Honduras to Arizona
On the Road With Struggling Migrants in the Mexican Desert
BY ELLIOT GRANATH
“I don’t like swimming because I don’t float—I sink.” The young girl in the back seat has been rambling on and on, saying such things that only a young child could think of. I laugh and tell her I’m pretty sure that anyone can float.
Meet Sofia, a dark-skinned, 12-year-old Honduran girl with a bright smile and a brighter laugh. When I look at her I’m reminded of plenty of other children in my life—my younger cousins in Colorado, the two brothers that live next door, the giggling kids that I pass every day at the beach.
She even touts a gemstone shirt featuring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens circa 2006.
But, unlike these other children, Sofia has one major difference: in about an hour, we’re going to leave her and her mother Paula at a migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a few days, they plan to cross the deadly desert to the north into Arizona.
Coasting through the dry, northern Mexican landscape, I’m in a beaten, white Subaru Outback with two other young U.S. volunteers, as well as Sofia and Paula. Despite seven years of Spanish classes, my confidence drops as this preteen girl begins to speak faster and faster.
The car fills with an ominous calm before the storm—an oasis of air conditioning and Disney tunes that belie the fact that Sofia is about to brave the desert heat with nothing more than her undersized purple backpack.
Unfortunately, this fact is less surprising than it should be: between October and July of this year, Border Patrol agents apprehended 55,000 families trying to migrate to the United States. An additional 57,000 unaccompanied minors were also intercepted.
Much of the rhetoric in U.S. politics these days focuses on things like citizenship, deportation, and border security. But in the midst of this political storm is a humanitarian crisis: every year, about 200 bodies are recovered along the U.S.-Arizona border alone. Hundreds of others are never found. Those that do survive often face abuse form the Border Patrol, mistreatment in U.S. courts, and indeterminate periods of detainment in migrant prisons in border states.
An increasing number of refuges are coming from Central America. Honduras—the country Sofia and Paula are fleeing from—has been called the murder capital of the world. For them and others trying to escape violence or poverty, the only way out is aboard “La Bestia” (“The Beast”)—a commercial northbound train that migrants ride atop.
Of course, “La Bestia” is hardly a misnomer. Boarding is the most dangerous part, Paula explains, “and if you don’t have a good grip on it, you fall and—pfft—it cuts off your legs.” Others board successfully, only to later fall between cars and die.
In reality, “La Bestia” describes a whole series of frights heading north from Mexico or Central America. For those in poverty who see the U.S. as their only refuge, these trains are the most viable transportation option.
Migrants jump aboard when a train passes through a city and is forced to slow down. Passengers climb to the top of trains, which are typically packed full with others also traveling north to cross illegally into the U.S. There are so many of these train-hoppers that train engineers have largely given up trying to stop the problem.
Once on board a train, migrants are far from safe. The same transnational gangs (maras) that lurk the streets of Central America also proliferate aboard the train. Passengers risk a run-in with a member of the infamous Mara-18 or Mara Salvatrucha. Paula tells me at one point she witnessed a robbery at gunpoint a few feet from her and her daughter.
Keiler Beers, a recent graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington works with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths. In June, he led our volunteer group on a trip to The Community Center for Attention to Migrants and the Needy (CCAMYN), in Altar, Mexico (a small town some 60 miles south of the border). He brought with him nearly 300 home-made “relief kits.” These are simple and cheap plastic bags with a few survival aides, the most important component being two vials of bleach used to disinfect water.
For most migrants crossing the desert, Beers explains, “It is physically impossible to carry enough water to survive.” Many of them resort to desperate means, such as water found in farmers’ cow tanks. “Despite visible fecal matter, the choice to drink is an obvious one when you’ve gone without water for days on end,” he says. “Unfortunately, the bacteria and parasites in the water often cause diarrhea and further dehydration.”
As a testament to his words, a white cross hangs on the main wall of the dining hall in CCAMYN. The cross stands about five feet tall and is composed of thousands of tiny strips of paper, each bearing the name and age of a migrant that attempted to cross the desert, but failed. The cause of death is written next to each of the deceased—for the vast majority, the reason listed is simply “Dehydration.”
Although dehydration is largely a by-product of the desert, which often reaches a scorching 115 degrees, the problem is sometimes exacerbated by the U.S. Border Patrol. For example, when Beers and others from No More Deaths have carried gallons of water into the desert and placed them at strategic spots along migrant trails noticed, they’ve noticed that some of the water jugs are later found with knife or bullet holes. Because of this, No More Deaths decided to investigate by setting up hidden cameras.
What they discovered was confounding, though perhaps not surprising: in a video that can be found online, Border Patrol agents are recorded destroying gallons of life-saving water. They appear to be smiling as they do so.
Beers says this isn’t the first time the Border Patrol has tried to deliberately prevent migrants’ survival. He says he once witnessed a practice known as “buzzing,” during which a helicopter descends directly on a group of migrants and scatters them in different directions. Beers says this is meant to separate migrants from the group, increasing their chance of death, especially for those inexperienced with the desert.
