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“A Just Cause”: Central American Migrants and Mexico’s Southern Border

Christine Kovic teaches Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Patty Kelly teaches Anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. Christine’s mother, Lenore Walker, is a volunteer several days a week at Casa Juan Diego.

“We’re fighting for a just cause, to find work.”

Carlos, Honduran migrant in Tapachula

This past July we traveled to Mexico’s southern border to speak with Central Americans about their experiences crossing this border and their journey through Mexico to reach the United States. While the human rights abuses and deaths of mi-grants at the U.S.-Mexico border have received increased media attention in recent years, Mexico’s 750-mile southern border with Guatemala and Belize is seldom mentioned in articles and discussions about migration. Every year thousands of Central Americans – predominantly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — cross Mexico’s southern border en route to the U.S. At Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Christine had met Central American migrants who told her of the difficulty of crossing Mexico, particularly the southern border region, and we wanted to learn more by visiting the region.

While in the Mexican border city of Tapachula, we met Carlos, a Honduran man who had just begun his journey to the U.S. (All names of migrants in this article are pseudonyms.) His hope is to work in the U.S. for a year or so and then to return to Honduras with enough money to start a small business, perhaps a corner grocery store. He told us of the difficulty of finding work and supporting a family in his home country. Even if one has a job, he said, the wages are so low you remain in poverty. So Carlos made the decision to migrate to the U.S. in search of work. Some people, he ex-plained, think that migrants are criminals, out to rob people, create problems, break the law. “But that’s not the case. We’re fighting for a just cause-to find work.” Carlos and other migrants spoke of their search for work with just wages so that they could survive and provide a dignified life for their families. Yet the jobs carried out by undocumented migrants are among the most dangerous, exploitative, and poorly paid.

Carlos’s words are powerful ones in the current anti-immigrant climate in the U.S. Migrants are referred to as outlaws and criminals by anti-immigrant groups, most drama-tically the Minutemen, as well as by government officials. In recent years the rights of all immigrants, particularly the undocumented, have been restricted in the name of “homeland security.” Carlos’s assertion that migrants come to the U.S. for a “just cause,” in search of work, counters the image of migrants as lawbreak-ers and troublemakers. Furthermore, the economies of the U.S. and Central America are closely linked; the very reasons that people leave their homelands in search of work are linked to our way of life in the U.S.
Casa del Migrante

We met Carlos at the Casa del Migrante Albergue Belén, a shelter run by the Scalabrini fathers for Central American migrants crossing Mexico. It is one of several Casas run by the Sacalabrinis to provide food, shelter, and medical care for migrants; others are located on the U.S.-Mexico border and in Guatemala. In the Tapachula house, migrants stay for a few days before continuing on their journey north. When we were speaking with one woman in front of the shelter, she looked at Christine’s watch and asked what time it was. She explained that Mexican police had stolen her watch at the border. We noticed that the others we had spoken with also lacked watches; they informed us that theirs had also been stolen. Indeed, no one we met at the shelter had a watch and their long journey through Mexico had just begun.

At the Casa del Migrante we also met Claudia who had left her three children with relatives in Honduras to search for work in the U.S. Speaking of her reasons for going north she explained, “It is very difficult in Honduras. I worked in an Asian-owned maquiladora that produced clothes – sweaters and other items. I earned $400 lempiras (about 22 U.S. dollars) a week. The pay was low and I couldn’t earn enough to survive and raise my three children. And not only that, the maquiladora is now closing down, so my job is gone.” She told us that the pay is marginally better in U.S.-owned maquiladoras, but even so, it is difficult to survive. Claudia was angry with the Honduran government, frustrated by the economy, and determined to find a better life for her children. “What can you do? You can’t survive on your salary and it’s worse if you’re a single mother.”

Claudia and the other men and women we spoke to at Casa del Migrante told us of the dangers of crossing Mexico and the U.S.-border. Claudia explained that people have been robbed, raped, and injured while falling off trains. Not only that, she said she knew of people who had died crossing Mexico and that crossing the desert on the U.S.-Mexico border is particularly dangerous. Yet Claudia, like Carlos and others, felt that she had to risk the dangers. She had to provide for her children. As she put it, “One has to have faith in God and keep moving forward.”

