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Migrant Arrests At Southwest Border Soar

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

March data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency shows a significant jump in the number of migrants caught at the U.S. southern border. Most of those caught crossing into the U.S. are single adults. Many have spent weeks walking north from their home countries in Central America.

NPR's Carrie Kahn just spent several days in southern Mexico and is here to speak with us. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Sure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We, of course, have understandably heard so much about the large number of unaccompanied children, but there's also this surge in the number of adults. What does that seem to be about?

KAHN: Right. If you look at those numbers by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the last five months, 80% of those caught at the border are single adults, and mostly they're men. Overwhelmingly, the reason these migrant men are coming is for economic reasons. They're looking for work. These are mostly economic refugees and mostly from Central America.

SIMON: As we noted, you went down to Mexico's southern border. A lot of Central Americans are crossing a river that separates Guatemala from Mexico. What did you see?

KAHN: I chose this part of the border for a couple of reasons. The U.S. has been putting a lot of pressure on Mexico to step up enforcement along its southern borders. Mainly, that enforcement is on the Pacific side of Chiapas. I went to the other side of the state, closer to the Gulf of Mexico, near the famous Mayan ruins of Palenque. And I was there for three days, and I did not see much presence of either Mexican forces. It's a very porous part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico.

But, Scott, more than that, it's a particularly arduous crossing point along the border. Migrants cross the Usumacinta River from Guatemala in boats. Then they head out to the jungle on this 100-mile trek to Palenque. It takes migrants four or five days walking on this two-lane road that's infamous for assaults in the very hot sun. You know, I've covered immigration in this part of the world for years, and this track of migrants along this road, it just hit me. It was - first of all, there were hundreds, so many people, walking on this road. And seriously, Scott, almost everyone was from Honduras. I met two Nicaraguans. The rest were from Honduras. It just felt like a major exodus from this one country.

SIMON: Carrie, what did they tell you?

KAHN: I kept asking the same question. I really wanted to know what was it about this particular moment did you decide to leave. And we can really talk about Honduras here. They talked about increased poverty, especially during the pandemic, high rates of violence, political corruption, you know, and then the devastating effect of the two hurricanes that recently hit the region.

But with the exception of the hurricanes, you know, the situation in Honduras isn't really new. And I really wanted to see if what we've been hearing about President Biden's border policies - is that why they were coming down? Nearly everyone I talked to said they were coming because of poverty. They wanted to work. Listen to this man. His name is Gilberto Mejia. He's 32 years old, and he was walking with eight others. The youngest was 19.

GILBERTO MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says, look; it's really difficult in Honduras. You just can't get ahead no matter how hard you try. And you try and you look for work, and there's just none. He says, that's when you go north. No one mentioned Biden. Remember; these people on this 100-mile stretch of road through the jungle are the poorest of the poor. And they don't have a smuggler. They can't afford one. And we've heard a lot that smugglers are the ones telling migrants that they have to go now, that Biden is a new president and nicer and is letting in people, and I just didn't hear that here.

SIMON: NPR's Mexico correspondent Carrie Kahn, thanks so much for being with us.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.