Don’t miss the Artefact accompanying this piece: A Guided Art Tour of La 72
But who are the actual people at the center of the firestorm? Who are these so-called “illegals” that have invaded the collective nightmares of America’s whitest suburbs?
I recently visited La 72 Hogar, a shelter on the southern border of Mexico that feeds, clothes, houses, and provides legal assistance to migrants crossing Mexico. Many of the folks that pass through La 72 plan to stay in Mexico. Many more plan to come to the United States, with or without papers.
I spoke with several of the migrants – all of whom had normal-sized calves – to find out what spurred them to leave their countries and what they hope to find at their final destination.
Jorge: ‘We Have Rights as Human Beings’
Jorge has already been deported once from the US. His crime, a very serious one according to US authorities, was to work at a car wash.
“There’s not slavery like there was before, but there’s more deaths now,” he said. “They make slaves out of undocumented people, and once the work is done, they kick them out of the country.”
He’s lived more than eight months in the shelter, helping construct a dormitory for unaccompanied children and preparing to make the dangerous journey north to be with his wife and three kids, who are still in the US. He stayed longer than he planned to at La 72 because he believes in what they’re doing and because he wants to help others like himself on their journey.
“Here they give people help, a roof to sleep under, food, security, and they treat people in a dignified way,” he said.
After a lack of work forced him to leave Honduras, a country where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Jorge came to the US seeking a decent life. His dream is to someday have a house for his family. While Americans fantasize about owning mansions with palm trees and 12-car garages, Jorge has something simpler in mind:
“I want a normal house, where a normal family can live. A house with two rooms, one where I can live with my wife and another room for the kids. One that has a kitchen and a space where we can relax. A safe place, where nobody can treat us badly.”
Safe places are hard to come by in the US for people like Jorge. When he lived in the country before, he was unable to live a normal life for fear of being caught by la migra (immigration cops) and deported.
“You can’t go to a nightclub. You can’t go to the park, because you’re scared they’ll catch you…You can’t listen to music because you’re scared the neighbors might call the police,” he told me. “I didn’t take my kids to the park. We would only go out on Sundays, to Burger King or the mall and then back to the apartment.”
Jorge’s favorite movie is Sin Nombre, a dramatization of migrants heading north, the same route that he took before and will take again. He also likes to read, favoring nonfiction tales of the hardships migrants face in the US. And, in a grave breach of Latin American custom and tradition, Jorge prefers basketball and baseball to soccer. The way Jorge sees it, there’s a deep injustice in the US’ treatment of its immigrant population.
“Most of the country’s income is coming from undocumented laborers. They work in construction. The majority are exploited at work. If they’re hurt, their insurance won’t pay. They just use us when they need us. Once the work is done, they turn us over to migration,” he said. “I think the treatment has to change…we have rights as human beings.”
The change has to come from above, Jorge believes, and immigrants searching for justice should turn to religion as the solution.
“To change the world, we can only ask God to touch the president’s heart so that he ends the corruption,” Jorge said.
Despite his former (and future) status as a criminal in the eyes of US immigration authorities, he lives by a strong ethical code supplemented by the Catholicism that guides him.
“First of all, you shouldn’t touch anything that’s not yours…Don’t mix yourself up in problems. And ask for guidance from God.”
Aspacia: Hondurans Know That They’re Selling Off Our Country
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to say this, but it’s not fair,” Aspacia opined. “We in Honduras welcome people from other countries with much love. But I can’t go to your country?”
Aspacia left Honduras to escape domestic violence. She said existence is very difficult for almost everyone in Honduras because of violence from the maras, massive street gangs originating in Los Angeles that control almost every aspect of life in Honduras, and what she refers to as the malgobierno, or “bad government.” Economic difficulty and widespread violence in Honduras make the US a very attractive destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants, including Aspacia.
“The US is a mechanism that can help migrants overcome economic difficulty, opening frontiers to improve their situation,” she said.
Aspacia and others at La 72 say the situation in Honduras, already suffering from high levels of gang violence and unemployment, took a drastic turn for the worse following the military coup in 2009. The coup was backed by large amounts of US money, and in particular supported by Hillary Clinton’s State Department. The US has continued supporting the military dictatorship in Honduras for the last six years, even after the military turned control of major cities over to the maras. In return, the military government has given very attractive investment opportunities to US businessmen, including a cushy consulting gig for Lanny Davis, a close friend of Hillary Clinton who helped establish back-channel discussions between the State Department and coup leaders in Honduras.
“Our president doesn’t care about us,” Aspacia said. “Hondurans know that they’re selling off our country…the president thinks he can trick the people with a few speeches.”
