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'This was really people’s final option’ | Identifying the root causes of migration

A new report details why asylum-seekers decide to leave their homes for the U.S., and why many say it’s their last resort.

EL PASO, Texas — Experts and human rights advocates have long said part of the journey to solving what’s going on along the U.S.-Mexico border is understanding the reasons for migration. 

This summer, El Paso nonprofit Hope Border Institute asked 51 migrants their reasons for leaving their homes behind. The result is its first-ever report specifically detailing why people take the dangerous journey.

“We've been advocating with the Biden administration, with members of Congress and with faith leaders to take a holistic approach, and really make the investment in working on root causes,” said Hannah Hollandbyrd, a policy specialist at the Hope Border Institute and the author of the report, which she based on over 50 interviews. “These problems aren’t going away anytime soon.”

If September in Del Rio or this summer under Anzalduas bridge in Hidalgo County are any indication, migration of large numbers of people to the U.S.-Mexico border continues.

Hollandbyrd spent her summer interviewing 51 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, southern Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia and Cuba.

“The picture that emerged was people who had tried multiple different options before choosing to migrate,” Hollandbyrd said. “This was really people's final option in the face of all of these challenges. Coming to the border was the last option.”

“Most people had been internally displaced, before migrating internationally,” she added. “People’s stories have nothing to do with their chances of success. And had everything to do with their need to survive.”

Migrants told Hollandbyrd they experienced increased threats, extortion from gangs and criminal organizations, violence and exploitation. Hollandbyrd said people tried to go to authorities first and tried to protect themselves in different ways, including moving to other towns within their countries, but ultimately that didn’t work.

“A lot of immigration policy seems to be based on fiction,” Hollandbyrd said. “And the fiction is that we can stop people from migrating. The reality is that the root causes are so strong and so powerful that people cannot be deterred.”

“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in September in Del Rio, where, at the time, an estimated 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants crossed into the U.S. and were gathered under a bridge for processing.

“Irregular migration poses a serious security risk to the migrants themselves. Trying to enter the United States illegally is not worth the tragedy, the money or the effort,” Mayorkas said.

“When you're trying to deter them, and you’re not addressing the root cases, what happens is that people get stuck in the middle,” Hollandbyrd added. “And people get very hurt in that middle.”

In the middle are people living in migrant camps across the border from several U.S. cities, with no way to go back home or no home to go back to, and no way to enter the U.S. either, according to Hollandbyrd.

“What we need to do is expand migratory pathways,” she said, “including visas, work visas, family reunification visas, and then restore the right to asylum, which is a lawful right that people have to step on U.S. soil to claim fear and to process for asylum.”

The Biden administration says it is working on solving root causes of migration with Central American governments. On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s been tasked to figure out how to solve the crisis at the border, announced a commitment by multinational companies like Pepsi and Mastercard to invest $1.2 billion in the helping the region.

Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has been deploying state troopers and the Texas Army National Guard to assist Border Patrol, as well as building a temporary barrier along some portions of the border.