government persecuted me. I had no choice other than to run away for my life and safety, and that’s how I got to the United States. It was a sudden decision, a very difficult one, because not only was I leaving my home, but my life was on the line.
I traveled all the way from Cameroon through countries such as Colombia and Panama, where I went through the Darien Gap and the jungle. And I went through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala before I came to the Mexican border and was detained for a couple of weeks.
What his life is like in the US: As someone who just arrived in the United States, I’m so glad my life is now protected because, for sure, I would have been dead by now. So I’m grateful for the fact that I’m being protected here. But I’m still trying to realize a new life in a new land. And I still have a family back home. I constantly think of their safety.
Why he’s frustrated with response to the crisis in Cameroon: I feel like the powers that could actually step in to resolve this situation are kind of playing blind to what’s going on. We have a lot of lives being lost daily back home. We have thousands of internally and externally displaced people. Kids losing their lives at the hands of the military. All lives matter.
If [the United States] had stepped in at the very early stages of the crisis to see if they could bring about a resolution, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point. We need actions. We don’t just need them to read and see, and then talk about it and not do anything.
Dairon is from Cuba, where the communist regime continues to arbitrarily detain and harass political dissidents. Dairon was one of thousands of doctors sent by his government to Venezuela to provide desperately needed medical care, a longstanding practice of the Cuban government designed to provide humanitarian relief and shore up support from politically friendly governments around the world.
But doctors like Dairon say they were told by their superiors in Cuba and Venezuela to use their medical services as leverage to gin up votes for President Nicolás Maduro, a close ally of the Cuban regime, ahead of the country’s 2018 presidential election. The Cuban doctors were told to employ strategies ranging from telling people to vote for Maduro to withholding treatment for people on the brink of death who were members of the opposition.
Why he decided to leave: You are obligated in Cuba to ascribe to socialist ideas, and sometimes not all of us think in the same way. If you’re not in favor of the government, you will have to decide whether to stay or leave Cuba. And if you stay, you are always going to be in danger.
I was a doctor in Venezuela, but I graduated from the College of Medicine of Cuba. Education is “free” in Cuba, but I say that in quotes because when you graduate, you become a tool, an instrument of the government, and they can have access to you in every way.
So I went to Venezuela, where I had to participate in a series of things that did not fit my convictions. I simply decided to try to abandon their vision, but that brought me consequences, mistreatment, encounters with the police.
I began to run into danger there and made the sudden decision to leave the country, to go and leave my family behind. I have a son in Cuba, I have my mother, I have my father, my nephews there. But my life was too dangerous. I can’t see them again, because I had no choice but to leave.
How he got to the US: I always dreamed of something better. But I had no knowledge of what immigration policy was like in the United States, until I had to wait many years at the border. I stayed in the migrant camp in Matamoros [in Mexico] for two years before crossing the border on March 5. The process has been difficult. I have had to adapt. It is a process that changes you.
Why he’s worried about people back home: It is always worrying because the situation in Cuba is unlikely to improve. Every day the conditions get worse. And yes, because your family is there, you know what it is to live under that regime, under those living conditions, and you do not wish it on any human being. It is always a concern that you are going to have.