On October 7th, The Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, in conjunction with the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, will be featuring the full-length documentary, Undeterred, the story of life on the U.S.-Mexico Border in Southern Arizona at 6:30 PM, in the Freeman Center’s Gaines Theater. The film will be followed by a Q&A session featuring several humanitarian aid volunteers, including the film’s Associate Producer.

This blog post is the first of a three-part series that traces migrants’ motivations for crossing the border, the history of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1990s, the weaponization of the desert that has led to the deaths of over 5,000 migrants, and the criminalization of humanitarian work along the border. 


So far this year, there has been a total of 811,106 apprehensions of people attempting to cross the border in America without adequate documentation. According to the U.S. border patrol in 2018, there were a reported 283 deaths at the Mexico-U.S. border. Since 1998 there have been 7,505 deaths on that same border.

Due to these statistics, border security has been a salient topic of conversation in almost every presidential debate in recent history. As immigration reforms becomes an important issue in the upcoming 2020 election, finding solutions will be at the forefront of many debates. Many potential swing voters (~30% of total voters) describe immigration policy being a key factor in deciding their vote

To tackle the issue at hand, it is important to learn the motivations of those immigrating without adequate documentation. Why would Central Americans and Mexican citizens leave their homes and make a dangerous, possibly fatal journey away from their homeland into a foreign country that actively implements measures to prevent them from crossing the border? And this is not simply a problem for adult males. Pregnant women, as well as small children, also attempt to make the journey alone, each for their own respective reasons.

Gang Violence in Central America

One of the main motivations of those fleeing their home countries is the pressure from drug-related crime and gang-related violence. Many people in Mexico and Central America are dissatisfied with the status of their home country. According to the Pew Research Center, “With drug-related violence affecting much of Mexico, a large majority describe crime (81%) and illegal drugs (73%) as very big problems.”

Gang violence also leads to a high homicide rate in many Central American countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in Central America. Several cities, including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula, are among the 10 most dangerous in the world. The most visible evidence of violence is the high rate of brutal homicides, but other human rights abuses are on the rise, including the recruitment of children into gangs. Honduras, with the highest homicide rate, had 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 driven by gang and drug trafficking-related violence. 

With gang violence becoming such an issue, many families also bring or send their children along this treacherous hike, regardless of the risk to their lives, as they see undocumented immigration preferable to the life they would be conscripted into otherwise.

From 2013 to 2014, the number of children attempting to cross the border alone doubled. Many children leave to come to America unaccompanied, alone, and hungry.  In 2019 alone, there have already been 72,773 reported apprehensions of unaccompanied children attempting to cross into the border.

 See a Better Life for themselves/families

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Survey in 2009, 57% of people who migrate to the US from Mexico say that they enjoy a better life in the U.S, even if they have to come into the United States undocumented. According to the World Bank in 2017, 64.3% of the population is living in poverty, with Guatemala ranking at 59.3% in 2014. According to a Pew Research study,  69% of Mexican citizens say the current economy is bad. 

Many Central Americans have experienced poverty and hardships in Latin America and therefore want their children to have more opportunities to succeed, and see this as a solution. With gang conscription of youth being such an issue, pregnant or new mothers see undocumented immigration as the best opportunity for their child.

The falling prices in coffee, combined with the steady loss of land due to corporations, contribute heavily to the economic hardships of Mexican and Central American citizens. Coffee prices are falling globally, and as of 2019 is worth about $1.00, with coffee costing about $1.20 to produce per pound. That means that most farmers, including many plantations and farmers in Mexico and Central America, are operating at a net loss, forcing many farmers to sell their farm or serve as an inhibitor for farmers to maintain their plantations. In addition to adversely affecting small farmers, it also forces unemployment on many workers working in big plantations as well. Further, in 2012, coffee farms in Central and South America were hit with an epidemic of a disease called coffee leaf rust, or la roya. It cut the productivity of some countries, like El Salvador, in half. 

With the different factors such gang violence, poverty, high homicide rates, and the potential for greater economic opportunity elsewhere, many central American and Mexican citizens choose to make the precarious journey of attempting to illegally cross the border.

Part II of this series will look at the militarization and weaponization of the border over the last 25 years.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.