Despite the hardships of life in Honduras and the road north to the US, Aspacia has maintained a strong faith in her own ability to overcome her situation. In direct contrast to the claims of people like Donald Trump and the Honorable Congressman King, the vast majority of migrants I spoke to believe in working hard to better your situation, and very, very few people are expecting any kind of handout from US taxpayers. Aspacia is typical in this respect, saying that she believes in “getting ahead on my own merits”, an eight-hour work day for everyone, and that she hopes to open her own clothing store with money she saves working in the US. She already has a name for the tiendita (“little shop”) in mind, plus a backup if the first one’s already taken. She wants to call it Tiendita la Unisex, or failing that, Tiendita la Catracha. (Catracha, or in the male form catracho, is slang for “Honduran.” Unisex is Spanish for “Unisex.”)
One of Aspacia’s primary reasons for pushing ahead to the US, rather than the safer option of staying in Mexico, is to earn enough money to give a better life to her children. She has four kids, three boys and a baby girl. She, like most people in Honduras, was forced to drop out of school for economic reasons and wants her kids to get an education.
And she wants a house:
“A humble one, with four bedrooms—one for the baby, one for the boys, one for me and a guest room. A bath and an indoor toilet. And an excellent patio to have Christian gatherings. And live very economically so I have money left over to help others.”
When I spoke with her, Aspacia had been staying at La 72 for a little over a month. She said she’s had an excellent relationship with the administration and volunteers at the shelter. Like everyone staying at La 72, Aspacia is responsible for helping keep the space clean and orderly. But she went above and beyond, taking on the trying task of teaching American and Canadian volunteers how to dance reggaeton. “You’ve got to watch someone else, how they move their feet,” she told me. “But only watch the people that know how to dance. Don’t watch just anyone.”
Aspacia acknowledges that it won’t be easy to reach the US, since she’s traveling alone and her family won’t help her with money or support for the journey. “But I can’t lie to myself,” she said. “I can’t trick myself. My goal is to be there [in the US].”
She also knows that life won’t be easy once she gets there, “for the fact of being an illegal.” But she refuses to let herself give up hope. “You have to be positive, most importantly,” she said, “with goals and dreams to reach for.”
Edwin: The Right Wing Owns Everything
After four months without work, Edwin decided his only option was to leave El Salvador.
“My family is a little sad, because it’s a dangerous journey,” he said. “They didn’t want me to leave, but there’s no way to make a living right now.”
It wasn’t just a faltering global economy’s fault that Edwin lost his job as a private security guard. There’s a villain to the story, according to Edwin: El Salvador’s right wing. The country currently has a leftist president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former commander in the armed rebel group FMLN. The rebels ultimately succeeding in disbanding the country’s army and forming a new government in 1992.
Edwin, like the voters who elected President Sánchez last year, is a fan of the Salvadoran revolution.
“The revolutionary is someone who wants to change their country,” he said. “In my country, the revolution was a very good thing…we have free education now, for example.”
Unfortunately, like the stark example of South Africa shows, political revolutions don’t necessarily mean economic ones. The right wing in El Salvador retained the vast wealth they had accumulated under a century of military dictatorships, and have been busily working to regain political power ever since. Edwin told me that since Sánchez’ election last year, many large companies in El Salvador laid people off in order to artificially raise the unemployment rates with the sole purpose of making the leftist government look bad. This included the private-security company Edwin worked at, the owner of which was a former captain in the country’s military and liked to be addressed as “Capitán”.
“The right wing owns everything,” Edwin told me.
Unlike so many of the migrants that pass through La 72, Edwin was never a victim of gang violence or state violence in his home country and he left for purely economic reasons.
“My life is very calm,” he said. “I have my wife, my work and my daughter…I just try to spend as much time as I can with my family.”
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t forced migration, as heading north was Edwin’s only means of providing for his family. As he told me, “If the only way to make a better life is migration, what are we going to do?”
And violence did touch Edwin almost immediately when he crossed the border into Mexico, during the four-day walk from an illegal border crossing at Ceibo, Guatemala to La 72 in Tenosique, Mexico.
“They attacked us wearing masks, with AK-47s, pistols, and garrotes. One of them hit me with the side of his machete,” Edwin told me. “They took my friend’s shoes, too. They left us with nothing.”
Edwin’s friend was given shoes at La 72, though the shelter didn’t have a pair that fit properly.
“The home (La 72) has been a blessing for me. When we arrived at four in the morning, they welcomed us warmly, and they gave me pills for the pain in my feet too,” he said.
Edwin is aiming for San Antonio, Texas, where he says a friend will pick him up.
