By Abigail Leslie Andrews, author of Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants

It was over a week ago when the U.S. Border Patrol fired tear gas at several hundred Central American migrants marching toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. The marchers declared themselves refugees: men, women and children desperate to escape gang violence in Central America. They hoped that someone might take pity and let them in. Instead, President Trump labeled them “stone cold criminals.” In a study I am currently carrying out on deportees, I find that treating people as criminals for crossing the border (and for other minor crimes) can disintegrate migrant families and leave deportees intensely isolated. This punitive stance may ultimately play into the violence driving these refugees north.

I pass through San Ysidro regularly for my research, lining up to be checked and prodded with over 90,000 other people who enter the U.S. there each day. But Sunday I wasn’t there. I opted not to go in to the protest held at the border in solidarity with the Central American migrants because I didn’t want my two small children to have to weather the travel or get stuck outside in the heat. I certainly did not want them tear-gassed.

The Honduran mothers were not so lucky. As of this week, at least 5,000 Central Americans have arrived in Tijuana, roughly 3,000 of which are men, 1,000 women and 1,000 children. Most are from Honduras. They tell harrowing, tearful stories of losing loved ones to gangs. Some face death threats themselves. So unlike me, these mothers and fathers swept up their babies and walked, making their way almost three thousand miles on foot.

Honduras holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the first countries I lived in Latin America, in the summer of 1999. That year, I stayed with a 22-year-old mother of three named Xiomara, in a village with no indoor plumbing, outside of a town called “Hope” (La Esperanza). Xiomara was just 14 years old when she had her first child. By the time I met her, Xiomara had two more children. Nevertheless, she had built a community vaccination program, and each day we would hike throughout her village delivering polio shots. At just four and a half feet tall, she seemed immune herself, especially to local ridicule about whether a woman should work. I can’t help but wonder if Xiomara – or her children – could be among the migrants begging for help.

From 1990 to 2017, the U.S. deported 1.2 million people to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.* More than 90% of them were men. A small subset had also joined gangs while living in the United States, leading to their arrest and deportation. As these gang members returned to Central America, they brought with them two of the most infamous California gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18.

My preliminary research on mass deportation sheds some light on how these U.S. policies may have fueled the exodus we are seeing today. Based on pilot interviews with deportees in Mexico, I find that the combination of detention, incarceration, and deportation systematically fragments migrant families, leaving deported men deeply socially alienated when they return to their countries of origin. The U.S. marks people who cross the border – and immigrants who commit minor infractions ranging from traffic violations to possession of drugs – as criminals. This allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target people who have lived in the U.S. long-term, meaning they have grown distant from their sending communities and built families in the United States. Deportation plucks such individuals from their U.S. based families. If a deportees try to reconnect with their families by returning to the United States, however, they incur increasingly harsh sentences. In addition to expelling migrants, the U.S. also locks them up in detention or, if they cross multiple times, in prison. When immigrants get incarcerated, they grow even more distant from their loved ones. Therefore, when men return to Mexico and Central America, even if they were not involved in serious criminal activities in the United States, gangs can offer a source of solidarity. Gangs also recruit local young people who have not yet migrated. Thus, deportation has helped fuel the growth of Central America’s gangs partly by deporting gang members directly, and partly by sparking social isolation among other deportees that can fuel their growth.

In the years since I met Xiomara, these gangs have threatened, extorted, and raped people across Central America. If people want to avoid paying bribes to gangs, being recruited as foot soldiers (for young men) or “girlfriends” (for young women), they must flee their homes. Such threats have spurred men, women and children to escape by seeking asylum in the United States. Most seek asylum in U.S. – rather than Mexico – because there are more economic opportunities, and they already have family members here. With no legitimate government to turn to, such migrants’ only mode of politics is to vote with their feet.

Unfortunately, the receiving government – not the migrants – gets to decide who counts as refugees. Historically, the United States has tended to offer asylum primarily to people fleeing its declared enemies abroad. By contrast, Trump would continue to frame these victims as criminals, lock them up, and expel them. If he succeeds, he will further fracture families. So doing, he may end up fueling the very migration he hopes to suppress.

* David FitzGerald, Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers, forthcoming 2019, Oxford University Press