22 July 2014

Riding the beast: The journey of migrants from Central and South America

Image source: Daily Mail

Yesterday, I visited two brothers and a sister who are staying with a family in San Diego. The siblings are 20, 16, and 15, refugees from Guatemala, and part of the wave of people who have come in the past few months to offer themselves up to Border Patrol and ask for asylum.  I am telling their story here but not using their names, because they are so afraid of being found, even here, even now.

The younger brothers, 15 and 16, like many boys their age, were recruited by cartels in the small Guatemalan mountain village in which they grew up. “Recruited” is the wrong word, because it sounds like they had a say in it. They did have a choice, a devil's choice: join us, or you and your family will be killed. The family said no, enduring threats and increasing violence, until they decided they had to leave. They decided to try to go to the United States, because they have a distant relative here. He was their best hope.

The entire family – mom, dad, three brothers, a sister – left in the middle of the night to avoid being found by the cartel's militias, walked to the Mexican border, and rode La Bestia to the border. La Bestia means The Beast, and it's the nickname for the freight train system that bisects Mexico and connects to the United States. Migrants ride along its roof as far as they can go.

That in and of itself is enough to make the journey dangerous, but the human element makes it far worse. Beatings, rapes, and robberies are common. Their money was stolen. Their passports were stolen. Their food was stolen. By the time they arrived at the border, the family had nothing. But they were still together when they asked for asylum.

They remained together until the United States, for reasons that are not clear, separated the adults from the minors. The brother and sister who were 18 and 20 respectively were taken aside. The two younger brothers remained together. Their mother and father, too, were separated. None of them had phones or contact information, and nobody had anywhere to go; their only point of contact was that distant uncle in North Carolina, which is how the mother, two brothers, and the sister eventually found one another. Their father is still in custody. The 18 year old is still missing.

The sister was released into the United States first, but did not want to leave without her family. She found a 24-hour bail bonds office next to the border entry in San Ysidro and stayed there for nine days and nights, waiting, until someone finally spoke to her and helped her call her uncle in North Carolina, who told her where the rest of her family had told him they had been staying. Someone connected them with a local church group, which housed them for a time, until the sister was raped. They called the police, but the police could do nothing without a better description.

Finally, a local group called BorderAngels heard about the family's plight. They were able to connect the siblings and parents with a local family, where they are now staying. The father is still detained and the brother still missing, and so they wait to find out what their fate will be.

All they know is that they can't go home again. “That's the saddest thing,” said the 15 year-old. “I know that place where I grew up, no matter where I go from now on, is never going to be home again. If I go there I'll be killed. I can't go back.”

Their story is one of hundreds of thousands, but all begin more or less the same way: poverty, cartels, violence, desperation, flight, the search for a better life.  And their story has something of a happy ending -- happier than many, anyway.  They have been beaten and violated and have nothing but the kindness of strangers to survive on, but at least, for now, they are alive.

20 March 2014

Elvira Arellano Returns to U.S. Soil

Border and immigration activist Elvira Arellano, who first made headlines in 2006 for living with her son Saul in a Chicago church to avoid deportation for a year, stands outside the federal building in San Diego Thursday after being released from detention. Arellano was among at least a hundred other activists without U.S. documentation who applied for humanitarian visas this week as part of a coordinated protest for immigration reform.  She hopes to return to Chicago with her two sons.

10 March 2014

Bring Them Home event for immigration reform at the Otay border crossing

A rally at the US-Mexico's Otay border crossing Monday morning aimed to reunite families pulled apart by deportations.

Border Patrol, with protesters behind them on US soil.

Immigration activist Elvira Arellano

Young DREAMers and their families joined and crossed into Mexico, where they were met by other groups (along with some of Los Otros DREAMers) before trying to cross back into the United States. About 30 applied for asylum in the co-ordinated effort and were being processed by border officials by the end of the event.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance organized the third and largest #BringThemHome event, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. About 150 people on both sides of the border waved signs and chanted, "Bring them home!" and "No estan solos!" (They are not alone!).

There will be more events throughout the week.

18 January 2014

On human trafficking

This week, I visited a home in Tijuana for young girls who have been trafficked -- bought and sold into slavery, sometimes across international borders, sometimes not, but always horrifically abused and tortured either psychologically, physically, or both -- and spoke with them, an adult trafficking victim, and Alma, who started the home.

