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Migrants: the word of God that walks

Tapachula, Mexico

José Rene Lopez waited patiently on the tracks for the freight train that heads north from this southern Mexico border city.

Surrounded by scores of other migrants hoping to get to “the other side,” the 20-year-old Honduran nervously kept his eyes moving, scanning for trouble -- namely Mexican police officers who regularly rob and brutalize migrants on their way through. Yet as the evening hours passed slowly without a throbbing whistle announcing the train’s departure, Lopez relaxed, especially when some fellow travelers urged him to sing as he’d done the evening before in Tapachula’s Catholic shelter for migrants.

Translated from Spanish, the song says: “Mexico is beautiful, but how I suffered. To pass through without papers is difficult. There are 5,000 kilometers that I traveled, and I remember each and every one.” After zipping up his coat, slicking back his hair, and clearing his throat several times to the cheers of migrants who gathered around, he continued.

“When I left my native land with the intention of getting to the United States, I knew I would need more than courage, that the best among us would perish on the way,” he continued. “There are three borders I had to cross, three times I crossed without documents, three times I had to risk my life. That’s why I say I’m three times a wetback.”

The song is a popular ballad in Central America, where millions have traveled the route the lyrics describe. Like Woody Guthrie’s songs about dust bowl migrants, it spins the experience of the poor into troubling questions. “After I crossed the Guatemalan-Mexican border, they made me a prisoner, even though we share the same language and skin color,” Lopez sang. “How is it possible for them to call me a foreigner?”

While the song echoes the mistreatment of migrants in Mexico, it also describes how “a Mexican named Juan” aided the sojourner in the middle of the desert. “Without his lending me a hand I would be dead,” Lopez crooned.

Along the tracks in Tapachula, the solidarity the song describes was incarnated by neighboring Mexican families who shared conversation, coffee and tortillas with the waiting migrants. One woman gave a pair of old shoes to a woman migrant whose plastic thongs were broken. One family prayed over a young Nicaraguan, urging him to put his faith in God, and to stay awake and not let go of the boxcar. Many migrants slip as they climb onto the moving train and lose a leg or two under the heavy steel wheels. Someone is injured or killed just about every week climbing onto a train in Tapachula.

Others fall asleep after hours of riding the train, lose their grip and fall to their deaths. The family brought cup after cup of steaming coffee to the young man.

When the train whistle finally sounded just before midnight, Lopez and his traveling companions got ready. As the massive train picked up speed, they ran to grab hold, swinging their bodies up onto the ladders at the ends of the boxcars, waving goodbye to their new Mexican friends, excited to be moving toward their dream. Yet 20 minutes north of Tapachula, the train was stopped and surrounded by immigration officials and police. Lopez’ dream would have to wait for another day.

Treated as a terrorist

Geography makes this region of southern Mexico a key step in the migrants’ journey. Essentially the narrow part of the funnel, the isthmus has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants pass through every year. Some come from as far away as Africa and China, but many of those can afford expensive migrant smugglers. The poor who ride the cargo trains are usually Central Americans, mostly Hondurans and Salvadorans, their hurricane- and earthquake-ravaged countries offering little hope for a better life.

In the past, if they were grabbed by the Mexican police, they were simply dumped back on the Guatemalan side of the border, from where they set off again toward the north, often the same day.

Yet in July 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox offered to tighten his country’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize. In exchange, he hoped to win amnesty for undocumented Mexicans inside the United States and perhaps even convince President George W. Bush to approve a guest worker program modeled on the infamous bracero program initiated during World War II.

Known as the Plan Sur -- the “Southern Plan” -- the new policy was politically important for Fox, who has seen his popularity slide after breaking the seven-decade hold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The remittances all those Mexicans in the United States send home, $8 billion in 2001, are needed to continue propping up Mexico’s troubled economy. The deal looks good to Bush as well, as it could substantially improve his chances of winning the next presidential election by appealing to the Mexican vote, especially in California, where many of the more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States are living.

Last September’s terrorist attacks, which have given the Bush administration an excuse to project U.S. borders deeper into the region, emboldened supporters of the Plan Sur, which essentially moves the focus of immigrant detection, detention and deportation hundreds of miles to the south and casts migrants as threats to national security. “The migrant is now being treated as a delinquent, as a terrorist,” said Ademar Barilli, a Scalabrini priest from Brazil who helps migrants in Tecun Uman, a nearby Guatemalan border town.

Critics like Barilli claim the tightening of Mexico’s southern border is forcing migrants to take greater risks to avoid capture, including traveling further out to sea in overloaded boats that too often capsize, every year drowning scores of migrants in the Pacific.

