TORREON, Mexico — Migrants riding atop northbound trains take a break from their trips to refresh at the Jesuit-run day center in this industrial city, about 500 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas.
On a recent weekday, Josué — a skinny Honduran teenager — was among the migrants waiting for breakfast, along with a chance to shower and claim a fresh change of clothes.
When asked why he left Honduras, Josué, 17, mentioned several motives, starting with street gangs, which he says killed his father and 13-year-old brother.
“They target young people,” he said. “If you don’t pay them extortion you have to join them.” He also spoke of twin hurricanes that battered Honduras in November and “left us homeless.” The first hurricane ripped off the roof and the second knocked down the walls, he said.
Child and adolescent migrants like Josué are heading toward the United States in increasing numbers.
U.S. border officials detained 561 unaccompanied minors March 15. In February, more than 9,400 children and teenagers crossing on their own were stopped, a 60% increase from January, according to The Associated Press.
Border officials also reported detaining 97,000 migrants trying to enter the country illegally in February, figures not seen since 2019.
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a March 16 statement.
Most of the detainees are single adults. Most — along with some families being stopped — are returned quickly to Mexico under health provisions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayorkas said.
But he added, “We are encountering many unaccompanied children at our southwest border every day.”
Why large numbers of minors — and migrants in general — are arriving at the U.S. border in increasing numbers remains a matter of dispute.
In Torreón, the day center received few migrants over the spring and summer due to the pandemic, but that trend is changing.
“The pandemic is no longer an impediment for migration,” said María Concepción Martínez Rodríguez, operations director at the Torreón center.
The motives for migrating largely remain the same, according to migrant shelter directors and Catholics working on migration issues in Central America: poverty, violence and political problems. There was also the devastation of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which left thousands suffering poverty, hunger and homelessness.
“Violence, extortion and people’s lives being threatened has continued” due to gangs not ceasing activities during the pandemic, said Scalabrinian Sister Nyzelle Dondé, director of the Honduran bishops’ migrant ministry.
Jesuit Father José Luis González, coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Network in Central America and North America, attributed some of the migrant outflow to messaging confusion, along with disinformation spread by human smugglers trying to drum up business.
Even as the Biden administration tells migrants the border is closed, Central Americans hear stories of changes in U.S. policy — such as extending Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans and ending the Migrant Protection Protocols action — and see images of some migrants and asylum-seekers entering the United States, he said.
“On the popular level” in Central America, Father González said, “people have only heard there’s a new president who is favorable to migrants.”
On the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros — opposite Brownsville, Texas — Father Francisco Gallardo worked with asylum-seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols, under which they were forced to wait in Mexico as their claims were heard in U.S. courts.
The Biden administration wants to restore the asylum process, which was curtailed by during the administration of President Donald Trump. Shelter operators say it will take time.
“People don’t hear the whole story. They hear: asylum and border opens,” said Scalabrinian Father Pat Murphy, director of a migrant shelter in Tijuana. “We get 20 or 30 calls a day about asylum. … Even though you tell them ‘no,’ they try rephrasing the question hoping that you’ll say ‘yes.’ They just can’t capture the idea right now.”