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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Vice President Harris isn’t the only one trying to get to the root causes of unauthorized migration to the United States. Staff members of an El Paso nonprofit spent two months across the border in Juarez posing the question to dozens of displaced Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans and families from the interior of Mexico.

The group, Hope Border Institute of El Paso, on Monday released findings that shed light on the unchecked crime and complex socioeconomic challenges in Mexico and Central America that force people to migrate. It also called for the U.S. to expand pathways for legal migration to cut down on illegal migration and its physical and emotional toll on families and individuals.

“We found that traditional drivers of forced migration – including poverty, violence, absence of rule of law and criminal control over lives and livelihoods – continue to push people out of Central America and Mexico,” said Hannah Hollandbyrd, policy specialist at Hope Border Institute. “But the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are compounding these push factors.”

The faith-based organization conducted 51 interviews with migrants at three Juarez shelters. This research is the backbone of the report “No Other Choice: An Exploration of the Root Causes of Migration to the Southern Border.” Almost two out of three interviewees first found themselves displaced inside their own countries before deciding to bolt for the U.S. border; a similar number left with their families, though some became separated; women and transgender migrants often suffered sexual violence along the way.

“When we think root causes there’s a lot of misconceptions,” Hollandbyrd said. “People don’t leave home just for any reason. People had confronted many layers of harm before they were pushed to that ultimate decision to leave. Behind every person’s individual need to migrate there are structural factors like economies that are exploitative and governments in Central America that really don’t protect their people and are implicated in crime and repression…”

HBI says threats and extortion by street gangs in Central America and drug cartels in Mexico play a major role in people’s decision to migrate. “The ferocity, persistence and reach of criminal groups was astounding. Nearly all who described being threatened said they attempted to report the threats to authorities, only to be dismissed or ignored,” the HBI report states.

In the case of migrant women, gender-based violence also played a role in the decision. The group talked to a 36-year-old woman from Honduras whose husband raped their two daughters. The woman came to the border with one of her daughters, but they were both expelled to Juarez under the Title 42 public health rule. The woman then successfully sent her daughter to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. But the woman found herself kidnapped, held for ransom in a safe house for 12 days and sexually assaulted, the organization reported.

Tina, a 22-year-old woman from Honduras, fled after being stalked by a street gang member. In Mexico, she found herself beaten up by a local man who became her domestic partner. She came to Juarez only to find the U.S. border closed to asylum-seekers, per the report.

Neither woman found relief in her country’s judicial or social welfare system — either because of indolence or complicity — which is another push factor of unauthorized migration into the United States.

HBI staff members also interviewed displaced Mexicans who shed light on just how much the cartels control certain areas of Mexico. Some were farmers and small business owners who were forced to regularly relinquish a portion of their earnings – the so-called protection money – even when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and few people came out of their homes.

“Nearly 70 percent of our interviewees were extorted or threatened by a criminal organization or gang. Despite having few resources to hand over, the gangs pursued them with an incredible degree of persistence and violence,” the report said.

Both the Trump and Biden administration have resorted to third countries like Mexico and Guatemala to help stem migration to the U.S. But some lawmen in those countries would rather extort migrants than detain them. HOPE sees the outsourcing of immigration enforcement to Mexico as a major contributor to the violence and human rights violations that occur along the migrant journey, so they don’t advocate continuing such a practice.

The HBI report includes the account of a Colombian couple who allegedly was extorted twice during a bus ride to the border by Mexican security forces.

Having established the root causes of the migration – at least when talking about the group stuck in Juarez – Hope Border Institute is urging the Biden administration to “dramatically expand” legal migration from Latin America to satisfy both the need of American employers for labor and that of the migrants to find jobs.

The group also wants Biden to fully restore asylum at the border as well as other legal pathways like work and family reunification visas to be expanded.

“We have an obligation to assist in addressing causes like climate change that we are directly responsible for. Also, recognize there is a great demand for immigration,” Hollandbyrd said. “There’s a need for exchange of people, exchange for workers, reunification of families and the demand is not proportional to the supply of legal pathways like visas and other ways for people to migrate.”

She talked about a Marshall Plan-like effort the U.S. can undertake in Latin America. That refers to massive aid the U.S. sent to Europe after World War II.