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The Most Dangerous Journey in the World

The man’s voice on the phone asked for help. He was very tired, having walked the 90 miles from Livingston, Texas, to Houston. When he was arrested he did not have his permanent residency card with him. He had been jailed for three months for an “immigration violation” and when released was put out on the street. He needed help to go to another city to his family.

We heard later that there is a suit being brought against that jail. The law requires them to release people who are simply not carrying their “green card” (permanent residency card) within 72 hours. Three months is not 72 hours.

Another call came in from a woman with a small child and pregnant whose husband was deported. She had no money to pay the rent.

A man at our men’s house complained of a terrible headache. When we sat down to talk with him, he told his story of being attacked by thieves in Mexico on his journey. They demanded money but he had none, so they shot him in the knee and through the lower side of his head. One bullet went through the back of his head, behind the ear, and came out the back of his neck. It seemed that he might have an infection where the bullet had gone through. The other bullet was still in his knee.

The man told us that the Mexican police arrived after he had been shot and they took him to the hospital. At the hospital they were going to do surgery on his knee, but he left the hospital without treatment after the nurse told him he would be deported after surgery.

We took Sergio to the hospital, where they x-rayed him and gave him antibiotics. A couple of days after he began taking antibiotics, Sergio pulled the bullet from his knee. A few days later he left to go to another city to work.

We have the custom that each Wednesday evening before Mass, an immigrant tells the story of their journey. This month a young man told the story of his brother who was shot in the head by thieves on the journey and became blind. The stories remind us of how terrible and dangerous the journey is for those trying to make it to the United States.

The next day two young women, both 17, appeared at the door of Casa Juan Diego. It is very common for sixteen and seventeen-year old boys to come to us, but a little less common for girls, because the trip is so dangerous. The girls were sisters, not twins, although born in the same year. They had lost all their phone numbers on the journey and were unable to locate their relatives. Fortunately, they were able to communicate with one relative, who called Guatemala. To everyone’s joy, their sisters in Houston arrived to pick them up. We were glad to hear that the journey of these sisters had been less difficult than that of so many others. At least they had our address where the relatives could find them.

Those who travel from Central American especially face many dangers. More publications are carrying articles bringing out the realities that immigrants face on their trek to the United States, even National Geogrphic.

“Mexico’s Other Border,” the article in National Geographic’s February 2008 issue, shows in words and photos the journey of Central Americans who cross into Mexico on their way to the U.S.

Enrique’s Journey

When Sylvia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke at Rice University recently, our friends Patsy and Woods Martin kidnapped us, took us to their house for dinner, and carried us to the talk. (We never get anywhere these days.) The Martins knew that Ms. Nazario, the author of Enrique’s Journey , would be telling about the harrowing journey she took across Mexico riding on top of freight trains along the route that Enrique and other children she had interviewed had traveled.

We have heard story after story from immigrants who have come to Casa Juan Diego who have ridden on these trains over the years, and we have bought many a prosthesis for those who have lost limbs when they were sucked under the train. After going that night, though, we were still grateful that we had heard the talk.

Nazario had first met the children in Nuevo Laredo on Mexico’s northern border, unaccompanied minors who had made the journey all the way across Mexico and were trying to get to the United States. After talking at length with the children, she decided to follow the same route they had taken.

Nazario talked with many of the children and also went to Honduras to talk with mothers who were thinking of leaving their homes and their children. She particularly addressed the situation of so many single mothers who their left home because of grinding poverty, because they could not make enough to support their children, were not able to give their children enough to eat. They could provide one meal, sometimes two a day. When the children were going to sleep, they would cry with pangs of hunger. Mothers told Nazario how the mothers would prepare a big pitcher of water with a teaspoon of sugar to quiet their hunger pangs at night. They often told the children to sleep face down so their stomachs would not growl so much.

Nazario quoted the statistic that of the undocumented mothers working in the United States, 4 out of 5 have left children behind because they were literally almost starving to death and would not be able to attend school.

Upon leaving their homes, the mothers (of whom there are many thousands in the United States working as maids, taking care of other people’s children while their hearts ache for their own) promise that they will be back in one year, or at the most, two. When the time drags on into a number of years, the children become desperate and take off to find their mothers.

Nazario told of one mother of three who planned to make the trip. The woman’s seven-year-old son begged her not to go. I have been to school, he said, I can already write my name. I will quit school and help you. His mother, like so many others, determined to make a future for her children, determined to work in the United States so that they could eat every day and go to school, left on the trip anyway. Not long into the trip, the mother fell from the train and lost both legs.

Nazario told us that over 100,000 children leave home alone, trying to make their way to the United States each year. These are children who are desperate to join their mothers who are in the United States, some as young as seven years old. They attempt to make one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, attempting to board moving freight trains, facing gangs and thugs, beatings, rape, the possibility of being thrown off the top of trains and sucked under the wheels, deportation by Mexican police, hunger, thirst, and wild animals. They are deported many times, but their need to find their mothers drives them to begin again and again.

The poverty is too much for people. An article on the Inter Press Service covering pot and pan protests of mothers revealed that between 2007 and 2008 in El Salvador the price of beans increased 68% and the price of rice 56%, and corn 37.5 %. The local food economies in these countries have been undermined for years by the requirements of international financial institutions (See articles in previous issues of the Houston Catholic Worker ).

What is the Solution for Immigration?

Her description of the desperation of the people led to the big question—what can be done about the exodus of people from Central America with so many arriving in the United States? The speaker recognized that our country cannot absorb whole nations of people within our borders. She said the strategies we have tried have all been failures in stopping immigration. Amnesty, strict and cruel enforcement, imprisoning people, and deportations have all failed. Most of the strategies have caused untold misery. She suggested we try something else—that we might attack the problem at its source.

Rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars on efforts which are ineffective, we might try micro-credit to families in Honduras, for example, and other economic measures which could make it possible for mothers and families to stay home—perhaps something short of the Marshall plan but of real significance.

We at Casa Juan Diego would also suggest Chiara Lubich’s idea of helping to develop businesses of the Economy of Commuion in Central America and Mexico. Chiara, founder and leader of the Focolare movement for so many years, has just died. Information on her Economy of Communion can be found at www. edc-online.org. The Economy of Communion “emanates from a spirituality of communion lived in every day life; links efficiency and solidarity; and relies on the strength of the culture of giving to change economic behavior.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIII, No. 3, May-June 2008.