Central American countries warned on Thursday that large numbers of migrants have fled their poor, violent homes since Donald Trump’s surprise election win, hoping to reach the United States before he takes office next year.
Trump won the Nov. 8 vote by taking a hard line on immigration, threatening to deport millions of people living illegally in the United States and to erect a wall along the Mexican border.
Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric sent tremors through the slums of Central America and the close-knit migrant communities in U.S. cities, with many choosing to fast-forward their plans and migrate north before Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
During fiscal year 2016, the United States detained nearly 410,000 people along the southwest border with Mexico, up about a quarter from the previous year. The vast majority hail from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Since Trump’s victory, the number of people flocking north has surged, Central American officials say, contributing to a growing logjam along the southern U.S. border.
“We’re worried because we’re seeing a rise in the flow of migrants leaving the country, who have been urged to leave by coyotes telling them that they have to reach the United States before Trump takes office,” Maria Andrea Matamoros, Honduras’ deputy foreign minister, told Reuters, referring to people smugglers.
Carlos Raul Morales, Guatemala’s foreign minister, told Reuters people were also leaving Guatemala en masse before Trump becomes president.
“The coyotes are leaving people in debt, and taking their property as payment for the journey,” he said in an interview.
Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened a temporary holding facility for up to 500 people near the Texan border with Mexico, in what it said was a response to a marked uptick in illegal border crossings.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this month immigration detention facilities were holding about 10,000 more individuals than usual, after a spike in October of migrants including unaccompanied children, families and asylum seekers.
Unemployed and sick of the lack of opportunities and endemic gang violence that blight his poor neighborhood in the town of San Marcos, south of San Salvador, Carlos Garcia, 25, said he was looking to enter the United States before Trump assumes power.
“There’s one thing I’m very clear about,” he said. “I want to get out of here.”
Guatemalan Fares Revolorio, 27, arrived in the northwestern Mexican border city of Tijuana on Wednesday after a grueling 4,200-kilometer (2,610-mile), week-long trek by bus. She was waiting to cross into the United States, where she hoped to apply for asylum.
Accompanied by her three children and her husband, she said she left Guatemala as it had become too dangerous. Her husband’s brother was killed two months ago, and local gangs, known as “maras,” had assaulted her son.
“They tell us the new president doesn’t like illegal immigrants, but we have to take the chance,” she said, as she struggled to hold back tears. “Nobody wants to die in a horrible way, and we can’t be in Guatemala any longer. My children are growing up in fear.”
During the campaign, Trump set out plans to impound billions of dollars of remittances so Mexico ends up paying for his proposed wall on the southern U.S. border. It remains unclear if he will stick to the proposal.
Humberto Roque Villanueva, Mexico’s deputy interior minister for migration, told Reuters the day after the U.S. election that Mexico stands ready to lobby the U.S. Congress and use all legal means against Trump’s plan for blocking remittances.
Victoria Cordova, who was deported from the United States in 2014, said Trump’s victory had sown fear in her poor hillside slum in the capital Tegucigalpa.
“People are very worried because many of them have family over there in the United States, and they live off the remittances they send,” she said.
The foreign ministers of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala met on Monday to formulate a strategy to protect their migrants in the United States, in a show of regional solidarity.
At the meeting in Guatemala City, the foreign ministers asked Mexico for help to create a migrant protection network, liaise for coordination with U.S. authorities, and to meet regularly for regional talks.
(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)