In another covertly recorded video, a U.S. Border Patrol agent removes blankets and food left for migrants. (During the winter months desert temperatures can drop well below freezing.)
Earlier in our trip, we visited an immigrant detention prison in Eloy, Arizona, to hear some migrants’ stories of their crossings. The prison is just northwest of Tucson, about 100 miles from the border.
Maria, a young detainee who has been in the prison for a few months now, recalls her experience grimly. “It took me forty days to get here from Honduras. I crossed in February,” she says.
“Was it very cold?” I ask her.
“Too cold,” she responds.
In Central America and Mexico, winter apparel isn’t necessarily easy to find, even if migrants could afford it. As it is, many people cross with little more than the clothes they’re wearing when they leave their homes. Sofia, for example, plans to make the trek in her flip-flops.
Like Sofia and Paula, most migrants are trying to escape organized and arbitrary violence. In a letter to No More Deaths, Maria explained that she finally decided to flee after two members of Mara-18 raped her. The gang also killed one of her best friends.
Today, five months after her attempt to cross the border, Maria is making her case for asylum in the U.S. Unfortunately, she has no friends or family in the country, so her chances of success are slim.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, private prisons provide more than half of the immigrant detention beds in the country. In the Arizona area alone there are five for-profit prisons that exist solely for immigrant detention. Prisons like these contract with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and then receive federal money—the official figure is $119 of taxpayer-backed funding per detainee per day, though ICE officials have admitted the number is usually higher.
The Eloy Detention Center, where we’re visiting Maria, holds 1,500 people on a given day. At this rate, the prison is earning about $1.25 million dollars per week from the government.
Because this private prison is the largest employer of the city of Eloy, it’s clear that some of these Arizona residents have a vested interest in the captivity of these migrants—many of whom, like Maria, are refugees of violence.
But which migrants end up in a detention facility and which are immediately deported? Through a controversial and highly-criticized process the government calls Operation Streamline, the Border Patrol Screening Office selects who gets immediately returned to Mexico, processed for expedited deportation, or charged with illegal entry or re-entry. In Arizona, this results in roughly 60 migrants per day who are selectively prosecuted and tried simultaneously in an Arizona court.
After visiting the Eloy prison, Beers leads me into a district courtroom nearby. For the average passerby, it might seem that nothing of import is happening in the cold, depressing building. But, inside, four rows of detainees, men and women, sit awaiting trial. Each was caught by the U.S. Border Patrol at some point in the past month. They’re wearing the same clothes they crossed in and are shackled at their hands and feet.
The trial itself is quite simple. Each person is offered the same plea bargain. While illegal re-entry into the U.S. is a felony, each plea reduces this charge to a misdemeanor in exchange for a term in prison (usually a few months, though it can be up to 180 days).
Though the migrants wear headphones connected to a translator, it’s clear that many don’t understand what’s happening around them. When the judge asks one young man if he intends to waive his right to a trial and plead guilty, he responds in Spanish, “I am guilty.” When the judge asks again if he waives his right to a trial, he only repeats “guilty.” After the translator has spoken, the judge instructs him to go have a conversation with his lawyer and come back.
Others simply don’t understand the legal process. At one point, when the judge asks if any of the detainees have questions, one man responds by saying “less days,” hoping the judge can reduce his prison time. However, the judge has no discretion in this court—he only facilitates the plea-bargains arranged by ICE.
Another asks if he can serve the term his wife has been given, allowing her to be released. The request is, of course, denied.
After the judge asks for final questions or comments, one detainee then describes some of his experiences with the Border Patrol. He speaks for a couple minutes, describing his detainment in a migrant jail awaiting his court appearance today. After a long pause, the translator’s voice rings though the speakers:
“In the early morning hours, I was woken up and I was taken to a room where there were 15 other people and those people were told to get up so that I could have a place. However, I sat on the urinal. There was no room on the floor.
“The immigration officer told those people to stand up so that I could have a place. I was afraid one of them would hit me. Then the officer pushed me against a glass window and asked me, ‘Are you a man or not?’”
In response, the judge tells him that he’ll be able to file a complaint from the prison he’s being transferred to. However, Beers explains that these forms are only available if detainees ask a guard, whom most are afraid to approach. Furthermore, the forms are always in English and must also be completed in English, even though almost no inmates speak English, and no translators are readily available.
Back in Mexico, as we prepare to say goodbye to Paula and Sofia at the migrant shelter in Nogales, these horrors flash through my mind. I watch another volunteer from No More Deaths pull a pair of her own shoes out of her bag and hand them to Paula. Then we all look helplessly at Sofia and her flip-flops.
We give Paula our last remaining U.S. bills and tell her to try to buy some shoes for Sofia before they head out. Unfortunately, there is little else we can do. Once the two reach the desert, they’ll spend as much as a week walking before they reach the nearest city, risking confrontation with the Border Patrol, robbery by rogue “coyote” guides, and dehydration, every step of the way.
Then I slip Paula a phone number and ask her to call if she ever gets a chance—to let us know that she and Sofia made it across safely.
Three months later, I’m still waiting for the call.
Elliot Granath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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