The issue of human trafficking is enormous and difficult to fully appreciate, so I will only focus on thing: a woman I met who I'll call Mari.

Mari is 40 years old.  She was born in Mexico, and spent the first few years of her life in Tijuana.  She had always heard that the United States were where you could go to make money to take care of your family, so when a friend of her parents said he was going to the US, she asked him to take her along.

What Mari didn't know was that he was a smuggler, a coyote.  He took her to Encinitas, an upscale beach town in San Diego where there was a large but invisible population of undocumented immigrants, and left her in a shantytown, where she met her captor, who repeatedly raped her, abused her, incarcerated her, and impregnated her.  Mari was 13, and he was in his 40s.  She stayed with him until she was 19, living under constant threat, working as a maid or a fruit picker by day and being raped and beaten by night -- until he shot and killed a man they both knew.

Mari took the blame, and ended up going to prison for the crime for 18 years before she was let out.  Afterward, she returned to Tijuana to look for her family and try to pull her life back together, but because she was an ex-convict covered in tattoos, tattoos that the man who had kept her in the shantytown had carved on her to mark her as "his," she was unable to get a job, and her family rejected her. They thought she was a gangster.

Mari is in the process of getting her tattoos removed. Her family has little contact with her.  She works a low-paying job in Tijuana and spends a lot of time at Casa del Jardin.  All she wants, she says, is a family, and to be loved, and to be able to love without reservation.

One of the things people ask her the most, she says, is why she stayed with her kidnapper for so long. This is one of the most insidious and deeply violent things about human trafficking: the implied or explicit threat.  In Mari's case, her captor told her he would kill her family in Mexico if she tried to escape, backing it up with extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and eventually, like so many others, she stopped trying to leave and began trying to simply survive.

Mari's story is harrowing and heartbreaking, but hardly unique.  The brothels and streets of certain parts of Tijuana are filled with them.  Theirs is a life circumscribed by market forces; they are the supply, and the demand, as Alma from Casa del Jardin points out, comes almost entirely across the border, from the United States.  Everywhere, trafficked humans are the world's beasts of burden.

06 December 2013

Los Otros Dreamers and the fight for immigration reform

One of the most profound changes that is being wrought by the Obama administration's immigration policy is that an enormous amount of young people are being deported.  This uptick has changed the fabric of Mexico's society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an unprecedented amount of families made the trek from Mexico to the United States in order to escape a period of time known as "La Decada Perdida," or The Lost Decade.  It was actually more than a decade, perhaps 15 or 20 years, which struck many countries throughout Latin America, which had borrowed enormous sums internationally to kick-start industrialization.  The loans, made by oil-rich countries, quickly skyrocketed exponentially in value; in 1982, Mexico announced that it had to default on its debt, which of  course ended loans to the country and caused an immediate financial crisis as infrastructure crumbled and social safety nets disintegrated.

The effects on Mexico's middle class (and the country in general) in particular was nothing short of catastrophic.  Wages dropped, unemployment skyrocketed, crime rates went up, and the very young and very old were left to fend for themselves without much, if any, state help.

By contrast, the United States was doing quite well in the Roaring `80s.  Many people in Mexico had started families thinking they would be able to provide for their children, and now were living in Depression-era conditions.  They looked around, looked at their young children, looked northward, and packed their bags and began the long trek back to the middle class and economic opportunities. Some stuck it out longer than others, hoping that perhaps signing NAFTA might help them individually.  When it became clear that it would likely not, they, too, went north.

At this time, the border was much more porous.  "Border security," as it is understood today, barely existed until the middle or later 1990s.  So these middle-class families settled into their new homes, raised their children, taught them the value of a good education and hard work, and went about trying to become Americans.

Some, the lucky ones, succeeded.  President Reagan's amnesty, in exchange for tougher immigration laws, helped those who were in the United States before 1986.  Others were caught between the cracks of bureaucracy.  They began to treat their undocumented status as a shameful issue, a kind of public nudity that could only be discussed in whispers.

