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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

ARRIAGA, Mexico — Wilson Coxaj, looking braver than his 16 years might merit, left his village in Guatemala’s highlands earlier this month and is making his way to the United States. It is a perilous journey.

If he’s successful, he’ll join what U.S. officials are calling “the surge” — the dramatic increase in child migrants flooding across the U.S. border, creating what President Barrack Obama calls an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Coxaj, whose thick black hair and short stature denote his Mayan roots, spoke with the determination of someone needing to provide urgent economic support for his single mother and younger brother. He said he would find his way alone.

“I am not with a coyote,” he said, referring to the paid human traffickers who usher some migrants northward. “I’m just trying to guide myself through instinct.”

Children from the northern tier of Central America and from Mexico are flooding into the United States — 47,017 from October 1 to May 31, the Department of Homeland Security says — cramming Border Patrol stations and forcing U.S. officials to set up temporary facilities for the children at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.

Nearly all the child migrants are crossing the border at the southernmost tip of Texas, U.S. officials say, meaning they travel through Mexico’s lawless Tamaulipas state, an area under the firm control of organized crime. The only likely way for them to do so is to travel with coyotes working in collusion with crime groups.

Republican lawmakers have blamed Obama for the influx, saying lenient enforcement of immigration laws and the holding out of potential amnesty is drawing migrants from Central America, particularly children looking to be reunited with a parent already in the United States.

“President Obama is responsible for this calamity,” Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said last week.

But visits to a temporary Catholic-operated shelter in Mexico City and permanent ones in Ixtepec in Oaxaca state and Arriaga in Chiapas state indicate that the cause of the influx is far more nuanced, and that much of it is driven not so much by U.S. policies as by the turmoil in Central America that propels people to flee north.

Street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 highest homicide rates, compels youths who refuse to join the gangs to flee.

“In my colony of Montreal (in the El Salvador capital of San Salvador), the Mara Salvatrucha dominates the streets, and they wanted me to join them to sell drugs,” said William Alberto Molina, who left his country last year at age 17 and has remained in Mexico. “They don’t give you an option. The only option is to leave the country or join the rival gang.”

“Violence in Central America is pushing these kids out,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington-based group that provides pro bono lawyers for minors facing immigration hearings.

“This is more refugee-like than immigration,” she said. “Even if kids are reunifying with family members (in the United States), that’s what refugees do, too.”

Honduras, which sits astride a major drug trafficking corridor from the Andean region, has seen part of its north coast turn into lawless no man’s land.

In the Catholic shelters that provide free lodging and meals to migrants, workers say they aren’t seeing much of an increase in minors traveling alone.

“There are maybe five a week,” said Carlos Bartolo Solis, director of the Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Arriaga, the nearest point to the Guatemalan border where migrants can climb atop freight trains heading north.

But a diplomat from Central America based in Arriaga, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t have permission from his head office, said many of the child migrants travel in groups under the custody of coyotes, staying in safe houses rather than shelters, out of sight of the employees of Catholic shelters.

“We counted on one train that there were 75 minors on board,” he said, referring to the freight line known as La Bestia, or “The Beast,” atop which thousands of migrants hitch a ride every few days.

The diplomat said few minors are like Wilson Coxaj, the 16-year-old literally alone on the journey. Most are in groups under the control of an adult.

“These kids aren’t alone. They go accompanied by someone,” he said.

Photo: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

Trump speaking at Londonderry, NH rally

Screenshot from YouTube

Donald Trump once again baselessly claimed on Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic was "going to be over" soon, just hours after his chief of staff suggested the administration was unable to get it under control.

"Now we have the best tests, and we are coming around, we're rounding the turn," Trump said at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. "We have the vaccines, we have everything. We're rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, we're rounding the turn, it's going to be over."

Trump has made similar claims on repeated occasions in the past, stating early on in the pandemic that the coronavirus would go away on its own, then with the return of warmer weather.

That has not happened: Over the past several weeks, multiple states have seen a surge in cases of COVID-19, with some places, including Utah, Texas, and Wisconsin, setting up overflow hospital units to accommodate the rapidly growing number of patients.

Hours earlier on Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared to contradict Trump, telling CNN that there was no point in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus because it was, for all intents and purposes, out of their control.

"We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," he said. "Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu."

Meadows doubled own on Monday, telling reporters, "We're going to defeat the virus; we're not going to control it."

"We will try to contain it as best we can, but if you look at the full context of what I was talking about, we need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines, we may need to make sure that when people get sick, that, that they have the kind of therapies that the president of the United States had," he added.Public health experts, including those in Trump's own administration, have made it clear that there are two major things that could curb the pandemic's spread: mask wearing and social distancing.

But Trump has repeatedly undermined both, expressing doubt about the efficacy of masks and repeatedly ignoring social distancing and other safety rules — even when doing so violated local and state laws.

Trump, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, openly mocked a reporter on Friday for wearing a mask at the White House — which continues to be a hotspot for the virus and which was the location of a superspreader event late last month that led to dozens of cases. "He's got a mask on that's the largest mask I think I've ever seen. So I don't know if you can hear him," Trump said as his maskless staff laughed alongside him.

At the Manchester rally on Sunday, Trump also bragged of "unbelievable" crowd sizes at his mass campaign events. "There are thousands of people there," he claimed, before bashing former Vice President Joe Biden for holding socially distant campaign events that followed COVID safety protocols.

"They had 42 people," he said of a recent Biden campaign event featuring former President Barack Obama. "He drew flies, did you ever hear the expression?"

Last Monday, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) endorsed Biden's approach to the pandemic as better than Trump's, without "any doubt."

"The more we go down the road resisting masks and distance and tracing and the things that the scientists are telling us, I think the more concerned I get about our management of the COVID situation," he told CNN.

In his final debate against Biden last Thursday, Trump was asked what his plan was to end the pandemic. His answer made it clear that, aside from waiting for a vaccine, he does not have one.

"There is a spike, there was a spike in Florida and it's now gone. There was a very big spike in Texas — it's now gone. There was a spike in Arizona, it is now gone. There are spikes and surges in other places — they will soon be gone," he boasted. "We have a vaccine that is ready and it will be announced within weeks and it's going to be delivered. We have Operation Warp Speed, which is the military is going to distribute the vaccine."

Experts have said a safe vaccine will likely not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, and that most people will not be able to be vaccinated until next year.

Trump also bragged Sunday that he had been "congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we have been able to do," without laying out any other strategy for going forward.

Nationally, new cases set a single-day record this weekend, with roughly 84,000 people testing positive each day. More than 8.5 million Americans have now contracted the virus and about 225,000 have died.

Trump, by contrast, tweeted on Monday that he has "made tremendous progress" with the virus, while suggesting that it should be illegal for the media to report on it before the election.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.