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Facts, not fears: Four myths about the mass exodus from Central America

A migrant caravan of asylum seekers from Honduras is slowly making its way to the US. Photo: Omar Ramirez / Oxfam

On October 13, roughly 200 Hondurans gathered in the city of San Pedro Sula to form a caravan to head to the US. Today, as many as 7,000 Central Americans—including women, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly—are hundreds of miles away from the US-Mexico border, in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

This mass exodus is a result of the extreme hardships people face throughout the region, including gender-based and gang violence, poverty, food insecurity, the effects of climate change, corruption and impunity, as well as the paucity of means to build a dignified life. Other “caravans” are reportedly on their way from Honduras and El Salvadoran indication of the level of desperation throughout the region.

Today an estimated 2,500 people, mostly families, are stranded at the Guatemala-Mexico border. They are exhausted, traveling in scorching heat and cold rain, and exposed to threats from government militaries to organized crime. Oxfam and its partner organizations are responding by distributing personal hygiene kits, installing latrines and showers, and providing access to drinking water in coordination with the Honduran Municipality of Tecún Umán. In Mexico, we’re allocating resources from our Humanitarian Emergency Fund to support migrant rights organizations and shelter networks.

Oxfam has been working in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for more than 30 years; we know that families are fleeing the region for valid reasons.

Here are four myths about migrants and asylum-seekers heading northand important clarifications about who they are, why they are fleeing, and why the US must do more to address the root causes of forced migration from Central America.

Myth #1: Cutting aid to Central American countries will deter people from migrating to the US.

President Trump has threatened to stop US foreign assistance to Central American countries, a dangerous but unfounded provocation because it is Congress, not the administration, that allocates aid. Nevertheless, even if he could carry out his threat, it would be counter-productive. Cutting US assistance would undermine and waste US taxpayer dollars that have been invested in addressing the root causes of migration: violence, corruption and impunity, institutional weakness, and lack of economic opportunity.

Since 2016, the US has allocated more than $2 billion in aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to fund projects that address why people are forced to migrate. Continued levels of US foreign assistance are critical.

Stopping aid is not going to make any of these problems go away. Addressing them is the only answer. Flee, die of hunger or be killed. These are the stark choices people are making. What would you do?

Myth #2: The caravan is a national security threat.

President’s Trump’s claims that these migrants are criminals, that the caravans harbor people from the Middle East, and that they are creating a national emergency in the US, are unfounded. They are nothing more than a fear tactic aimed at stoking division ahead of the upcoming midterm election and over the long term. No evidence suggests that “unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the migrant caravan. These fear tactics are dangerous and make political pawns out of innocent men, women, and children who are leaving their homes out of desperation.

People in these countries face some of the worst violence, inequality and corruption in the world. We owe people crossing the border a fair hearing to establish what kind of threats they face in their home countries and whether they are legally entitled to protection in the US. The US is a signatory to the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which makes the US subject to a number of obligations under international refugee law.

Anyone who arrives at a US borderwith or without documentationis legally entitled to apply for asylum.

Myth #3: People should just stand in line and come to the US legally.

Not everyone is safe to stay in their country of origin. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world, with some of the world’s worst homicide rates. In recent years, these countries have seen an increase in the levels of violence perpetrated by gangs, organized crime, drug traffickers and even government security forces.

According to the United Nations, El Salvador was the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere with 103 people killed per 100,000 people in 2015, followed by 57 per 100,000 in Honduras, and 30 per 100,000 in Guatemala in 2015. The proportion of homicide victims under age 20 in El Salvador and Guatemala is higher than anywhere else in the world. The situation qualifies as an epidemic of violence, according to World Health Organization standards

There are few pathways for people to legally come to the U.S. Whether on a temporary or a permanent basis, immigration is limited to humanitarian protection, and employment and family reunification, and there are numerical limits placed on the number that can apply.

Applying for refugee resettlement is a long and difficult process, and the small percentage of refugees who qualify for resettlement cannot choose their country of resettlement. The Trump administration has also slashed the number of refugees allowed to resettle inside the US in recent years.

Worldwide, more than 68 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, persecution, and violence—a record number. But at a time of unprecedented global displacement, the US is closing its doors to the world’s most vulnerable people. Thousands of people in need of safe haven in the US have been turned away because of this administration’s cruel and heartless policies.

Myth #4: Immigrants drain resources and don’t contribute to the economy.

Unauthorized immigrants are often long-time residents in communities across the US and are inextricably linked to other community members. They own and operate businesses that are not only vital to their communities but also generate state, local, and federal taxes. The Center for American Progress reported in 2016 that immigrants added an estimated $2 trillion to the US Gross Domestic Product.

Immigrants also generate billions in spending power. They do not drain public resources. Because of their irregular status, immigrants also rely less on public benefits and social services compared to people born in the US. Over the long run, immigrants have a positive net fiscal contribution to state and local budgets and tend to complement the skill sets of US-born workers.

Oxfam is helping provide humanitarian aid to migrants on the caravan.

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