The U.S. will expand its refugee resettlement program to cover citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday. Nearly 10% of those countries’ combined 30 million residents have fled their homes over the past decade, due to a spike in gang violence, a severe drought and few opportunities to make a better life. Most went north. According to an analysis last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, the number of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras living in the U.S. leapt from 1.5 million in 2000 to as many as 2.7 million in 2013. Over 1.2 million of them are estimated to be in the country illegally.
The U.S. designation of “refugees” has previously been applied in cases of people fleeing war or political persecution, but conditions on the ground in northern Central America have deteriorated enough to warrant the new decision. El Salvador recently took the title of the world’s murder capital, recording a 70% increase from 3,942 in 2014 to at least 6,657 last year, according to National Police director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde. The overall annual homicide rate was the country’s highest ever at 104 per 100,000 inhabitants, displacing neighboring Honduras (whose rate fell slightly to a still-high 61 per 100,000). Violent gangs involved in drug trafficking and a wide range of other crimes engage in fierce turf wars, and although most of the victims are gang members, civilians are also in danger. Even the U.S. Peace Corps announced on Monday it was suspending operations in El Salvador due to the security risks. (The last time the volunteer organization withdrew from the country was at the start of its 1980-92 civil war.)
But Washington’s decision on Central America refugees will be on a limited scale. AFP reported:
The United States plans to admit 85,000 refugees from around the world during the 2016 fiscal year, but had previously planned on welcoming only 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean. Kerry did not say how many more from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras might be accepted under the new policy, but the refugee program has a reserve of 6,000 places not allocated to regions to provide flexibility.
Meanwhile, U.S. deportations of illegal immigrants from those countries continue, in numbers much higher than any refugee quotas would be. In fiscal year 2015, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 33,249 Guatemalans, 21,920 Salvadorians, and 21,920 Hondurans. But that numerical comparison is of limited utility, because not every deported person would have been eligible for legal entry (whether through the lengthy visa application process or the refugee resettlement program). While per-nationality statistics haven’t been published, of the 235,413 total deportations last year, 139,368 (or 59%) were of individuals convicted in the U.S. of at least one criminal offense. That’s an immediate disqualification.
One alarming side note — which should not be overstated — is the rising risk of tropical diseases in Central America. After reports of rising incidents, El Salvador issued a national health alert on Monday, ordering 47 towns and villages around the country to enforce preventive measures against the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Also known as the yellow fever mosquito, this species is a carrier of three other viruses: zika, dengue, and chikungunya.
Of these, zika is the most recent — having first appeared last year in the Americas – and there is a scarcity of information about its effects. However, a huge outbreak in Brazil infecting roughly 1.5 million people is associated with a 20-fold increase in babies born with underdeveloped brains. Currently there are no direct treatments or vaccines for zika.
And as of Monday El Salvador had recorded 3,836 suspected cases of zika, the large part since November . Besides spreading in the Caribbean (see Blouin News’ previous coverage) to U.S. soil in Puerto Rico, the virus has now been reported in Texas as well as British Columbia — in each case from a resident who traveled to El Salvador.
However, present research indicates that zika is not contagious. It is only spread by mosquitoes, or in rare cases between a pregnant mother and her child. So additional arrivals of Salvadorians to the U.S. would not trigger a disease epidemic. The real danger to the U.S. would only be if local mosquitoes in suitable climates (like the subtropical Gulf Coast) contract the disease, which some experts believe is inevitable.
Whether by violence or disease, conditions in El Salvador are only getting worse. Meaning the U.S. should expect many more people to flee north for a better life. And Washington should ensure a carefully-vetted refugee program is ready to accept some of them, or at the least, more than a token handful.