IXTEPEC, MEXICO | At a shelter in this small municipality in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, psychologist Miguel Gil Reyes gathers a group of new arrivals to share information on services available for them here and at various points across the nation.
“I’m in charge of listening to people,” he tells the group of about 25 mostly men and a handful of women. “Do you know what psychologists are good for?”
“For the crazies,” shouts one of the newcomers, causing a burst of unexpected laughter.
“No, it’s not for crazies,” Reyes says with a chuckle. “In fact, from my experience, the ones who say things like that are the ones who need it most.
“We’ve got all sorts of situations here,” he says with a more serious tone. “Some come eluding violence from their countries. Others have huge debts. Others flee to try to help their children; they leave their jobs, wife and families behind. That is tough. You get here and don’t know when you are going to get to your destination, where you are going to cross, if you have any support.
“Shelters like this one are on that huge map hanging over there,” he says, pointing to a map of Mexico dotted with some 50 shelters across the nation and along the U.S.-Mexico border. “They look like little houses so you can easily locate them.”
Collectively known as casas para migrantes, houses for migrants, the shelters are places where those in transit to the United States can find relief by way of food, beds, showers or even medical care. The people who offer the services, like Reyes, don’t make a profit at the hands of immigrants but rather are on a mission to help.
Like the Underground Railroad of another era, the route across Central America to the U.S. is paved with Samaritans with ties to charitable, religious or non-governmental organizations that assist those who have fled their homelands and risked their health or their lives for a shot at a new start in America.
“I am glad to help them even with their most basic of needs,” said Irineo Mujica Arzate, 45, who often finds himself crouched down gently scrapping blisters off the feet of migrants whose soles turn into a web of sores from days of walking. “What we are doing is providing humanitarian aid. Migrants have rights, too: human rights.”
Mujica Arzate, who learned how to heal foot wounds by working alongside physicians from Doctors Without Borders, is one of the founders of the Centro de Ayuda Humanitaria in Chahuites, a town known for mango production that is closer to the Guatemala border.
“The migrant route is hard and Chahuites can be very violent,” he said. “When someone is hurting, you do what you can. The need is what brought us here.”
Mexico has long served as a migrant path to the United States. But a massive surge in the number of illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border — including a record 68,000 unaccompanied minors — was deemed a crisis last year.
While the number of undocumented migrants crossing the border has slowed significantly, the overall flow of people from across Central America, and now Cuba, continues and the potential for another crisis is looming.
A big reason Central American migrants aren’t reaching the U.S. border is that Mexico agreed to crack down by increasing the number immigration agents patrolling the train tracks and prohibiting migrants from piling onto cargo trains known as La Bestia to make the journey.
The so-called Plan Frontera Sur, or Southern Border Plan, was implemented over the summer and is supported by millions of dollars in U.S. funds. Hundreds are now making the trek by foot, opening the door to a whole new set of problems, including an uptick in robberies, beatings, rapes and even death along the route. A journey that would take days by train can now take more than a month.
Activists say that before Plan Frontera Sur took effect, about 40 percent of migrants coming through the shelters reported assault and robberies. Now, nearly everyone has either been a victim or witnessed a crime. The violence comes not only from thugs, but also from authorities who shake down the migrants. They use tasers, demand bribes and beat those who refuse.
“Now to see a uniform, for these migrants, it means to run,” said Reyes, the psychologist. “Now they are twice as vulnerable.”
Sexual assaults against women, and some men, has become so prevalent, activists say a patch of land along the migrant route in Chahuites has become known as a “trophy site” where the aggressors have taken to hanging underwear belonging to rape victims.
Instead of moving through Mexico, many migrants are now staying for days, weeks or months awaiting humanitarian visas that allows them to continue to travel toward the U.S.-Mexico border. The visas can take as long as six months to obtain, creating a new dynamic at some shelters.
The Hermanos en el Camino shelter in Ixtepec, for example, is meant for 50 people. But some 200 crowd the place, giving it the feel of a penitentiary. Some sleep on bare mattresses or hammocks hanging outdoors. Pop-up tents are set aside for fathers like Marbin Oviedo, 25, who are traveling alone with their children.
“The truth is, I want to cross,” said a visibly depressed Oviedo, as he fed his two children, Justin, 4, and Katarin, 2.
“Their mother abandoned us. She got into drugs and left the kids to me. I couldn’t afford to take care of them in Honduras. There are no jobs there. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
A nun who volunteers at the 4-year-old shelter said every day brings something new: “Things are happening in rooms that should not be happening. We have to be on the constant lookout.”
But what’s most important is maintaining a willingness to serve, she said.
“Knowing that the people coming here are tired, exhausted, resentful, wounded, this shelter is a place to find like a Samaritan who can provide a healing lotion of compassion, mercy, attention to a vulnerable brother who was wounded on the trail, abused, violated of his rights,” said the nun who did not want to be identified. “As sisters and voluntary teams that is our purpose: to serve and help in the manner of Jesus.”
For those traveling through Mexico, the shelters have become a lifeline.
“Without the shelters, the truth is I don’t know how we immigrants would survive,” said Honduras native Marilyn Barahona, 26, who left Tegucigalpa in mid-October with her husband and two boys, Leonardo, 8, and Douglas, 3. “People here in Mexico look down on you simply for being an immigrant.”
