(USA Today) SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The news vendor threaded her way through a traffic-snarled boulevard in this humid, tropical city, hawking tabloid papers. The message she carried was clear:
"The U.S. will not give asylum to migrant children," blared Thursday's front page of La Prensa Grafica, one of the largest papers in El Salvador.
Other newspapers sported similar headlines. It has been all but impossible in this country in recent days to look at a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch a TV newscast without hearing this message. The same message that Vice President Joe Biden delivered in Guatemala City on Friday at a meeting with leaders from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.
Much of this past week, evening newscasts either led with or prominently featured reports that minors apprehended in the United States would be deported back to El Salvador. In neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, too, recent news coverage could scarcely have stated more clearly that the U.S. government says it will deport migrant children who cross the border illegally.
Over the past eight months, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico, most of them into Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Roughly three-fourths of them have come from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. Their numbers have jumped tenfold from three years ago.
Some critics have blamed the surge on President Obama's support for immigration reform and other measures. They argue that extensive reporting and misreporting in Central America on his position in effect encouraged families here to think that if their children made it across the border, they would be able to stay in the United States.
On June 6, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Obama's policies had caused a change in migrants' behavior.
"We're seeing on the border … a humanitarian crisis that is a direct consequence" he said, of what he called Obama's "lawlessness."
Deportees, would-be migrants and those who work with them here say otherwise.
"I don't see any evidence to back up that argument," said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who has conducted more than 400 interviews in El Salvador in her research on child migration.
"That's not what's causing people to go," she said. "The primary cause for children leaving is because they don't feel safe here."
Throughout El Salvador, from youths in gang-infested neighborhoods to people in official positions, there has been a lack of knowledge about the details of how the U.S. immigration system functions, Kennedy said. But she said that out of all the interviewees, only one child brought up immigration reform or the possibility of being eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some kids brought to the U.S. illegally to delay deportation.
In San Salvador's Zacamil neighborhood, graffiti for the Calle 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs are sprayed on mildewed concrete-block walls and telephone poles. Gang lookouts, often teenagers, squat on street corners, watching who comes and goes.
Federico Rivera, a local community leader, said he has seen lots of news about the child migrants, especially recently.
"I think there was something about the possibility that they could stay," he said. "I don't remember if it was just temporary or what."
But Rivera, too, said that it isn't U.S. policies, whatever they are, that matter or that lead people to leave.
"It's the fear of violence," he said.
Every day's news is full of reports of gang murders, many of them of youths and students who refused to join a gang or otherwise crossed one. During the first two weeks in June, the Salvadoran Federal Police reported an average of 12 murders a day.
In the waiting room at a government center for returned deportees sent back from Mexico, 38 people — mothers with babies, unaccompanied teens, families with four and five children — sat waiting one recent afternoon to be processed and sent back to their towns and neighborhoods.
A few said they were hoping to find work and a better future in the U.S. Most said they were fleeing because of threats from gangs. Not one cited the prospect of gaining asylum or permission to stay legally as a reason for going to the United States.
"I was going there because I have family in Maryland," 17-year-old Luis Fernando Hueca said.
If he had family in a closer country, say Mexico or Costa Rica, he would have gone there, instead, he said.
Several people who work with migrants say Central American news coverage of the surge across the U.S. border ramped up significantly starting June 2, when Obama declared the rising flow of child migrants to be a humanitarian crisis.
That reporting may make the situation clearer for those who follow the news closely, but in the end, "coverage of U.S. policies doesn't really factor into people's decisions on whether to go or not," said Allison Ramirez, an American who works on a U.S.-funded violence-prevention project in San Salvador. "It's a secondary or tertiary consideration, if it's one at all."