My Time in Palenque

During my time in Palenque, a city in the southern part of Mexico, I visited one of the shelters for migrants run by the Daughters of Charity of the Province of Mexico. The needs of the individuals they serve was immediately clear.

Palenque, located some miles from the Guatemalan border, is on the route for immigrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of these refugees are traveling with the goal of reaching the United States. To do so, they must ride on the notorious Mexican freight trains, collectively known as “La Bestia” or The Beast. These machines have taken the limbs and lives of countless hopeful migrants. While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that some 60,000 adults and children have died or gone missing along this route in the past couple of years.

In addition to the physical risks of the journey, the Mexican government has placed dozens of temporary immigration checkpoints in the Southern State of Chiapas to complement the large permanent checkpoints and detention facilities of the area. In this way, the Mexican southern border resembles that of the United States.

The Daughters of Charity living in Palenque run “La Casa del Caminante” (which translates to the House of the Walker), a shelter that welcomes refugees along this path. The shelter welcomes an average of 120 migrants each day, many arriving via La Bestia. Others arrive on foot, seeking a place to rest while waiting to board La Bestia.

Each of these refugees is physically exhausted and in desperate need of rest, food, and often healthcare. Between riding on top of La Bestia and walking miles at a time, they have been traveling day and night, sometimes for weeks. Many have nothing but the clothes on their back and their feet are almost always covered in blood. Not only are they seeking food and a place to rest, but they are in need of medical care and shoes.

While the majority of those arriving at the shelter are many, the Sisters also see many young women. Often these women are pregnant after being raped earlier in their route. Just yesterday, a family of five arrived in need of food and care. They are the lucky ones who are still traveling together, yet to be separated.

After my visit with these Sisters and those they help, I realized more than ever before, the struggles of these migrants. Truly, my heart is still in Palenque with them.

Migration from Central America

How can we not be shocked after the tragedy that we have seen these past days in San Antonio?

An overheated trailer carrying many migrants–possibly from the border–was found in a Walmart parking lot. Ten men lost their lives and others are still in precarious conditions. Police believe it is a case of smuggling and/or human trafficking and are still investigating.

“This happens more often than we care to imagine,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES, told USA Today. “We see it day in and day out in our offices.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons identifies a clear link between illegal migration and trafficking in persons. In fact, migration exacerbates trafficking.

However, in North America, some migration flows are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Presently, the majority of persons migrating to the United States are from Central America. They are particularly at risk because of their long trek through Mexico which is infamous for cartels and gangs preying on migrants.

These cartels and gangs have birthed a new reality for migrants. A reality of abduction of persons or groups of migrants, held in order to require from them–or their families–ransom in exchange for release. Human beings are being increasingly considered merchandise. Not only is anyone hoping to reach the U.S. border via Mexico expected to pay a “right of exit” imposed by the reigning local cartels, but, as migrants near the border, smugglers (also known as “coyotes”) must be paid to lead the immigrants across the border.

So where are these migrants coming from and why are they coming?

Over the past few years, the violence led by criminal gangs has created worse living conditions throughout Central American, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Territorial conflicts among the gangs have created a climate of violence, terror, and fear that has eroded the social fabric in communities. In desperation, men, women, and children have been fleeing their homelands seeking simply to survive and, hopefully, create a better life for their families. For many, migration is the only option.

In some regions of these countries, the law of the gang is absolute. Young people are extremely vulnerable of being recruited through intimidation and threats of violence against them or their families. They are under pressure to become drug dealers, thieves, or intimidators. Often, families prefer to see their sons and daughters flee their homeland rather than be killed or forced into a criminal lifestyle. As a result, many teens and children are encouraged, even begged, to leave their country, often times without a parent.

What do these migrants face on their way to a better life?

According to reports by migrants who have successfully made it across the U.S. border, violence continues throughout the entire migration route, particularly in Mexico. Most of these individuals are vulnerable due to their lack of legal documentation to allow them to cross Mexico safely. Many are frequently forced to pay traffickers working directly with organized crime networks to avoid being exploited into labor and sex trafficking.

These migrants also often face a systematic cycle of abuse. Public transportation drivers apply higher rates, corrupt police officers require them to pay to continue on their way, gangs claiming to be migrants infiltrate and assault them, organized crime groups inflict violence ranging from extortion to rape, torture, and kidnapping. Every penny is taken from the migrants whenever an opportunity arises. Sadly, many lose their lives.

