With bags on her shoulders and her four-year-old daughter in her arms, a 25-year-old single mother named Amanda fled her village in El Salvador without saying goodbye to her parents or siblings. She was focused on just one thing: survival.
"I owned a store, and gang members made me pay them $200 of what I made each week," she recalled. "I paid for five months but ran out of money. Then one morning, two gang members came into my house and said they'd murder me and my daughter that night if I didn't pay them. I gathered everything I could and left."
After a perilous journey north through Mexico, Amanda crossed the US border with her daughter in late April and applied for asylum, a status granted to individuals who face persecution in their homeland. She is among tens of thousands of mothers who have fled gang violence in Central America since 2014.
In an attempt to deter the unauthorized migration of families to the United States, the federal government created a massive family immigrant detention system and launched a series of deportation raids. Immigration officials revealed last week that they will conduct another string of raids in May and June, removing hundreds of undocumented immigrants from the US who have arrived over the past two years.
"As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal immigration. If you come here illegally, you will be sent home," Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said in a press statement about the first round of raids in January, in which officials rounded up 121 women and children for deportation. He said that the raids would help send a message to potential undocumented migrants not to venture north.
"DHS and the Department of State are expanding our public messaging campaign in Central America, Mexico, and the US to educate those considering making the journey north, as well as their families abroad, about the dangerous realities of the journey," he said. "The messaging will also highlight recent enforcement actions."
But the government's deterrence strategy is failing: the number of families are fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — a trio of countries called the Northern Triangle — to enter the US illegally has been increasing, not falling. More than 32,000 mothers and children crossed the border between October 2015 and last March compared to roughly 14,000 in that span the previous year, according to Border Patrol statistics.
'We are in a real refugee situation. We can't speak anymore about migration.'
VICE News interviewed multiple migrant families who said that detention, raids, and other disincentives would not affect their resolve to come to the US because they left their homes in order to save their lives.
Amanda, who asked that her last name be withheld to avoid complicating her asylum case, said she had no option but to travel north. She intended to go to a brother in Nashville. She and her daughter traveled by bus until they reached the US-Mexico border, where they encountered immigration officials who detained them at Karnes Residential Center in South Texas for two weeks.
"It was awful to leave my family. I came crying all the way," she recounted in a San Antonio bus station following her release from Karnes on bond. "It was a surprise to spend time in detention, but at least no one was threatening to kill us there."
Amanda was unaware of the raids or of family detention before traveling to the US. Other El Salvadorian mothers who had just been released from Karnes surrounded her in the station, awaiting buses to go stay with family members who were already living in the US.
"My cousin was killed a few days before we left the country. Then a gang threatened us on the street," a 24-year-old who gave her name as Mayra said from her seat behind Amanda as she held her toddler son. "All I ask is that they don't deport us since we came to save our lives."
A third mother at the station named Alicia grew timid when I asked of the dangers in her coastal El Salvadorian town.
"My daughter's life was at risk," she said vaguely, refusing to elaborate and wrapping her arm around the 15-year-old girl beside her. "We wish to God we can stay here."
Though these women said that they were not aware of the measures taken by the government to discourage people from migrating, immigration experts have found that even those who are aware of such penalties aren't discouraged from coming. Jonathan Hiskey, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who surveyed 12 Honduran municipalities in 2014, found that individuals said that they were just as likely to migrate despite a heightened risk of deportation and other punishments.
"A respondent who thought it was harder to get into the US and more likely to be deported was equally likely to migrate as one who thought it was easier," Hiskey said. He found that 85 percent of respondents were aware that the risk of deportation had increased after 2013, but it made no difference to them. Instead, they said their decisions to migrate would be most influenced by crime.
"They were receiving the message, but it didn't matter," Hiskey said, referring to the US government's deterrence campaign. "What did matter — the overwhelmingly most important variable in the model — was if a person was victimized by crime more than once in past 12 months. People's intentions to migrate nearly doubled if they had been victimized multiple times."
Hiskey noted that the US government has not only invested significantly in family detention and in deportations, but also in a public relations campaign in Central America to stop migration beginning in 2014. While Hiskey said such messaging might have an effect on potential economic migrants, he found that the women and children traveling north for safety reasons were not affected.
"In 2014 it was called the Dangers Awareness Campaign, and in 2015 the Know the Facts Campaign. They paid for billboards, radio ads, and reached out to churches and NGOs throughout the Northern Triangle, spreading the word that if you come to us we will send you back," Hiskey said. "I don't think the message can be any clearer to people in Honduras that if they come, the chances are very slim of being able to stay."
A DHS spokesperson would not directly answer questions about the effectiveness of deportation or detention as a deterrence strategy, but offered that the upcoming raids were designed to "promote and protect border security."
"As we have stated repeatedly, the Department of Homeland Security must enforce the law consistent with our enforcement priorities," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Sarah Saldaña said in an emailed statement, noting that individuals who entered the country after January 2014 were among the agency's removal priorities. "We stress that these operations are limited to those who were apprehended at the border after January 1, 2014, have been ordered removed by an immigration court, and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws."
The deterrence approach fails to stem migration and ignores a grave refugee crisis, warned Francesca Fontanini, a Latin America spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. She noted that Northern Triangle families have also increasingly fled to Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama over the past two years.
"We are in a real refugee situation. We can't speak anymore about migration," Fontanini remarked. "This is an invisible but extreme situation. Every year we have a progressive increase, a more than 100 percent increase in comparison to last year. And we predict that this summer will be even worse."
Central American border crossings have occasionally decreased month-to-month, particularly in the winter. In January and February, the DHS pointed to lower apprehensions after the raids as a sign that the deterrence strategy was reducing attempts to illegally cross the border.
Immigration experts have countered that the decrease was likely due to seasonal trends — fewer people travel in the wintertime because of the cold — and to increased enforcement on Mexico's southern border. Mexico has drastically increased its border security as well as deportations of Central Americans, but migrants and smugglers keep finding new routes through the country. By March the number of families crossing into the US had increased again.
Apart from the motivation of these families is the question of adequate legal assistance in pursuing their asylum claims. After the last set of raids, the US government admitted that 12 of the families it had rounded up may qualify for asylum status. Because immigrants are not guaranteed attorneys, many lack the opportunity to fully present their cases.
"As soon as these families become victims of raids, we find out they have valid asylum claims that have never been looked into," said Ian Philabaum, coordinator of the CARA project, which offers pro-Bono legal services to immigrant families in detention. "We don't do anything to actually let these women understand what they're charged with doing."
For the women at the San Antonio bus station, finding an attorney is an unimaginable feat.
"They've told us we can't work," Amanda said, referring to the government's policy of preventing asylum seekers from getting work permits until they win their cases. "That makes it impossible. I can't pay for a lawyer. It cost me everything to get here."
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman