“The Surge”: Central American Border Crossings to the United States 1980-2015 

by Victoria Sanford (City University of New York, Lehman College)


Between 2013 and 2015, among those crossing were more than 102,000 unaccompanied minors who were arrested at the US border and placed in administrative proceedings.1 While recent studies focus on the costs and quantitative outcomes of this massive influx of immigrant children, in The Surge, I explore the issue over time from a more holistic perspective. I begin with the 1980s during the wars in Central America – the last time when the US experienced a vast increase in Central Americans arriving at the border seeking safe haven. I contrast the 1980s refugees with the current wave of migrants and refugees. I seek to understand the experience of Central Americans from several different vantage points: internal structural factors; lived experience and individual agency; regional political economy factors; geopolitical interests; national policies in the United States as well as Central American countries. In The Surge, I will draw on the survival stories of Adela, Pedro and Ana and Mirna. In 2013, 902,000 Guatemalans migrated to the US. Guatemalans, together with 500,000 immigrants from Honduras and 1.2 million from El Salvador, they account for 85% of Central American immigrants and more than 73% of all unaccompanied minors (children entering the country without an adult).2

But this book is not a quantitative study of migration patterns or statistics. I want to reflect on the so-called “Surge” of Central American immigrants through the stories of Adela, Pedro, Ana and Mirna and draw on my 30 years of experience working with Central American refugees as an anthropologist, advocate, researcher, and expert witness. I will use my own experience as a public anthropologist to frame the narratives of refugees and asylum seekers who crossed the borders from 1985 to 2016.

In 1985, I moved from northern California to rural Louisiana to start a refugee legal program in the isolated town of Oakdale which was a four hour drive from Houston and a five hour drive from New Orleans. This was pre-email and pre-fax. Oakdale was a small town of 2000 residents divided by a railroad track. Main Street was two blocks of mostly empty store fronts that had never recovered from the recession. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and the World Council of Churches, we rented an empty store-front that had previously been a furniture store, an evangelical church and unbeknownst to us – also a brothel.

This was a critical moment for Central American refugees in the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service3 opened a new facility in Oakdale to house Central American refugees. They organized it with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) which facilitated the use of local BOP prisoners who were allowed out during the day to work (without pay). So this prison was a low cost endeavor run by BOP prisoners who were nearing parole with senior INS officials and lawyers on site. The town of Oakdale had held prayer vigils to get the prison built there because they had been promised jobs. Of course, the BOP prisoners had the jobs for which the locals were qualified and the INS brought in their own people for the administrative positions. But why would Oakdale need all of this?

The INS had designed a deportation factory in rural Louisiana. This meant that refugees arrested in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and anywhere else in the interior of

the US would be shipped to Oakdale to be rapidly processed through a rigged system that was designed to conclude with their deportation from the United States. In 1985, the US granted political asylum to less than 3% of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers.4 For 14 months, we triaged asylum cases, bonded out asylum seekers and sent them to Canada through the sanctuary movement. At the same time, we sued the INS and BOP in district court for due process and civil rights violations including: body cavity strip searches of our clients before and after attorney visits; denial of access to our clients in a timely fashion (meaning they were deported before we could see them); denial of Sister Suzanne La Seine’s entry with her manual typewriter (which she needed to perform interviews because she had Parkinson’s Disease). We won every case and the Orantes-Hernandez case is still cited in asylum cases regarding the rights of asylum seekers.5

Fast forward to 2015, the following are excerpts from my colleague Stephen Manning’s report on representing asylum seekers in Artesia, New Mexico:

“You are a mute observer. You may not speak on the record,” the Immigration Judge says. “I know you attorneys think you have a role here. But you do not.” The attorney tilts his head and begins, “Your honor—” “No.” The judge’s image flickers; his voice sounds distant. “If you begin to speak, I will stop the recording. You may watch. I will not hear argument from you.” The judge is a floating image, 8 inches diagonal, on a computer screen. In the courtroom, the guard glances at the lawyer. The lawyer turns to M-, his client, and starts to whisper in her ear. The lawyer means to explain what has just happened. “Stop that counsel. You may not speak to her,” the image says.  “But she is my client, Your Honor.” On the computer screen, the image shakes its head. It simply scolds, “No.”6

Stephen’s client was a young Honduran woman with a crying baby on her lap in a televised hearing held in a corrugated steel trailer with temperatures topping 88 degrees. Stephen is her pro bono lawyer and, in fact, led the American Immigration Lawyers Association-American Immigration Council Pro Bono Project in Artesia, New Mexico. This was the beginning of the young woman’s deportation hearing. While hundreds of Central American women and children presented themselves at the border each day requesting asylum, Vice-President Joseph Biden declared: “None of the women or children will be eligible.”Like Oakdale, the goal at Artesia was to process and deport all those seeking relief within 10-15 days. The average age of children held at Artesia was six years.8

