SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Glenda Melgar said she was surprised and tempted when she started hearing what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border: U.S. President Joe Biden had said he would allow anyone who entered the U.S. within the first 100 days of his presidency to stay.
But she was equally surprised to learn it wasn’t true.
The rumor is rampant, from cities to towns such as Ojos de Agua, population 3,600, where Melgar lives in El Salvador.
She said when she heard it, she thought of grabbing her teenage daughter and leaving the only home she has ever known. In her 40s and with no job prospects and a daughter to support, it seemed like a way out of her economic woes.
Though it’s hard to pin down where the rumor started, it seems to be part of what’s driving some Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border or speeding up efforts to send their children alone there, hoping they’ll be able to obtain legal entry.
But the opposite is true — at least for most of them.
“The border is closed. We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas March 21 on the U.S. political news show “Meet the Press.”
It’s a message he went on to repeat on other Sunday shows, highlighting the message that parents in Central America should not send their unaccompanied children and teens to the U.S.
“I cannot overstate the perils of the journey that they take,” Mayorkas said.
In his first news conference as president, Biden repeated the same message March 25, saying his administration was working with officials in Mexico to take in families who had been turned away. They would not be allowed into the U.S.
Under a public health measure instituted by the Trump administration because of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has been expelling adults as well as families who cross the border without documentation and turning them over to Mexico.
But it has not worked well as Mexican officials have released many of them into the general public, leaving them stranded in dangerous border towns on the Mexico side.
“They should all be going back,” Biden said in his news conference. “The only people we’re not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.”
But the message is not being heard.
Father Hector Maldonado, of El Buen Pastor Parish in Apancoyo, El Salvador, said he recently tried to convince a family of five from his parish, who told him of their plans to leave, not to undertake the dangerous journey.
They sold all their possessions, the Catholic priest said, and he told them what he had heard and read: that people were being turned away at the border. But they seemed intent on chasing the dream of entering the U.S. despite the dangers, full of hope because of the rumor, he said.
The only thing he could convince them of, in the end, he told Catholic News Service in a March 22 interview, was not to turn over the deed to their house to smugglers as a down payment. The family needed to have a place to return to if they were deported, he told them.
Scalabrinian Father Mauro Verzeletti, who works with migrants in Latin America, told CNS in a March 25 interview that he thinks the rumor of a border open to all began because of a mixed message sent by the Biden administration when it announced a 100-day moratorium on most deportations.
“I think Biden sent a confusing message with the moratorium and others changed the conversation to say the ‘border is open,'” said Father Verzeletti.
And now it’s a message that’s hard to reverse, he said.
Some smugglers have taken advantage of the rumor, offering among their services a drop-off of families and unaccompanied children and teens to border agents, telling them the agents will process them and allow them to stay in the U.S. as long as they turn themselves in.
At the migrant shelter he operates in Guatemala, Father Verzeletti said he has seen in recent days an increase in people fleeing as the consequences of multiple crises are hitting Central America.
“We’ve ended extreme poverty,” he told CNS sarcastically. “Now what we have (in Central America) is misery.”
Crop destruction from storms produced by climate change, the pandemic’s destruction of small and medium businesses, and political upheaval in parts of Central America have accelerated the movement of people from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, as they flee poverty and hunger, Father Verzeletti said.
There’s a caravan organizing to take off for the U.S. around Holy Week, he said, because “people are drowning, they’re in misery: there’s still violence, impunity, destruction, there’s hunger but you don’t see it as much because of the pandemic.”
Migrant houses run by the Scalabrinian religious order and other Catholic groups are seeing children weighing half of what they should, he said, and other countries should take notice because climate change and destruction of nature in Central America, as well as political strife, will only increase the movement of people.
The region is prime for mounting natural disasters such as drought, given the erosion of forests and other habitat. That, in turn, will affect crops and economies, and will result in more migration north in search of refuge, Father Verzeletti said.
Economies in Central America have shown no improvement, he said, and while governments in Central America made efforts to save corporations from the effects of the pandemic, they left behind business sectors that helped the poor and middle class survive.
“Now the consequences are there for all to see,” Father Verzeletti said.