Death of American dream for migrants at journey’s end in Mexico
Bellicose US rhetoric and myriad perils of trip oblige increasing numbers to abandon hope
A sign above the entrance to the Casa Del Migrante – “House of Migrants” – on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez reads “Welcome brother and sister migrants”. Photograph: Stephen Starr
For decades, the US has been the promised land and a refuge for people fleeing poverty and violence across South and Central America. But with a record 2.4 million people having been deported under the Obama administration, and US president Trump widening his anti-immigrant policies, more and more migrants are reluctantly choosing to stay in Mexico.
At a church-run refuge for migrants on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Natividad (26) says his recent attempt to reach the US has failed.
“It took 25 days to get here,” he says. Home is Comayagua in western Honduras, 3,500km to the south, where he was employed as a field worker and security guard. “I left because the economy in Honduras is bad [even though] I think it’s more difficult to cross to America now than before,” he says.
Natividad has been in Ciudad Juarez for five days since taking a bus further east along the US-Mexico border. “The first time I tried to cross was in Tamaulipas [close to the Gulf of Mexico] but there were gangs and I thought it was too dangerous. I thought they might rob me.”
He says he plans to stay and work in Juarez for five months and then, if he feels it’s safe, try again to cross into the United States.
Migrant deaths due to drowning, heat stroke and other dangers at the border increased by 17 per cent during the first seven months of this year to 232 people, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), even though only half as many people attempted the route compared to the corresponding period in 2016.
Such dangers, and the rhetoric from the White House, are not lost on migrants. Last year, Mexico gave refugee status to more than 3,000 people, a 206 per cent rise on 2015. “Most refugees and asylum-seekers are from northern Central America [Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador] says Jose Sieber of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Mexico City. “However, since last year, the number of Venezuelan asylum-seekers has increased.”
He refuses to be identified or interviewed, and appears barely lucid
A 30-minute train ride north of Mexico City centre, Lecheria train station is the first stop for some of the thousands of undocumented Central American migrants arriving in Mexico every year. While there are no migrants aboard a freight train known as la bestia or “the beast” as it rumbles through the station heading north to the US, beds of straw, food wrappings and scraps of clothing are strewn across its wagons – evidence that people have been travelling on the train at an earlier stage.
Near the station, a migrant from Venezuela emerges from a grove of trees to beg for food at the station’s entrance. He refuses to be identified or interviewed, and appears barely lucid.
Though Mexico is wealthier than many of its neighbours to the south, it’s no paradise. Drug cartels regularly traffic and exploit foreign migrants, and the massacre of 72 illegal migrants at a ranch in Tamaulipas state seven years ago illustrates the dangers vulnerable foreigners face. A survivor of that incident said that having been abducted from a bus, the migrants refused to work for their kidnappers, the Los Zetas drug cartel, and were shot dead.
The UNHCR and local non-governmental organisations operate programmes to integrate some who choose to stay in Mexico. “In the city of Saltillo [in Coahuila state], a demand for technicians and factory operators has led to a major Mexican appliance manufacturing company proactively – and enthusiastically – hiring refugees. Seventy per cent of the persons who approach our implementing partner find a job,” says Sieber of UNHCR.
“[But] challenges remain mostly in relation to local integration . . . and access to public services.” Deep-seated corruption in state institutions and a request from the Obama administration to stem the flow northwards resulted in the number of migrants deported from Mexico back to Central America increase by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2014.
There are beds for 120 men, 60 women and 20 families
For migrants seeking legal residency in Mexico, many face a years-long wait for a decision on their asylum applications. Surveys conducted by the UNHCR and the IOM found that “47 per cent of those interviewed said their job in Mexico represented a step down from their previous employment at home”.
At the Casa del Migrante shelter where Natividad has been staying, Fr Javier Calvillo and a staff of 23 provide for those whose American dream is on hold, or been crushed. There are beds for 120 men, 60 women and 20 families. Fr Javier, the shelter’s director, says that migrants must commit to staying for at least three days to a maximum of five, though “their situation is assessed and they can stay as long as necessary”.
Outside in a dusty courtyard, Natividad says that though he still hopes to try to cross into America, his plans are fluid. “I don’t know anyone in the US. I would like to go to New York City because it’s a big city and I heard that it’s not dangerous,” he says.
With the White House promising to deport many of America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, some of whom Trump has called rapists, criminals and “bad hombres”, Natividad’s prospects don’t appear terribly strong, though that hasn’t quenched his optimism.
“I will try,” he says, “and I’m not concerned by Trump”.