The imminent landfall of Hurricane Patricia on Mexican shores could spark a massive border crisis for the U.S., as Mexicans flee the storm and its predicted devastating effects. The damaged infrastructure will likely continue to feed waves of U.S.-bound migrants for years to come. A look back at 1998’s Hurricane Mitch and its destruction in Honduras and surrounding nations shows that nearly 3 million people across Central America were left homeless–and an estimated 150,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans were granted the ability to legally stay in the U.S. by 2003, according to a 2006 comprehensive study published by the University of Houston.
To determine how long the waves of migrants will continue, we must consider the destruction Hurricane Patricia will bring to Mexico’s infrastructure. Looking at such matters through a historical lens provides some insight. Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, destroyed roads vital to struggling economies in Central America. Farms were destroyed, goods could not be delivered and sold. Economic opportunities became virtually non-existent for an already poor peoples. These immigration push factors were discussed in detail by the University of Houston’s Adriana Kugler and Mutlu Yuksel in their 2006 “Effects of Low-Skilled Immigration on U.S. Native, Evidence from Hurricane Mitch.” They wrote:
Hurricane Mitch is estimated to have generated a very high human and material cost. Mitch is estimated to have caused 20,000 deaths and 13,000 injuries; to have left 1.5 million homeless, and to have affected another 2 million in other ways (FAO, 2001). The hurricane also destroyed a large part of these countries’ road networks and social infrastructure, including hospitals and schools. Overall, FAO (2001) estimates that about 28,000 kilometers of roads and 160 bridges were destroyed. According to U.S. Aid, in El Salvador 60% of the paved roads were damaged, and 300 schools and 22 health centers were destroyed or damaged by the hurricane (US Aid, 2004). In addition, Mitch largely destroyed these countries’ crops and flooded agricultural land, reducing future production in the agricultural sector. The share of agriculture in the region’s GDP dropped from 21.2% before the hurricane to 17.8% after Mitch (FAO, 2001). The direct estimated damage to the farming sector inflicted by Mitch was of $960.6 million in Honduras, $264.1 million in Guatemala, $129.8 million in Nicaragua and $60.3 million in El Salvador. Two of the crops most affected were bananas and coffee, on which these countries’ export sector heavily depends on. According to ECLAC, the estimated damage totaled $6,18 billion or about 12% of the Regional GDP, 42% of exports, 67% of gross fixed investment, and 34% of the external debt of these countries. Even before the hurricane hit, the four Central American countries most affected by the hurricane were already among the poorest countries in all of Latin America. For example, the percent of households living below the poverty line reached 73.8%, 65.1%, 53.5% and 48% in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador the year before the hurricane hit (ECLAC, 2001). Moreover, the hurricane hit the hardest in rural areas and, thus, is likely to have affected mainly individuals already living under or close to the poverty line.
According to the World Bank, the main way in which Central American men responded to the disaster was by migrating North (World Bank, 2001). According to information from Migration Departments in these countries, external migration from Honduras almost tripled and external migration from Nicaragua increased by about 40% (FAO, 2001). In January 1999, Reuters and the New York Times headlines announced “Desperate Hurricane Survivors Push[ing] North to [the] U.S. Border.” In January 1999, Honduran immigration director reported that about 300 Hondurans a day were leaving for the U.S. and visa requests for the U.S. were up 40% from the previous year. According to journalistic accounts many Central Americans crossed through Mexico to get to the U.S., which is reflected by the big rise in the “other than Mexican” apprehensions in the U.S.-Mexico border, which were close to 4,000 in January 1999 (i.e., a record high for a single month). Officials at the border in Brownsville, Texas area reported a 61% increase in the number of Hondurans apprehended after illegally crossing the border during the last three months of 1998. Likewise, in the Laredo, Texas area 583 “other than Mexican” foreigners were apprehended in December 1998 compared to 123 in December 1997.
Breitbart Texas spoke with Border Patrol Agent and National Border Patrol Council Local 2455 President Hector Garza on the matter. Agent Garza stated, “Clearly, there exists a high likelihood for a coming wave of people at our Southwest border. History shows us that we see an increase in crossings from people devastated by natural disasters.”
Agent Garza expressed dismay at the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP). He said, “Our agents haven’t received any advisement or notification of the possible increase in aliens that the Border Patrol is likely soon to be overwhelmed by after Hurricane Patricia. I’ve spoken with the agents we represent and we are all very concerned about the likelihood of such a massive wave of aliens.” Repeated attempts by Breitbart Texas to contact CBP for information were unsuccessful.
Agent Garza said that the transnational criminal organization in Nuevo Laredo, immediately south of the Laredo Sector, is extremely brutal and will find a way to exploit the migrants. Agent Garza did not name the criminal group, but he was referring to Los Zetas. “They will control where aliens can cross and by doing so they will control where Border Patrol applies resources. They will utilize other areas to get narcotics across our border. They will also find a way to exploit the aliens for long-term financial gain. They will make them into indentured servants.”
Due to the storm’s location and predicted path, the U.S. border could begin to see waves of migrants from the San Diego Sector all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing, from West to East, the San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley (RGV) sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. The San Diego and El Centro Sectors are across the Gulf of California and Baja, thereby a much further trek for any waves of migrants. The Yuma Sector is far too secure and remote. Most of the Tucson Sector is less likely to see massive waves of migrants because it is controlled by the Sinaloa Federation or cartel and is far too valuable as a narcotics corridor for the criminal group to allow large waves of migrants to cross there and bring the increased law enforcement presence that such an increase in illicit border crossings brings. The Mexican cartels that control the regions of the U.S. border in the Del Rio, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) sectors of Texas–the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels–are most prone to allow the influx and victimize the migrants, however, the migrants would have to cross mountains to get there. The Big Bend Sector, due to its own remoteness and similar factors south of the border in the region, is also unlikely to see massive waves of migrants. In regards to the differences between cartels and the regions they control, the Sinaloa Federation has the ability to organize and prevent their narcotics corridors from being overrun, while the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels are fragmented and fighting each other.
Sylvia Longmire, Breitbart Texas contributing editor, added valuable insight into the topic. She said, “We are likely to see more numbers at the ports of entry rather than in rural or remote desert areas. The individuals fleeing Hurricane Patricia would likely qualify as refugees and thus they would be accorded special status in the U.S. These corridors are areas with a heavy cartel presence and the concern is always that the criminal gangs would take advantage of the increased human flow through their territories. many of these people might realize that they don’t have to pay a cartel to cross between ports of entry. They could simply show up at a port of entry and ask for refugee status.”
Longmire added, “Parts of the Tucson Sector, in addition to the western region of the El Paso Sector, are the most likely landing spots for the people fleeing the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia.”
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