Their children grew up American.  They knew nothing but American individualism, the entrepreneurial spirit and vibrant hopefulness that characterizes the United States at its best. They worked hard. They got educated.  They graduated from college.  They spoke Spanish at home but English everywhere else. Some of them knew they were undocumented; some didn't. Those who did know worked as hard as they could to file their papers and pay their fees to become citizens, but often were once again tied up in immigration bureaucracy. Some people have been waiting 25 years for an answer.

Now they are adults, ranging in age from 20 to about 40, and they are being deported in record numbers.  After they are "sent back" to a country of which they have very few memories, if indeed any at all, they have to deal with a whole new set of problems.  In border cities such as Tijuana, saying you are a deportee can cost you a job.  Their college degrees also need to be recertified, a process that takes time, costs money that people who have been deported don't have (being deported means you are only allowed to take whatever you have with you when you are processed and sent out of the country, which sometimes means no phone, no cash, nothing but the clothes on your back) and is incredibly frustrating (sometimes college graduates need to re-take up to 75 percent of their classes.)

Some, however, have prevailed, and are continuing to work for both immigration reform on the United States' side of the border and for a better infrastructure and more help for those who have already been deported, as there are very few social services for people in their position.  While the young and undocumented in the United States refer to themselves as DREAMers, after the DREAM Act, which would have offered them a clear path to citizenship, the deported people call themselves "Los Otros Dreamers" -- The Other Dreamers.  Their story, which I wrote for NPR's Latino USA, is here. 

You can also find more information on life as one of the Otros Dreamers at Nancy Landa's website, Mundo Citizen (she is one of the people featured in my story) or in the book Dreamers: One Generation's Struggle for the American Dream, by Eileen Truax, or in the upcoming photobook by Nin Solis and Jill Anderson, Los Otros Dreamers.

18 October 2013

Campamento Por Migrantes Deportados - Encampment for Deported Migrants, Tijuana, BC, Mexico

In early August, Mexico's government destroyed the encampments in Tijuana's riverbed after the notorious "El Bordo," where homeless people had been living for years, became international news.  A tent city soon sprang up nearby, in Tijuana's Plaza Constitucion, and has housed homeless migrants, largely deportees, since.

Of these deportees, almost 40 percent have lived in the United States for several years and identify as at least partly American; at least 5 percent identify as indigenous Mexican and speak very little Spanish; many need mental health care or addiction treatment, and nobody wants to be there. 

The encampment is administered by volunteers from Angeles Sin Fronteras, Angels Without Borders.  They offer food, a temporary place to stay, bathrooms and makeshift showers, and free haircuts to those looking for work. 

There are very few places that offer such services for the homeless and the "segun deportados," the twice deported, who have absolutely nowhere else to go. The ones that do exist subsist on very little support from the Mexican government.

Everywhere, handwritten signs are tacked up that read: "No militarizar la frontera" - Don't militarize the border.

12 September 2013

The Northwest Corner

Mexico's northwest corner is a neighborhood in Tijuana called Playas.  It is notable for its beautiful beaches, its American population, its seafood, and its wall.  La Fronteriza begins, or ends, here.

This is the border.  Once, both San Diego and Tijuana were seen as one region, and the two countries were only separated by a marker.  It still presides over the border, and the walls curve slightly to accommodate it.

After the marker came a threadbare barbed wire fence, and then a wall.  As the U.S.'s border becomes more militarized, it builds more barriers. Now at this particular shared corner of the countries, there are bars, a mesh fence, and a third fence, all of which end about a hundred yards into the ocean, crowned with a panopticon of security apparati.

Beneath this thicket of cameras and floodlights is a park.  Until 2009, you could go to Friendship Park and shake hands, hug, or share an international kiss through the bars.  Now there is barely enough space to press the tip of a finger through the fencing.  There is a system of gates by which transborder friends and families can walk into a common area and hug and hold one another under the watchful eyes of border agents, but more often than not, they remain closed.
"Here is where dreams become nightmares."

The American side of the wall is free of graffiti, but the less heavily supervised Mexican side is adorned with art, scrawled messages, and names of deportees.
A list of names of deported veterans of the United States military.
Beneath the cameras and floodlights and alongside the names,  the desperately scribbled messages and phone numbers, and protest art, stands one stark question on the rusty wall: ¿Estas de mi lado?