Since 1994, I have worked with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation to document Guatemalan army massacres and genocide. Since 2005, I have worked with the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office and the human rights ombudsman’s office to document and provide forensic evidence to contemporary high impact human rights cases and feminicide. Since 2010, I have been providing expert testimony for Guatemalan refugees and asylum seekers. Most recently, I worked with award-winning immigration lawyer Stephen Manning to develop the Innovation Law Lab to make expert materials available to lawyers representing asylum seekers. Thus, I have witnessed and observed the immigration phenomenon from different vantage points over time. I have written 4 books and more than 40 refereed journal articles and book chapters as well as co-edited three refereed volumes on human rights, genocide, feminicide, and transitional justice in Guatemala. Thus, my understanding of structural violence in Guatemala is grounded in human rights advocacy and scholarly research over the past 30 years. I have drawn on this expertise to provide expert testimony for Central American asylum seekers through the Innovation Law Project.9 My testimony focuses on historical structural violence from the genocide: police, army, civil patrol and death squad violence. I highlight the ways in which the military structures of the army, police, civil patrol and death squads have morphed into and overlap with contemporary structures of violence: gangs, drug traffickers, organized crime. These transitions of violence and corruption have taken place in Central American countries where impunity is not a byproduct, but a goal of war criminals of the past and violent criminals of the present as well as corrupt politicians who have cut deals with them over the decades. It is within this framework that the government of former General Otto Perez Molina was recently brought down by popular protest and a United Nations investigation.

The Surge explores what it means to live in post-conflict countries where the conflicts remain unresolved. It provides a framework for understanding why and how Central American men, women, youth and children are fleeing violence in all of its public and private manifestations.

Violence in Guatemala today has its roots in the period of military dictatorship and civil war, which Guatemalans refer to as “la violencia” (“the violence”). Though peace accords were signed in 1996, the structures of the military and their paramilitary agents continue to dominate Guatemalan politics. Indeed, these powers are so strong that the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) was established by the United Nations and Guatemalan Congress with the hope of reigning in these powers through investigation and prosecution.10

Former and current military structures have restructured and entrenched themselves in Guatemala in a complex web of organized crime, drug trafficking, and gangs each with links to different police and army units as well as political parties. Gangs also have ties to the police and can in fact be hunted by the police if they have not paid their quota to the police or may simply have become too big a liability after having carried out illicit activities for the police. Much in the same way, gangs also have ties to drug traffickers and organized crime which, in turn, also have ties to the military and police.

So what does it mean to live daily life in such circumstances?

Even the World Bank highlights that poverty in Guatemala is both widespread and severe. Approximately 75 percent of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line, which is defined as an income that is insufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and services. Almost 58 percent of Guatemalans have incomes below the extreme poverty line, which is defined as the amount needed to purchase a basic basket of food. Poverty is especially prevalent in rural areas in the North, Northwest, and Southwest and occurs primarily among the poorly educated and indigenous members of the population. More than 90 percent of the indigenous population lives on an income that is lower than the poverty line.

There is also a high degree of inequality in income, consumption, and, most acutely, land. According to the most recent agricultural census (1979), only 2.5 percent of Guatemala’s farms control 65 percent of the agricultural land, while 88 percent of the farms control only 16 percent of the land. The Gini Index for land distribution was calculated to be 85.9. This unequal pattern dates back to the colonial era when the Spanish crown granted large extensions of land to colonizers.

All of Guatemala’s social indicators reflect this widespread poverty and severe inequality. For example, literacy rates are dismal, and gross school enrollment rates are low – 77 percent for primary school and dropping drastically thereafter. In health, the infant mortality rate is 55 per 1,000 live births and the maternal mortality rate is 110 per 100,000 live births. In addition, approximately 16 percent of infants suffer from low birth weight, and approximately 50 percent of all children are malnourished.11 Indeed, at a recent conference on migration, Eric Hershberg suggested that hunger was a push factor for Central American migrants.

But the cases I have recently worked on show deep levels of violence from the family to the community to the nation as major push factors:

~ 13 year old rural girls forced to marry men twice their age;

~ young men in flight from gang violence and family violence;

~survivors of domestic violence and gang rape by family members;

~crime witnesses fleeing police persecution;

~small business owners fleeing gang taxes and death threats;

~Maya peasants disappeared, tortured and killed after demanding their land rights or refusing to let their land be mined or community destroyed to build a hydroelectric dam;

~young women fleeing gang violence, rape and death threats after refusing romantic advances of gang leaders;

~ a woman kidnapped, raped and tortured until her husband, an undocumented worker in the US, was able to gather $18,000 ransom;

~ entire families in flight after seeking justice for their murdered relatives.

The grounds for political asylum are “reasonable fear for your life.” Each of these cases, and many others like them, show the very desperate daily lives and deaths of Central Americans today. When the judicial system offers no recourse for victims of crime, it becomes the accomplice of criminals. While many brave prosecutors continue to push for justice, the judicial system remains (at best) woefully inadequate to protect the rights of citizens. At worst, it facilitates impunity – the violation of the law by those charged with upholding it.

Chapter Outline – These are not final chapter titles, they are thematic. The final organization will be more fluid, but these are the themes to be addressed.

