Trump’s wall: In Central America, migrants are undeterred
US is still a magnet for the many trying to escape crime and violence at home
A Cuban man gives another a haircut outside a Caritas centre housing migrants in Panama City. Photograph: Sally Hayden
In another country he’d be a pensioner, but grey-haired José is dreaming of a new life. Small and rotund, with baggy trousers and a stained shirt, he left Cuba last May to begin the long, arduous journey to the United States. A 65-year-old with 30 years’ engineering experience, he carries family photos in a secret pocket of his luggage to gaze at when he feels his resolve flagging.
José is not his real name; he asked to be called that because he’s becoming more paranoid about the authorities trying to block his route. He had $3,000 savings when he first left Havana, which he used to get to Ecuador, where he had planned to work and save more. “They told me my qualifications aren’t valid so they wouldn’t pay me,” he said.
Now he’s in Panama and out of money. Again, he takes out a laminated A3 sheet of photos – his two tall sons and his wife stare sincerely at the camera; his sons, shirtless, with their arms around him. He doesn’t know how he’ll access more funds, but once he gets to the US he’ll work with the sole purpose of helping them join him.
“I want a better life for them,” he says.
More than 46,500 Cubans entered the US in the first 10 months of 2016, almost double the figure for the entire of 2014, according to the US-based Pew Research Centre.
While migration through the Americas is perhaps “more hidden” than that from the Middle East or Africa to Europe, it’s still continuous and emblematic of ongoing crises, says Tiziana Bonzon, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent migration cell.
For some the reasons are economic, while others are leaving for political reasons or to escape violent crime. “Sometimes the only choice is join a gang or be killed,” Bonzon says. While US president-elect Donald Trump’s threats to “build a wall” along the border with Mexico and halve the flow of undocumented immigrants have spooked those already resident in the US, those who haven’t reached there yet are continuing undeterred.
Cubans are guaranteed asylum if they can reach US territory, meaning the choice to travel may be easier than for others. As many as 150 Haitians arrive and leave Panama each day, said Victor Berrio Anderson, director of Caritas, an organisation that provides shelter and safe houses for migrants passing through.
He illustrates the journey north by pointing to a map of Panama hanging on his wall. “We’re already in America,” he says, “but everyone wants to go to the United States.”
Haitians are moving because of a series of natural disasters, Venezuelans because of the economic collapse of their country, Colombians are escaping half a century of civil war, he continues. “Most central American countries [experience] a lot of corruption and the poor people are being abused.”
In the main Caritas shelter in Panama City, people arrive and leave daily. While there they receive food, shelter and medicine, and most use that time to rest up while steeling themselves for the journey ahead.
Ten or more to a room, they sleep on mattresses spread across the floor. The two-storey building smells of sweat. Wet clothes hang on string tied to hooks on the walls. Outside, one trendy Cuban millennial is giving another a haircut.
While there are only 85 staying here at the moment, in March and April about 5,000 migrants got stuck in Panama, after several countries to the north shut their borders. Eventually, Panama flew almost 4,000 Cubans directly to the US-Mexico border.
Her youngest sings to himself and plays on a smartphone while we talk. They’ve been in the shelter for a month. The trio first flew to Guyana, and travelled by land to Brazil, then through Colombia, where Esmilcy hurt her leg on a trek through the jungle before the Panamanian border.
Now she’s waiting for her family to send through $2,000 to guarantee safe passage through Nicaragua.
Next on the journey after Costa Rica, Nicaragua is particularly infamous because it’s so perilous. The police won’t look out for you there, the migrants in Panama say, and if you don’t bribe them there’s a chance you could be forcibly returned to Costa Rica. This also means gangs of “coyotes” – or smugglers – are free to abuse those who pass through.
“It’s very dangerous,” says Berrio Anderson, the Caritas director. “Many of them disappear and never make it.”
Like others in the shelter, José and Esmilcy both expect Donald Trump to continue to support Cuban immigration during his presidency, as payback for Cuban support in the recent presidential election – more than half of Cubans in Florida voted for Trump.
“With the Cuban people, he won’t do nothing bad. He will help, because Cubans in Florida helped him get his power,” says Esmilcy. “He talks too much but he won’t do nothing. It’s the Mexican people he means anyway.”
Not everyone agreed. “You’ll be surprised,” Berrio Anderson says with a grin when asked how he feels about Trump’s plans to build a wall. “I think he is right to try to put some order on it.”
However, he adds a clarification: “You’ll never stop illegal immigration. You can reduce it. And you need to tackle the causes. The US has neglected its poorer neighbours and this is the result.”