‘Between life and death’: Central Americans still heading north

Migrants in Nogales, Mexico, walk down Calle Reforma, past cemeteries, on their way to “El Comedor,” a food outreach run by the Kino Border Initiative. The Jesuit-run effort seeks to faciliate workable migration. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)
Migrants in Nogales, Mexico, walk down Calle Reforma, past cemeteries, on their way to “El Comedor,” a food outreach run by the Kino Border Initiative. The Jesuit-run effort seeks to faciliate workable migration. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

NOGALES, Mexico — Twenty-four-year-old Danilo Coronado left Guatemala with four companions. Only Coronado and his cousin were left when he arrived at a Jesuit-run outreach for migrants just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The outreach, part of the Kino Border Initiative, served more than 58,000 meals in 2012. The initiative also housed more than 300 vulnerable women and children last year and treated nearly 2,500 for dehydration and blisters, among other ailments.

Many Central Americans don’t make it this far. They cross into Mexico, hop on a train and ride as far north as possible before attempting the trek across the Sonoran Desert and into the United States.

Coronado’s friend, Carlos Umberto Fajardo, was drinking when he fell off a train to his death. Two others were kidnapped.

“There is a deluge of immigrants fleeing violence in their country of origin,” said Jesuit Father Ricardo Machuca of the Kino Border Initiative. “They exist somewhere between life and death.”

Escaping poverty, violence

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador send the highest numbers of immigrants to the United States from Central America, said Erica Dahl-Bredine of Catholic Relief Services. That’s driven largely by poverty and violence.

In El Salvador, half of residents have informal employment, meaning they buy and sell items on the streets for small profits. “They’re not generating a regular paycheck,” Dahl-Bredine said from El Salvador in a phone interview with The Catholic Sun. “Children walk the streets selling gum, pencils, working every day until 9 p.m.”

In Guatemala, there’s a high rate of malnutrition among indigenous communities, Dahl-Bredine said. In El Salvador, clean water is hard to come by.

Arnold Alberto came up from Honduras with a group of eight. Zeta, a Mexican drug gang, kidnapped three of them along the way. Central Americans say just about everyone who takes the train is assaulted in Mazatlan.

The work they do in their home countries isn’t enough to support their family, Alberto said, not to mention covering things like antibiotics for their children.

“We come from poor families. We’re their hope,” he said. “From every poor family, at least one makes the sacrifice to make this journey to provide for the family that stays behind.”

As long as the situation is this dire in Central America, immigrants will continue to migrate north in search of something better, according to Dahl-Bredine. “We’re economically connected,” she added.

“There’s a day-to-day struggle of not knowing what to do next, where they’ll get their next meal,” she said. The children ask themselves before making the journey north: “They may kill me on the way, but what’s my future here?”

“Gang violence is also a factor,” Dahl-Bredine said. “Young people increasingly flee because they are threatened by gangs.”

Generations of immigrants

Eliza Añedes Melendez, a 17-year-old Honduran immigrant, said gangs would force her and other young girls to sell drugs because addicts felt more comfortable buying from younger women. She made it to the Kino Border Initiative outreach with a group of young people in their teens and 20s.

During the first six months of 2012, U.S. immigration enforcement apprehended twice as many unaccompanied minors as it had in any other year. Last April, a record 10,005 children were in the care of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Fr. Alejandro Solalinde runs a shelter for immigrants in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca, a Mexican town where migrants hitch rides on cargo trains. The Central American immigrants he serves are pulled out of their country by economic need and pushed by social violence.

Generations of families pass through that part of Mexico. Some days, the shelter serves as many as 800 — and as much as 20 percent are minors traveling without their parents.

Fr. Solalinde has seen the trend climb in the last few years, especially among Honduran immigrants. Children as young as 12 attempt the journey.

“Sometimes their parents have already crossed, and they were left with family members,” Fr. Solalinde said in a phone interview with The Catholic Sun. “Mom isn’t here, and they’re with their grandparents or uncles.”

José Raul spent five days on a train. He made the journey to earn money for his wife and daughters in Guatemala. On the train, he saw armed bandits rape an 11-year-old girl.

Women, most of them Catholic, often begin taking birth control pills before heading north because rape is commonplace on the journey, according to Shura Wallin of the Green Valley Samaritans.

The Samaritans patrol the Arizona desert offering humanitarian relief to immigrants. They regularly come across personal items left behind — like pictures, embroidered cloth and backpacks.

“What would the situation be for someone to leave personal items in the desert?” she said. “There are so many people suffering here.”

Hiring a coyote, or smuggler, has gone up from $1,800 to $5,000, some migrants said. You can’t just go with any guide, they said. You need a recommendation.

Some migrants speculated that coyotes had a deal worked out with gangs on the U.S. side of the border. Once they come across, gang members take their money and belongings at gunpoint. And coyotes will abandon groups of migrants at the first sign of border patrol.

Protecting human dignity

Between meals at the Jesuit-run aid center, migrants take a 10-minute walk down Calle Reforma, past a cemetery, to a shelter operated by the Mexican government. There, No More Deaths, an Arizona-based humanitarian effort, provides cell phones to migrants.

They also give migrants survival kits with a powdered drink, a filter and little tubes of chlorine to purify water.

Norma Alicia Elvira, a nurse, treats immigrants for blisters and other ailments at the shelter. She said most migrants arrive by train and she tells them the desert is too dangerous to cross. They don’t listen.

Over the last few years, enforcement efforts have built up the border wall. These efforts have deterred many from crossing — but not all.

Missionary Sister of the Eucharist Engracia Robles of the Kino Border Initiative works with women and children in Nogales, Mexico. She told the story of one woman who, scaling the 25-foot-fence, fell to the other side.

The woman fractured her spine and her group abandoned her. U.S. Border Patrol agents found her the next morning. Others fall to their death.

“The ones that control the border are the Mexican cartels, don’t kid yourself,” said Fr. Solalinde, suggesting bureaucratic corruption. “This isn’t in the hands of Jan Brewer or Joe Arpaio. It’s in the hands of the cartels. It’s a question of money.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly called for comprehensive immigration reform to respond to separated families and labor demands. The Church believes the current immigration laws and policies undermine the dignity of immigrants.

“How can a nation claim to believe in Christ and not welcome immigrants?” Fr. Solalinde asked. “No one owns the Earth. There has to be a concern for others. The Gospel must be lived out.”

Kino Border Initiative

The Kino Border Initiative is a binational organization of six organizations from the United States and Mexico: The California Province of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus, the Diocese of Tucson and the Archdiocese of Hermosillo. The initiative seeks to facilitate humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico.

www.kinoborderinitiative.org