Chiapas-Mayab Railway

Looking at a map of Tapachula, the cross-stitch pat-tern representing the train tracks of the Chiapas-Mayab railway cuts through the southern portion of the city like a large, deep scar. Migrants call the train “the Death Express” or simply, “the Beast.” It is a freight train, not a passenger train, so people must jump on and ride on tanks or ladders, or hide in freight cars. With at least twelve migration checkpoints in the 700 miles between Tapachula and Mexico City, taking the bus is not an option for those lacking legal documents. Indeed, when Patty took the bus from Tapachula to San Cristóbal de Las Casas (a trip of 220 miles), it was stopped three times by migration officials. Just outside the city of Comitán, migration officials stepped on the bus and removed a woman and her small child and a young man, all traveling without documents. When Patty asked the bus driver what would become of them, he replied, “Poor things, they’ll get sent back to their countries.” The train provides a way for migrants to try to avoid the checkpoints; when immigration authorities stop the train, migrants jump off and run for cover.

Every year, dozens of people who fall from or are pushed off the trains are killed, and others are seriously wounded, losing arms and legs. The Grupo Beta, a task force set up by the Mexican government to assist migrants, collects statistics on the numbers of injured and mutilated (“mutilados”) migrants whom they assist. The category mutilated presumably refers to those who have lost limbs as a result of train injuries, a category specific to this region. For 2004, agents assisted 188 injured and 34 mutilated migrants. Numbers for the current year show that injuries are increasing. For January to June of 2005, there were 111 injured and 53 mutilated. The nongovernmental Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center based in Tapachula reported 64 deaths at the southern border for 2004. Causes of death include train injuries, assaults (migrants are particularly vulnerable because of their undocumented status), drowning from crossing the Suchiate River that borders Guatemala, and automobile accidents, among others. During the week we spent in Tapachula, local newspapers reported the death of three migrants who were injured by the train.

The U.S.-owned Genesee & Wyoming Inc. acquired the Chiapas-Mayab railway in 1999. Genesee & Wyoming now owns track or trackage rights from Ciudad Hidalgo/Tecún Umán (on the Mexico-Guatemala bor-der) through Chiapas’s Pacific coast, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the states of Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatán. According to an article by Ana Lilia Pérez in Contralínea Chiapas (“El expresso de la muerte,” June 2005), this is the only rail line in Mexico that has received loans from the World Bank. The train tracks are poorly maintained, leading to accidents and derailing. The hazards are great given, that fuels and fertilizers are among the main products transported.

Yet, the train is only the symptom of a larger problem. As Roberto, a Honduran who had lived and worked in the U.S. for many years, said, “It’s not the train that’s the problem, it’s the government.” He explained that the Honduran government needed to work to create jobs, to ensure living wages for its citizens. People wouldn’t have to leave the country if they had jobs with decent salaries. At the same time, he said, the migration policies of the U.S. are part of the problem as well. While many Central Americans are able to find jobs in the U.S., there is little possibility for them to gain legal status or work permits. Hence, they must cross Mexico clandestinely, using the trains or other dangerous routes. Roberto himself had held many jobs in the U.S. He worked in construction and for two years in a chicken processing plant.

Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor

At the Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante (Jesus the Good Shepherd Shelter for the Poor and Migrant), we met men and women, some as young as 14 years old, who had been injured on the train. Many residents had lost an arm, or one or both legs. The Albergue is a three-bedroom house run by Olga Sánchez Martínez, or simply Doña Olga as she is affectionately called. There were some forty residents in the Albergue when we visited. We also met several wounded men in the hospital who were in grave condition and would likely go to the Albergue if they survived. Some residents of the shelter who had lost both legs moved in wheelchairs while others were learning to walk with prostheses. A number of the residents had been to the U.S. where they had worked for years. Others had been injured on their first attempt to travel north.

Having overcome a number of severe illnesses in her life, Doña Olga began to visit the ill in hospitals as an act of charity. Over time, she began to meet Central Americans in the hospitals who had been injured by the trains or assault. She saw that these migrants were vulnerable; they were without family or friends in Mexico to assist them. She began to help them in the hospital, asking for money in the streets to purchase medicines or other materials. She cared for some of the injured in her own home. Six years ago she founded the shelter in a borrowed home and since then has received hundreds, if not thousands, of Central American migrants.