Are you on my side?

09 August 2013

Indigenous Peoples' Day

Chief Gary Harrison at the Matanuska Glacier, which has receded so quickly that grass has not had an opportunity to grow over the soil.
Today is the United Nations' Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a cabin in Chickaloon, Alaska, with its traditional Ahtna Athabascan chief, Gary Harrison. I had traveled there to ask him about whether Alaska's indigenous people – uniquely placed – have solutions to a climate that, in the Arctic, is changing more rapidly and dramatically than anywhere else in the world. 

The extreme weather changes are already creating the world's first "climate refugees," people left homeless when entire villages flood out or wash away.  Chief Gary, as he is called, says this is not surprising given how cavalier governments and corporations are about the world's environment.

"Look at the cumulative effect of all of these things going on," he says.  "Like the oil spills that they have out there that go basically unreported to the public, not only on these platforms but in the aging pipe systems that's crisscrossing the inlet, underneath the inlet and going to the old oil tank facility on the other side of the inlet to the now defunct refineries, and all of these leaky pipes... and you say that these things don't have a cumulative effect?"

Chickaloon is a remote and beautiful village, about a hundred miles from Anchorage. It is bounded by the Chickaloon River, which during the summer burbles merrily between homes and along the Glenn Highway. Salmon, moose, and bear are not just common sights, but essential food sources. The view of this part of Chickaloon is dominated by the majestic King Mountain, on which caribou, mountain goats, mink, and Dall sheep live and forage.
Most of the people here are Athabascan Natives, homesteaders, or both. Chief Gary Harrison grew up in Chickaloon and comes from a family of homesteaders. He speaks deliberately and passionately. His demeanor is quiet, even bookish. Yet what he says clearly communicates his passion for the land and his frustration at its abuses.

Harrison is fighting a proposed mine in Chickaloon. The majority of people in the village appear to oppose the mine, despite the promise of new jobs and infusions of cash and economic power similar to that which briefly made Chickaloon into an important stop on the Alaska Railroad. But Harrison says these are ephemeral benefits that come with a high cost.  First, he says, it will pollute at least three hundred drinking wells, which the company itself admits. And many of the people who lived there are horrified at the idea of building roads over and around the mountains, through King Mountain and Castle Mountain and the migration paths of the moose and sheep. 

"People who talk about 'clean coal,' that's an oxymoron," says Harrison, shaking his head. "There is no such thing as clean coal. And they say, 'well, it's cleaner than that.' Cleaner than what? Cleaner than coal from other places? Well, that's not saying much.

"And the fact of the matter is, they can try to clean it out of the air, it's still submitting CO2, and then they take the carbons, the sulfurs, and all of the other toxic waste that's in it, and they put it in the ground.... it then gets in the groundwater and it poisons entire cities."

Harrison is also fighting the same battle on a much larger front. He is, among other things, the representative of the Athabascan Nation to the United Nations and the Arctic Council.  Right now, mining is a major topic.

"At the Arctic Council, we're trying to make a treaty, or a binding agreement, on short-lived climate forcers, and one of the basic things in the short lived climate forcers is black carbon. Black carbon gets on the snow, it gets on the ice, and it melts it much faster every year than ever before."  He points to the Matanuska Glacier, which feeds the Chickaloon River, as an example of how quickly the climate is changing.  The glacier has been receding and melting so fast that it has left miles of black soil where ice once was, fertile soil that is so new that grass has not yet had a chance to grow in it.

Harrison says that as glaciers and sea ice crack and melt at an alarmingly rapid pace and the native flora and fauna die off, the only thing that can save the habitat now is traditional wisdom and ideologies, such as mutual respect, sharing resources, and looking out for the world instead of mere economic interests. The selfish people of the world made our world this way, he says, and it is up to the selfless ones to make things better.

El Bordo, today

(Click through for a larger picture)
Earlier this week, Tijuana police, aided by money from Mexico's government, razed homeless encampments up and down the part of the Tijuana River known as El Bordo, or "The Edge."  Today, dozens, like this man who was standing near a footbridge trying to get passersby to toss money down to him, have returned.  Many here are drug addicts; most are deportees from the United States, unceremoniously dumped in Tijuana regardless of their state of origin in Mexico.