Under the Plan Sur, many migrants detained in Mexico are being transported back home to countries like Honduras and El Salvador aboard cushy first-class buses. According to Fr. Florencio María Rigoni, a Scalabrini priest from Italy who runs the Bethlehem House for Migrants in Tapachula, removing them from the border area makes it more difficult and costly to return.

It also makes it easier for some people to give up. “For those who have decided, for whatever reason, not to try again, it allows them to go home,” Rigoni said. “And since many have no money at all, it’s the only way they could get there. And they treat them well, give them lunch, something to drink, put them on nice buses. They can return home with their dignity intact, no matter that their dreams have turned to ashes.”

Mexican officials initially planned to send troops to seal off the border. Yet that hasn’t proved necessary. The corruption of Mexican immigration officials and police, along with the arrival in the area of street gangs that also prey on the migrants, mean the military simply isn’t needed.

“Given the uniformed Mexico and the tattooed Mexico that migrants encounter here, this filter of police and gangs that think it’s open season on hunting and harassing migrants, no military force could close off the border any better,” Rigoni said.

Rigoni admitted that migrants are taking greater risks to avoid detection, yet he said those migrants who get pushed the other way -- deeper into the jungle -- are not necessarily facing greater risks. “It takes longer that way, and there’s danger from some of the animals in the jungle,” he said. “Yet the jungle also gives you water and food, and it protects you from the criminals who prey on migrants. Moreover, the people who live in the mountains are more hospitable, less suspicious, more willing to share their tortillas with passing strangers.”

The border of hell

Making it harder to get through also drives up the price charged by the migrant smugglers who pull in an estimated $1 billion a year in Mexico. Although more than 4,000 prisoners, many of them truck drivers caught carrying what they jokingly call “human bananas,” are serving time in Mexican jails for people smuggling, authorities say more than 100 criminal gangs keep the business going.

Migrant smuggling has become more and more intertwined with drug smuggling in southern Mexico. It costs a Mexican truck driver the same amount in bribes to keep a truck from being searched, whether it’s transporting cocaine or Hondurans. So the two types of contraband are increasingly being combined, which observers report has exacerbated the violence already plaguing the people-smuggling business.

About 80,000 migrants were detained and deported last year in this border state of Chiapas, most of them Central Americans, and officials quickly dubbed Plan Sur a success. Church officials at both ends of Mexico corroborated the drop-off in the numbers of migrants passing through. The September terrorist attacks in the United States reinforced the downward trend, as many migrants paused for weeks while evaluating whether they wanted to go north to the United States, where many Hispanics had lost their jobs in economically vulnerable service industries. The number of migrants seeking shelter at the Bethlehem House was down 70 percent last December compared with December of 2000. Yet by January they were on the move once again, and the number of migrants passing through the house was up 30 percent over January of 2001.

Most of those migrating north are well aware of the dangers they face. “They know they have to confront the beast that is Mexico for migrants. They know that by crossing the Suchiate River [the border between Guatemala and Mexico] they are crossing the border of hell. Yet if their choice is to die of hunger on their farm in Honduras, or to die in Mexico taking a bold step toward a new horizon, they prefer the latter,” Rigoni said. “I call these migrants the suicidas de hambre, people driven by hunger to commit suicide. “They come to throw themselves here, preferring to die outside their country rather than face the shame of dying defeated and broken on their land at home.”

Rigoni said that while many Mexicans are hospitable to migrants, the church in Mexico has yet to accept migrants as historical subjects. The problem, he reported, is that Mexicans “tend to see a migrant as someone who goes away. Your kid who goes away, your neighbor. And when you leave the boundaries of the church, you quit being a concern of the church.”

The church in the United States, on the contrary, is more open to migrants, Rigoni claimed. “The U.S. church has done a better job of reading its own story, of understanding that it’s a culture of migrants, of different cultures. The church has rejected the paradigm of the melting pot and embraced the experience of Pentecost, where you maintain your own identity but still belong.”

Southern Mexico, the priest argued, is “a filter, a door, from where we can see the future of humanity either as light or as chaos. I was getting tired of my work here; it’s so depressing at times. But I confess I’ve fallen in love anew with it, because this migration is a sacrament, it’s a living Eucharist of a humanity that wants to survive, that wants to believe there is a future. Humanity is moving, and when humanity moves, all borders move, borders that are economic, geographical, religious -- they all move.”

Migrants have long been seen by the church as an object of evangelization or charity, Rigoni said. “Yet that’s changing. The migrant has gone from being a problem to being a historical subject, the word of God that walks, a face of God. If I want to know this God that moves, then I’ve got to know this face of God in the migrant.”

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer who lives in Honduras.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002