Perhaps the starkest example of the commonality of brutality on the journey is that many women take contraceptives before their departure from Central America. They know the journey contains a high risk of sexual assault. Credible estimates are that 80% of women migrating through Mexico are raped.

Upon reaching the United States border, most Central Americans admit to their origins, seeking entrance as refugees fleeing from violence and death in their homeland. They are put through a process called “credible fear” so they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship while it is not safe to return to their country of origin.

Local churches in the United States provide a safe haven and passage for these migrants once they cross the border. These organizations aid them on the trips to their families or sponsors. Further, the USCCB coordinates a coalition to alert people and work against human trafficking.

As long as violence and poverty persist in their home country, nothing will discourage these migrants from taking the risk of the journey to the United States. It is not possible to take away their hopes of a better life, especially for their children. Any solution to this problem will require an analysis of every factor involved in the process of migration.

My recent experience of visiting our Sisters at their shelter for migrants at Reynosa on the Mexican border saddened me greatly. The majority of migrants had been deported. They had been taken from their families after working, paying taxes, leading a crime-free life for 20-25 years, only to be dumped in a highly dangerous, gang-infested area, the very atmosphere from which they had fled years prior. You could see the hopelessness, the sadness, the terror that they were now experiencing once again.

San Antonio Tragedy

Early yesterday morning, 38 individuals were found dead or near death in a big rig trailer parked in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. They were discovered by an employee after a man had approached him begging for water. Thirty of these individuals were taken to nearby hospitals in critical condition with signs of heat stroke and dehydration after being locked in the trailer without water or air conditioning in the crippling 100+ degree heat. The other eight were found dead on the scene. A ninth and tenth died after arriving at the hospital.

The number of individuals who had already been taken from the trailer is unknown. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus stated, “Checking the video, there were a number of vehicles that came and picked up other people who were in that trailer.”

These individuals–all of whom were between the ages of 15 and 40–were victims of human trafficking. An investigation is underway to confirm the nationalities of these individuals, but it is suspected they may be immigrants entering from Mexico. The origin of the truck is still undetermined.

This isn’t the first time in recent months that a similar situation has been discovered along the US/Mexico border. In fact, earlier this month, Border Patrol found 72 Latin Americans in a trailer and 44 other individuals in the same situation in June.

With the recent emphasis being placed on reducing the number of immigrants living in the country illegally, raids on suspected illegal immigrants have become more frequent. These are the same policies making it more likely to make it more difficult to prevent, identify, and stop human trafficking. This is due to immigrants being fearful to approach law enforcement, despite San Antonio’s policy of not asking about the immigration status of those with whom they come in contact.

A vigil was held to honor the victims of this horrific tragedy. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES were present alongside other agencies involved in immigrant rights and Daughters of Charity living in San Antonio.

Since hearing about this incident, I am deeply shocked about what I’ve read. How can we treat other human beings this way? These migrants were likely fleeing violence, gangs, and cartels in their countries of origin, desperate enough to be smuggled into the United States. Please join me in praying for them and their loved ones.

You can read more and keep up with the multiagency investigation here.

American Citizens in Mexico

It’s 8 AM at the Mexican-American border and there is already a lengthy line forming at the Port of Entry. No, it’s not made up of tourists and families. Instead, it’s made up almost exclusively of children carrying backpacks filled with notebooks, markers, and lunches. Where are these children going? They’re going to school.

For almost 800 American students, this is a daily norm. JoAnna is no different. A fifth grader at a public school in Columbus, New Mexico, JoAnna, an American citizen, lives with her family in Palomas, Mexico.

For her, it’s a free education as New Mexico’s state constitution grants American citizens a free education no matter where they reside. However, hundreds of other students cross the border to attend costly private schools in places such as El Paso, Texas.

Many of these children have parents who were deported by the American government. Instead of sacrificing their child’s education or leaving the deported family member behind, they move to border cities in Mexico where they can have the best of both worlds–a family and the opportunity of an American education.

In JoAnna’s school, two-thirds of the students live in Palomas. It would be easy for the children from Columbus to isolate those living in Mexico, but instead they interact just like any other group of fifth grade girls. “We usually talk about what we’re going to play outside and secrets…But I can’t tell you,” JoAnna laughs.