The family stayed at two other shelters along the way before reaching Ixtepec, where they were waiting for humanitarian visas.
“We were almost killed on the trail,” Barahona said. “They said they were gang members and that they would kill us further along the route if we did not pay $100 per person, something we did not have. They had a gun and a machete. Thank God another group of young men showed up to help us.
“When I first came into the shelter, it was overwhelming to see so many people, a bit frightening,” she said. “But you adjust. Thankfully, we don’t lack for food and we have a roof over our heads. The truth is that it is a very good thing these shelters exist here. Otherwise, I don’t know how we’d survive.”
Barahona is well aware that getting into the United States will not be easy especially since it has become such a volatile issue in the midst of presidential campaign. But she does not regret fleeing her country.
“If I had stayed, they would have killed me. And at least here I have life. And I’m fighting. What I hope is that God will open the doors for me. I don’t know how but, for God, nothing is impossible,” said Barahona, who hopes to join her mother in Texas. “I want to get to the United States and build a future with my children, to have my children grow up to be someone in life. In Honduras, they have no future. Honduras is a very dangerous country that is ruled by gangs. And, unfortunately, the president we have is no good.”
Asked what message she would give the next U.S. president, Barahona broke down in tears as she uttered these words: “Put a hand over the heart because the United States is practically filled with Latinos. Americans will not do what we do, wash bathrooms, wash dishes. We are useful. Place a hand over the heart. Look at all the suffering we go through.
“It is a horrible thing to take your children on a journey that you don’t know what will happen,” she said. “To watch your child have to drink water from a puddle, my children had to do that. When your children cry because they are being drenched by rain or burned by the sun, they [those who are anti-immigration] do not look at that. But they must put a hand over their heart. We honestly do not leave our countries because we want to but because of the crime and violence. My country is, well, what can I say? Those are my words.”
For those who make it further into the interior of Mexico, the journey does not get easier.
At a shelter in Huehuetoca, about halfway across the migrant route, Doctors Without Borders social workers Anabel Cordova and Esmeralda Cisneros try to encourage a group of 14 young men to take it easy, to talk if they feel sad, anxious or scared and to take advantage of the dental and medical services available.
“There is no better medicine than rest,” says Cisneros.
They also warn about the dangers of traveling by foot and by train and show the migrant route map, making it clear that the next train stop is about a four-hour walk. Even though authorities have cracked down on train rides, many still hop aboard to try to get to the U.S.-Mexico border faster.
The social workers share information about other shelters along the route that offer food, beds and medical care and tell them about the cost of bus fares and the importance of staying hydrated.
One young man wants to know just how tough immigration agents are from one point to another.
“We can’t tell you where the dangers are,” says Cisneros. “It could be anywhere, anytime. That’s why you need to take precautions.
“Sleep as much as possible,” Cordova says. “You must have a lot of patience. The journey is long.”
Mujica Arzate, the foot healer, has been serving the migrant community in Chahuites for about two years. When he’s not in Mexico, he drives tour buses in Phoenix, Arizona to help pay the bills that keep the center open.
“I’m an immigrant in the U.S.,” he said. “I’ve witnessed a lot of racism and no one deserves that.
“There are two laws: the law of God and the law of man,” Mujica Arzate said. “The law of God is above the law of man. I have to respond to the lord. And it is not against the law to provide humanitarian help.”
At the small municipality of Bojay in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, a white stucco house sits just a few steps from the train tracks.
The house, which opened three years ago, used to be filled with migrants who climbed off the trains for a hot meal and shower before continuing their journey north toward the U.S. The trains aren’t packed with migrants anymore but they still come through the El Samaritano — as many as 1,200 per month, said Sister Rosa Bogado, who helps run the shelter.
“We have been criticized. People say, ‘Why do you maintain the vagabonds, the bandits, those who have nothing to do when there are so many needs in Mexico, so many abandoned children?’” Sister Bogado said. “I tell them, ‘while we take care of the migrants, you take care of the children.’ I believe it is part of human nature to help...From the moment we were born in this the world somebody gave us a hand. So from that moment on, it is our duty to extend a hand to others.”
Bogado said migrants from all walks of life have passed through the shelter.
“We’ve had everything come through here,” she said. “People hit hard, suffering. From the moment they leave their homeland it’s complicated. But we’ve also had people who, despite everything, have believed and continue to believe that if they get to another place, things will be better. They harbor this idea of a promised land.”
“Will migration slow down? I don’t think so, not much. We will be here until the last migrant passes through.”
Borges said the U.S. can put up all sorts of barriers, but it will not keep migrants out.
“They forget that we are thinking beings,” she said. “The more barriers they put up, the more we think of solutions to get through. They can put up barriers and maybe I won’t pass on that day. But I will try again and again and again. The only time I will no longer attempt to get through is if I get killed along the way.”
Special thanks to Doctors Without Borders for providing access to some of its programs along the migrant route in Mexico. Some of the photos in this report were taken during a previous trip with the organization.
WLRN's reporting for Migration Marathon was made possible by MBAF.