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How a Climate Change-Fueled Drought & U.S.-Fed Violence Are Driving Thousands from Central America

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President Trump is urging Mexico to deport the thousands of Central American migrants who are at or approaching the U.S. border in an attempt to seek asylum, days after U.S. border authorities fired tear gas into a crowd of asylum seekers as some tried to push their way through the heavily militarized border near San Diego. Trump tweeted, “Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!” This comes just days before Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sworn in as Mexico’s new president. López Obrador’s incoming government has denied it made any deal with the Trump administration to force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their U.S. asylum claims are processed. We speak with John Carlos Frey, Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent. He recently returned from reporting trips in Guatemala, Mexico City and Tijuana, where he was documenting the migrant caravan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John, I wanted to ask you to take it to a broader scope on this issue. You traveled throughout Mexico and trying to deal with how—and to report on how these caravans and Central American migrants and refugees have developed. I’m wondering if you could talk about two aspects that don’t get very much attention in terms of what drives the migrants and the refugees. One is the issue of the growing drought recently in Central America. And two is also this whole issue of the deportation of felons who were convicted in the United States, maybe raised in the United States, but were originally from Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras, and have been deported in recent decades.

I think The Washington Post reported that, on El Salvador alone, over a 20-year period, 95,000 people were deported from the U.S., after getting out of prison, back to El Salvador. That’s 1.5 percent of the entire population of Salvador—people that were deported back to the country after serving time here in the U.S. The impact of these criminals then going down to their countries, where maybe they were born in but they don’t really know, and developing the kinds of drug gangs that then force people to flee?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, you bring up two very good reasons for people to leave Central America. And the one that you were just mentioning, we have a program in California, and now in the United States, where we will deport people who have green cards, people who are in the country legally, if you’re a gang member. And it really doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the United States most of your life. It also doesn’t matter necessarily what crimes you may have committed. If you’re a gang member, we are going to deport you. We have every right to rescind your legal status, and we’re going to send you back to the country of origin, even if you came to the United States as a child.

And so, that’s exactly what we’ve done. That number, 95,000, is actually a bigger number than I even thought. But we have deported tens of thousands of gang members back to Central America, many of them back to El Salvador. And El Salvador just experienced its own civil unrest about 25, 30 years ago. We were deporting a criminal entity into a country that didn’t even have law enforcement. They were not stable. So, what happened is, these gangs reconstituted in El Salvador, and they’re now ruling the country. They joined back up in the prisons, and the criminal enterprise in El Salvador, also in Guatemala and in Honduras, for the most part are running the show. That’s where the violence is coming from, a seed that we planted from the United States into countries that were not stable.

We didn’t even give any sort of a dossier or any sort of paperwork that allowed the countries to understand who and what we were deporting. We did not give them the crimes that they had committed, how much time they had served in prison or who these individuals were. We basically just said, “Here, you guys deal with this problem. We’re going to wash our hands of it.” Now we’re reaping the rewards of deporting this criminal element.

In addition to that, you mentioned the drought. There is a 4-to-5-year prolonged drought in Central America in a region known as the Dry Corridor. It encompasses parts of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. This year was one of the worst years of the drought. In some regions, there was 90 to 100 percent crop failure. Eighty percent of the region of this Dry Corridor is rural. It relies solely on agriculture as the base of the economy. And if the crops fail, there are no other jobs. There’s no other place to go, and people are starving.

I’ve interviewed dozens, if not more, people who have left Central America who are part of this particular migrant caravan who are hungry. They cannot feed themselves or their families. They’ve lost their crops. They don’t have any other way to make a living. And they’re coming to the United States basically for food. I talked to a woman who was 25 years old. She was with her 2-year-old. She was living on one tortilla a day. That’s all she could afford. And she came because there was just no other way for her.

So, we’re not dealing with these factors that are sending people here. Putting concertina wire up at the border is not going to solve someone’s poverty, it’s not going to solve the violence in Central America, and it’s certainly not going to put food on the table, which is why people are coming.

AMY GOODMAN: And you spent time just last week in Tijuana. Talk about the situation there, John.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Take 5,000 people, put them in a city with no place for them to go. There’s no place for them to sleep. There’s no place for them to eat. And the city is doing its best to make makeshift shelters for that large of a population. I stayed in a baseball camp, a baseball stadium which was a makeshift shelter. The migrants are living outdoors in the elements. People have provided tents and blankets. They’re shipping in food on a daily basis. There are port-o-potties. There are outdoor showers. There are—I think Pedro mentioned all of the children. Many of the individuals are women and children and families that are coming from Central America. And for the most part, this is a large group of people who are homeless.

I didn’t see anybody with a gun. I didn’t see anybody who was a terrorist or a drug dealer or what I can determine to be a criminal. These are families looking for a better life, looking for a better situation. Many of them are asylum seekers. I met families who some of their loved ones had been assassinated by gang members, who had been extorted, who had been threatened with their lives, and they were fleeing violence. By our own asylum laws, they may qualify. They have a right to claim asylum. So, these people are not, for the most part, unlawful.

I physically traveled with them. I sat in the back of a semi-trailer. I walked with them. I hung out with them for days on end. I never felt threatened. So, I don’t understand how the president of the United States could point a gun at the poor, because that’s what I witnessed. I witnessed, for the most part, poverty and desperation. And for the United States, a beacon for immigrants and a place that used to welcome immigrants of such background, is pointing guns at them and building taller, higher, stronger fences, is not the country that I understand to be.

AMY GOODMAN: And the tear gassing this weekend as you just left Tijuana?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: I don’t really see what the need for tear gas is. We have a mighty U.S. Border Patrol force. We have the military at the border. They have helicopters at their disposal. They have all kinds of equipment to be able to defend the border if that’s what they need to do. And they can arrest people if they’re coming across the border.

Tear gas is not even used in theaters of war. You cannot control where the tear gas is going to go. As I said and Pedro said, many of the people there are women and children, and tear gas has negative effects. So, it appears to me that this is a stage for the president and for politicians to stand on, to look tough, to look like they’re protecting the United States. But indeed, they’re protecting them from people who are not even a threat. I find it to be cowardice.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, we want to thank you for being with us, five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent, just back from the border area. This is Democracy Now!

Just wanted to read the comment of Karen Attiah, who is the global opinions editor for The Washington Post, happens to be Jamal Khashoggi’s editor. But she said about what happened on the border, “This is how American media would describe this if this happened in a non western country: 'American security forces under the Trump regime used chemical weapons in a cross border operation against unarmed asylum seekers, including children.'” Attiah ended her tweet by writing, “My God.”

This is Democracy Now! Back with Tom Robbins in a moment.

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