“You can work cleaning houses, and if you can work at the docks, that’s even better. I know how to cook, too…the important thing is to have work,” he said. “I’ll be there four years maximum, and then I’ll return to my country. That’s enough time to do what you want to there. ”
What Edwin wants to do, with the money he’ll earn working in Texas for four years, is buy a house.
“I don’t imagine a big house,” he said. “Two little bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a patio. Those are my dreams.”
He also hopes to make enough money to open a modest business in El Salvador, maybe a cyber cafe, which he would name the Saraí after his daughter. Saraí is seven years old right now, and with his business, Edwin wants to earn money to put her through college.
“My dream is that my daughter can be a professional,” he told me. “But she can choose her career herself. She doesn’t have to be a lawyer or a doctor if she doesn’t want to.”
Wendy: I Want to Live as if I Wasn’t a Criminal
Wendy is just 17 years old, but she walked three days alone along the same route where Edwin and his friends were robbed by masked paramilitaries. As an unaccompanied minor making the dangerous journey north, she joins the ranks of what the UN has termed “children on the run,” the more than 60,000 underage migrants coming to the US every year without an adult to guide them.
“My family doesn’t care what happens to me,” she said. “They’re just not interested.”
Like roughly 80 percent of the migrants passing through La 72, Wendy is from Honduras. She says the economic situation and increasing security concerns have made the country all but unlivable.
“The law in my country doesn’t work. The cops don’t help you, you have to pay them first. Every day there’s more crime committed by the police,” she told me. “Someone has to do something.”
Her main goal in leaving Honduras, what she hopes to accomplish in the US, is to get an education.
“I wanted to get ahead, I wanted to study…no one in Honduras will lend me a hand,” she said. “As a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer, to help people get their rights or something like that.”
Wendy also wants to study English, but she says classes in Honduras were too expensive. She had a job in a clothing store, but the pay was so low it barely covered the basic commodities necessary to survive.
“I want to go to Texas…well, it doesn’t really matter what state, the important thing is to find work and move forward,” she said. “Any kind of work. It could be in a restaurant, a shop, whatever.”
Wendy plans to enlist the help of a coyote, a guide who leads undocumented immigrants to their final destination. Unlike many other Latin American migrants, she says she won’t ride the “train of death“, a network of cargo trains that people jump onto while moving.
“The train, I won’t risk it,” she said. “Many Hondurans have died on the train. Not just one. Many.”
It’s impossible to know exactly how many are killed while riding the trains every year. They’re the frequent subject of attacks by drug gangs like Los Zetas, who often kidnap migrants for money, and the journey itself is extremely dangerous, with the possibility of falling off the train or being decapitated by electrical wires. Surveys show that 80 percent of migrants – whether or not they board the train – will be assaulted or robbed while crossing Mexico, and 60 percent of women will be raped.
The US bears a huge amount of responsibility for this situation. First, the US forced Mexico to clamp down on its “porous” southern border as a precondition for NAFTA, forcing migrants to find clandestine routes across a country they could previously cross more or less freely. The trade agreement led to the creation of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración, an agency analogous to the US Border Patrol and which did not exist prior to NAFTA.
More recently, US fingerprints can be seen in Plan Frontera Sur, an initiative by the current US-backed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Administrators at La 72 describe Plan Frontera Sur as an American attempt to “export human rights abuses” from the US-Mexico border to the Mexico-Guatemala border, thereby allowing the US to claim innocence of any crimes committed by immigration police. The increased militarization of Mexico’s southern border brought about by the plan was recently denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Wendy dreams of a world where she’ll be allowed to move freely, a right Americans take for granted.
“I want to live as if I wasn’t a criminal,” she said.
And someday, of course, she wants a house. She’s put a lot of thought into what it’ll look like, too.
“It’ll have four rooms: one for me, and another for the kids, because I don’t know how many I’ll have,” she said. “A garage, and first a car, then later a motorcycle. A porch. It’ll be a color – aqua? – between blue and green. A big house, a pretty one. A nice, large patio and a swimming pool.”
But like the other migrants I spoke to, Wendy knows it won’t be easy, and she’ll have to work hard to accomplish her goals.
“First, you’ve got to work, then save, and from there get a house and a car,” she said. “But you’ve got to work first.”
But Wendy believes in her own abilities to overcome her situation and make her dreams come true.
“They say that when one wants something, they achieve it,” she told me.
Wendy’s words sum up perfectly the unbreakable will of so many victims of forced migration, who must leave their countries to survive but who refuse to stop dreaming of a better life.
To learn more about La 72, click here (Spanish)
ARTEFACT: A Guided Art Tour of La 72