TUCSON, Ariz. — When Luis Cruz left behind his wife, four of their children and the house he’d built himself, he’d heard that American officials might split him from his son, the one child he took with him. But earlier this month, the two of them set out from Guatemala anyway.
The truth, he said this week, moments after they arrived at a cream-colored migrant shelter in Tucson, was that he would rather be apart from his child than face what they had left behind. “If they separate us, they separate us,” said Mr. Cruz, 41. “But return to Guatemala? This is something my son cannot do.”
For years, children and parents caught crossing the nation’s southern border have been released into the United States while their immigration cases were processed, the result of a hard-fought legal settlement designed to keep children from spending long months in federal detention. In the eyes of the Trump administration, this practice has served as an open invitation for people like Luis Cruz, and has played a major role in driving thousands of families across the border with Mexico.
Mr. Trump’s newest immigration policies — first an effort to separate families crossing the border, and now an effort to change the legal settlement on migrant family detention — represent an aggressive effort to rescind that invitation, one that has plunged the nation into a debate about the limits of its generosity.
But interviews at shelters and passage points along both sides of the border this week, as well as an examination of recent immigration numbers, suggest that even with tightened restrictions on families, it’s going to be difficult for the president to stanch the flow.
Though it’s impossible to know yet whether the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal border crossers will have a significant deterrent effect, one thing was clear this week at the Arizona-Mexico border: Many families — especially those from countries in Central America plagued by gang violence and ruined economies — are making the calculation that even separation or detention in the United States is better than the situation at home.
“Why would you undertake such a dangerous journey?” said Magdalena Escobedo, 32, who works at the migrant shelter here in Tucson, called Casa Alitas. “When you’ve got a gun to your head, people threatening to rape your daughter, extort your business, force your son to work for the cartels. What would you do?”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April announced a policy of prosecuting all illegal border crossers, yet federal agents caught nearly 52,000 people at the border in May, marking a steady rise in illegal entries after a sharp decline during the first year of Mr. Trump’s administration. More than 250,000 migrants had been arrested this year as of late May, according to data by United States Customs and Border Protection; that number is close to the total number arrested in all of 2017, about 311,000.
Casa Alitas, a low-slung building down a dusty street in Tucson, takes in families who’ve presented themselves to border officials to ask for asylum. Once they’re processed at immigration facilities, authorities drop them off here for a meal and a shower before they head off to stay with friends or relatives and wait for their day in court.
On Thursday, men like René Pérez, 40, who made it into the United States with his son this week, said he was well aware that they might have been separated or placed in custody. “If it happens, it happens,” said Mr. Pérez.
Across the border in the Mexican town of Nogales, many parents preparing to cross the border said temporary separation from their children in the United States would be better than facing the violence back home.
“I’d rather accept that, to know that my son is safe,” said Lisbeth de la Rosa, 24, who was waiting in line to enter the United States with her 4-year-old son.
“It’s worth it,” said Lidia Rodríguez-Barrientos, 36, standing with her 9-year-old daughter. “Why? Because we’re afraid to go back.”
What has guided much of border detention policy in recent years is a 1997 agreement in the case Flores v. Reno, in which the federal government was barred from detaining migrant children, save for a short period and under certain conditions. The agreement was interpreted later to include children traveling with their families.
Unwilling to separate young migrants from the parents traveling with them, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations arrived at the policy of releasing families while they awaited immigration proceedings—though Obama administration officials did so only after having been successfully sued over their policy of holding families together in detention.
Critics, including Mr. Trump, have long said that allowing migrants to go free while their immigration cases are pending encourages parents to enter the United States with children, and some conversations bear that out.
“This is the reason I brought a minor with me,” said Guillermo T., 57, a construction worker who recently arrived in Arizona. Facing unemployment at home in Guatemala, he decided to head north; he had been told that bringing his 16-year-old daughter would assure passage. He asked that only his first named be used to avoid consequences with his immigration case.
“She was my passport,” he said of his daughter.
The Trump administration is asking for changes to the Flores settlement that would allow officials to detain children with their families for longer than the short period allowed under the agreement. Lawyers for the Obama administration already asked for changes to that settlement and were denied. In any case,it’s unclear if that will stop people from coming.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who has interviewed hundreds of Central American migrants in the field, said that they are primarily motivated to leave their countries by violence and lack of economic opportunities, phenomena which she described as closely connected.
She said these migrant families choose the United States because they often have networks in the country already and know that there are many job opportunities. “There are push and pull factors. The push factors are the lack of economic opportunities and the security problems in their countries. It’s a mix of these conditions. The pull factors are of course the jobs and the families.”
Even with steep drops in the number of recorded murders in the past year, El Salvador and Honduras, the home countries of many migrants, are still among the most dangerous countries in the world. Poverty is hammering away at livelihoods in much of Central America, and for some, the decision to leave is a gamble on a better life.
For others, it’s a matter of saving the one they have.
On Thursday, federal officials dropped Mr. Cruz and his 16-year-old son, also named Luis, at Casa Alitas. Both wore black, despite the southwestern heat, and inside, they sat at a table covered with a cloth of bright sunflowers.
They eagerly consumed big bowls of soup before explaining why they had come.
The elder Mr. Cruz, a lemon and orange grove worker, had hoped to live his life in his home state of Suchitepéquez. Then in late May, his son was approached twice by a gang who demanded he join them, flashing a gun and urging him to commit his first extortion. “They kill you if you don’t obey,” said Mr. Cruz.
On June 3, the pair left for the United States, and then presented themselves at the border to ask for asylum. After lunch at the shelter, the younger Mr. Cruz pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, unfolding it to reveal a letter his school director had written before he left — a note they hoped would be the evidence they needed to win asylum in the United States.
“The student had to withdraw himself from school due to violence and gang persecution,” she wrote. “He decided to move to save his life.”
Julie Turkewitz reported from Tucson and Jose A. Del Real reported from Nogales, Mexico. Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Los Angeles and Frances Robles from Miami.
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