You can read more about JoAnna and her classmates here.

More Refugees Stopping in Mexico

After facing gang violence and other disasters that tore apart their families and homes, many Central Americans are forced to flee their country in search of safety. In the past, many of these individuals had their sights set on the United States. Now, however, due to recent changes in the US immigration laws, many of these asylum seekers are choosing to remain in Mexico and observe the US immigration climate from a distance…at least for a while.

One young mother fled to Mexico after narrowly escaping violence in her home country of Guatemala. She envisions a life in America, a life where she can reunite with her father and two sons. But for now, she remains in Mexico, waiting for a window of opportunity to achieve her dream.

She is not alone. The number of asylum applications was 8,781 in 2016. This number is expected to rise to 22,500 in 2017. However, with Mexico’s grip on migrant regulation tightening, Central Americans seeking asylum are forced to move faster and more dangerously before. The risks and uncertainty that refugees hoped to leave behind instead follow them as they search for safety and security.

While their stay in Mexico may mean extra months or years before a reunion with family members, it provides Central American refugees a haven to safely plan the rest of their journey. They remain hopeful for permanent asylum in Mexico, Canada, or the United States and for a better life than the one they are running from.

You can read more on why refugees are staying longer in Mexico here.

Increase in Solo Migrant Children

War, gang violence, natural disaster, famine, domestic abuse. All of these are reasons for one to become a refugee. And they are reasons why more and more children are fleeing their home country alone.

According to UNICEF, between 2015 and 2016, around 200,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the United States. They were fleeing from 80 different countries. In addition to these, more than 100,000 children were stopped at the US-Mexican border.

For contrast, in 2010 there were just 66,000 children making the trip to the United States. What’s causing this five-fold increase? War, gang violence, natural disaster…

The problem doesn’t stop here. These children are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, making them an easy target for smugglers, human traffickers, and others who make money on their innocence.

“Ruthless smugglers and traffickers are exploiting their vulnerability for personal gain, helping children cross borders, only to sell them into slavery and forced prostitution,” says a UNICEF representative. “It is unconscionable that we are not adequately defending children from these predators.”

Another representative tell us, “The sexual exploitation of girls and boys is big business. Because the difference with this and other crimes and exploitation is that a girl who is exploited sexually is seen as merchandise that can be used again and again.”

In fact, three of every five child migrants coming north from Central America or the Caribbean fall victim to human trafficking. These smugglers use rape, violence, and extortion as a form of payment for helping them to cross borders before selling them upon reaching the country of origin.

You can read more facts and stories of unaccompanied children here.

What’s Happening at the Border?

“When you see women and unaccompanied children fleeing as migrants, that’s when something really bad is going on. That’s the least mobile demographic. You just don’t see it unless it’s life or death.”

This statement from former AILA president, Laura Lichter, sheds light on the current situation at the United States border.

In December, more than 400 women and children were released from the Dilley, Texas immigrant detention center, just days after a judge denied the center the license which would allow them to legally detain children. While this appears to be a step in the right direction to ending family detainment, some are questioning to what extend the government will comply with this order.

Even after the release, it is predicted that close to 1,900 women and children are being held in that facility instead of being processed and released locally, as they are supposed to be. And this number is increasing. One respite center in the area says they were averaging 300 individuals per day just one month ago. Now, they are down to fewer than 90.

While migrants are still being released to these respite centers, it is guessed that this is due to lack of space in the detention centers. Currently, many women and children are detained for months at a time, sometimes close to a year. They are held in detention centers without the proper license to do so. Those lucky enough to be released are often done so through “alternatives to detention” or ATD. This includes ankle monitors, house visits, phone calls, etc. This type of supervision is to ensure that the migrants make it to their court hearings. The Department of Homeland Security is expected to triple the number of migrants in this program within the year.

Human rights advocates are worried that migrants who do not get released from custody with ATD are going to be held in the detention centers for indefinite lengths of time, likely until their deportation proceeding. They are worried that each individual will be deported, if possible, when they are unable to prove that they qualify for asylum.

So why are these individuals still being held in such horrific conditions? Partly because of current laws and legislature, although it began before the current administration, and partly because for-profit prison companies are getting paid to detain immigrants.

You can read more on this problem here and here.