Introduction – Overview of Central American migration to the US – “The Surge” contests current representations of Central American asylum seekers as criminals spreading crime in the US. It offers alternative policy options within Central America to address country conditions forcing flight, recommendations for humane treatment recognizing the rights of refugees and immigrants in the US and Mexico, as well as recommendations for constructive US involvement in the region that supports the rights of Central Americans.12

Chapter one – Flight from Gang Violence – this chapter tells the story of Adela who fled Guatemala because a local gang leader marked her for killing after she refused his advances to be his girlfriend. This chapter also tells the tale of neighborhood life in disputed gang territories.

Chapter Two– Flight from mining interests – this chapter tells the story of Pedro who was forced to flee his community under threat of death after multiple attacks and false arrests due to his leadership and participation in protests against mining in his community. This chapter provides an overview of mining in rural indigenous communities and the violent response that is meted out to local opposition to mining.

Chapter Three– Flight from Conjugal Slavery – this chapter tells the story of Ana who was sold into marriage at the age of 13. It is her story of enslavement and escape. This chapter is grounded in an analysis of historic patriarchal systems and their distortion during and after the genocide as well as the very deep poverty and desperation of families.

Chapter Four – No Neutral Grounds – this chapter tells the story of Mirna who fled exploitation and sexual assault working on a coffee plantation. She was branded as a subversive in 2015 by the local plantation overseers and blacklisted from other plantations. This chapter outlines daily life for those who earn less than $3 a day working 12 hours on plantations as well as explores the deep structural relationships between plantations, police and the judicial system.

Chapter Five – Life in Flight – Revisits the danger and terror of the trips made through Guatemala and across Mexico by Adela, Pedro, Ana and Mirna. The mechanics of flight, the economic, physical and emotional cost as well as the abuse by coyotes, gangs, police and organized crime.

Chapter Six – Seeking Safe Haven – Takes the reader through the experience of border crossing, apprehension by border police, detention, and efforts to seek asylum in the US. Here Adela, Pedro Ana and Mirna’s stories are representative of treatment received by asylum seekers in California, Texas, Florida and New York. This chapter will include interviews with immigration lawyers in Oregon, California, Idaho, Texas, Arizona, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami.

Conclusion – My goal here is to bring the lived experience of refugee men, women, youth, and children to the forefront and frame it within the historical context of national struggles against violence and impunity. This violence and impunity has been supported overtly and covertly by the United States since the 1980s (Just as President Reagan had his photo taken with General Efrain Rios Montt,13 President Barack Obama had his photo taken with then president Otto Perez Molina.14) Historically, the US has made strategic regional decisions that have brought great harm to Central America – siding with dictators in the 1980s as our Cold War proxy to “fight communism”15 and siding with corrupt national governments in the 21st century to “fight drug traffickers.”16 Thus, my conclusion draws on salient policy issues raised in the preceding chapters and offers recommendations for US policy with Central American refugees and asylum seekers in the US and at our borders. Recommendations for policies and aid projects in Central America are also included.

Book Audience: In addition to Anthropologists, this book will be of interest to the general public and academics in Latin American Studies Critical Legal Studies, International Development, Gender Studies, Sociology, Political Science and Immigration Law. I will work with the Innovation Law Lab, as I have done in the past, to make this work available to the academy as well as immigration lawyers and immigration rights advocates across the United States.


1 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/unaccompanied-child-migrants-us-communities-immigration-court-and-schools, accessed October 15, 2015.
2 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-american-immigrants-united-states, accessed October 17, 2015.
3 INS that preceded Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 
4 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era, accessed Oct. 17, 2015. 5 Orantes-Hernandez v. Meese. 685 F Supp 1488 (U.S. D.C., C.D. Cal. 1988).
Orantes-Hernandez v. Meese. 685 F Supp 1488 (U.S. D.C., C.D. Cal. 1988).
6 https://innovationlawlab.org/the-artesia-report/, accessed Oct. 15, 2015.
7 https://innovationlawlab.org/the-artesia-report/, accessed Oct. 15, 2015.
8 https://innovationlawlab.org/the-artesia-report/, accessed Oct. 15, 2015.
9 https://innovationlawlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Expert-Letter-Victoria-Sanford.pdf, accessed Oct. 17, 2015.
10 www.un.org/Depts/dpa/CICIG_English.pdf
12 https://innovationlawlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Expert-Letter-Victoria-Sanford.pdf
13 https://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/rios-montt-and-the-need-for-international-accountability-for-war-crimes-in-guatemala , accessed Oct. 15, 2015.
14 http://www.lapagina.com.sv/inmigrantes/97712/2014/07/26/Presidente-Perez-Molina-pide-a-Obama-un-TPS-para-los-guatemaltecos, accessed October 17, 2015.
15 http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/president-ronald-reagan-holding-up-t-shirt-emblazoned-with-news-photo/50655353, accessed Oct. 15, 2015. 16 http://www.coha.org/drug-trafficking-central-americas-dark-shadow/, accessed Oct. 15, 2015.