The house is far too small for the group of people it serves and Doña Olga has been raising money to build a new shelter on the outskirts of the city. The migrants themselves, many of them missing an arm or leg, are constructing the new shelter. In January of 2005 President Fox awarded Dona Olga Mexico’s first National Human Rights Award for her work with wounded migrants. The prize came with a monetary award of over 20,000 U.S. dollars, which went toward construction of the new shelter. Doña Olga hopes to move to the new shelter before the end of the year, but still needs money for doors, windows, beds, a fence, and other items.

At the shelter we met men and women who explained how they had made the difficult decision to leave Central America to migrate to the U.S. We met a Honduran man, José, who once worked as a farmer, but unable to make a living, he moved to the city where he began to make leather belts to sell in the market. He also made hammocks to sell. Even with two or three jobs, he couldn’t earn enough to survive. In his journey through Mexico, he lost an arm to the train. He spoke eloquently about the difficulty of surviving in the Honduran countryside. Rural producers are paid so little for their crops, he explained, that it is hardly worth harvesting.

Alma, a Salvadoran woman, had worked in a maquiladora in El Salvador earning about $34 U.S. dollars a week, but the factory closed down after she had been there just a month. Not only was she left without a job, she also had to pay the expense of all the paperwork she had to assemble to be hired. A single mother, she left her three children, ages 7, 5, and 3, with her mother and began the journey north. In December of last year she fell off the train and lost both her legs. She planed to return to El Salvador and open a small store in August, after spending seven months in the shelter.

We also met Julio, a Salvadoran man who wanted to speak to us in English. “I need to practice,” he said and smiled. He explained that he often translates in the shelter for non-Spanish speakers. He had worked in numerous cities in the U.S., including Dallas, Texas, where he had been employed as a baker for a five star hotel. Having lost a leg to the train, he was waiting for a prosthesis. Meanwhile, he works daily in construction, helping to build the new shelter.

Migration, U.S. Policy, and Global Capitalism

The migrants’ stories are intimately linked to U.S. policy and global capitalism. Mexico is under increasing pressure from the U.S. to close its southern border to Central American migrants. Since his campaign, Mexican President Vicente Fox has promised to work to protect the rights of Mexican migrants in the U.S. It appears that he has used the issue of the southern border as a bargaining chip with the Bush administration in order to gain status for Mexican migrants. To give but one example, the theme of migration was discussed in an April 2001 meeting between Jorge Casta-ñeda, Santiago Creel, Collin Powell, and John Ashcroft. In a press conference following the meeting, Mexican Secretary of Interior Santiago Creel an-nounced that his government was willing to increase its work to stem migration at its southern border in exchange for the U.S. providing more legal channels for Mexican workers in the U.S. (see Juan Manuel Sandoval Palacios, “Migración y Seguridad nacional en las fronteras sur y norte de México,” Geoecono-mía y Geopolítica en el area del Plan Puebla Panamá, edited by Daniel Villafuerte and Xóxchitl Leyva, 2005). In June of 2001 the Mexican government announced the South Plan (Plan Sur) to regulate Central Ameri-can migration along its southern border. In just 15 days following this announcement, 6,000 people on Mexico’s southern border were deported. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, no migration accord has been reached between Mexico and the U.S.

The current anti-immigrant atmosphere in the U.S. scapegoats immigrants for a variety of social, economic, and political problems. Migrants themselves are viewed as a problem and closing the U.S. border and increasing penalties for undocumented migrants are seen as solutions. Yet Central Americans and other migrants in the U.S. along with workers in the global south subsidize our standard of living in the U.S. in myriad ways. We purchase inexpensive clothing and other products at extremely low prices due to the wages paid in maquiladoras where people such as Claudia and Alma worked without earning enough to survive. We eat fruits, vege-tables, and chicken grown and processed in the U.S. by migrants such as Roberto who work for low wages in difficult and dangerous conditions. Guests at a luxury hotel in the U.S. consume fresh baked bread because of Julio’s work as a baker, yet he is unable to obtain legal documents to work. Migrants cannot be seen as a problem to be solved. We need to understand migration as being linked to the way we live, the way we eat, and the way we shop. There must be new migration policies that allow young people to look for work without risking the loss of their arms or legs in the process.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 6, September-October 2005.