In 2012, a few months after his brother was gunned down by gang members, José Marvin Martínez, age 16, left Honduras on a journey north to the United States. A year later, while working as a mason’s assistant, Martínez was detained by a border patrol agent in Laredo, Tex. In August of 2014 he was deported back to Honduras. Four months later, Martínez was found dead, murdered in a drive-by shooting. He was 20 years old.
Martínez was one of over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States that have become the center of a heated debate over who deserves to stay in the U.S., and who deserves to be kicked out. Many supporters of Donald Trump have rallied behind the idea that expelling undocumented immigrants will solve many of our nation’s problems. On the other hand, many Democrats have pushed back by affirming their belief in the power of immigration, reminding people that the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants.”
Notably missing from either side of this debate is a discussion of what will happen to the millions of immigrants Trump plans to deport. Rather than ask, “Do they deserve to stay?” we should be asking, “What will happen to them if we force them to leave?” The answer to the second question isn’t pretty. Sending people back to parts of Mexico and Central America can amount to sending civilians into a war zone, which is entirely unethical and may lead to thousands of deaths.
El Salvador and Honduras, the home countries of about one million undocumented U.S. residents, were two of the most dangerous countries in the world in 2016. El Salvador’s murder rate was 81.2 people per 100,000. In Honduras, it was 59. As a point of reference, the “murder rate” in war-torn Syria, calculated using the total death toll, was 91.1 per 100,000 in 2016.
While Mexico, the home country of over half of the undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., has not seen as extreme levels of violence as El Salvador or Honduras, murder is on the rise; the murder rate recently climbed to the highest it has been since 2011. Nationwide, it hovers between 16 and 20 people per every 100,000, which is comparable to the most dangerous U.S. cities. In Tijuana, Mexico’s “most dangerous city,” the murder rate is 53.5 per 100,000.
The story of José Marvin Martínez is not unique. The Guardian has followed cases of several different migrants who were killed shortly after being deported back to their home countries in the past few years, and they believe his case is “the tip of the iceberg.” From January 2014 to October 2015, they are aware of 83 recent U.S. deportees who were murdered upon their return to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala alone. Large-scale deportations of migrants from Mexico and Central America will almost certainly result in thousands of deaths.
The wave of migrants that came pouring across the U.S. border in 2014 and 2015 was largely due to this pandemic of violence. The journey from Central America to the U.S. involves dangerous river crossings, freight train rides through parts of Mexico dominated by drug cartels, countless nights in run-down shelters, and often hundreds of miles of walking through the desert. The amount of migrants who decide to embark on this journey northward is indicative of how dire the situation in their home countries has become.
Once deported, it takes immigrants a minimum of eight years to apply for legal residence and to be re-admitted into the U.S. To believe that this is the process most deported immigrants will go through to re-enter is hopelessly naïve. Many of them marry, have children, and settle into communities during their time in the U.S. Though they are not safe in their home countries, they will be forced to re-embark on the long, perilous journey they took to get here in the first place and many will die in the process.
If we are going to have an honest conversation about deportation and illegal immigration, we must acknowledge that, by sending people back to Mexico or Central America, we are sentencing many of them to death.
As a nation, we face a choice; we can give into xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating, condemning thousands to die, or we can stand up for the basic human right to life.
The world is watching.