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Another Long Day’s Journey Into Night: The Other Side of Undocumented Migration into the US

2010 October 2
by Randa Tawil

It seems not much has changed in the last 100 years

Walking around the small town of Oaxaca, Mexico, one understands why this is truly a paradise for tourists and travelers. The quaint town, the amazing crafts of local artisans and the proximity to the ancient ruins of Monte Alban keep the streets humming with the sound of English, German, and French. The town is also, however, a central hub for a different sort of migration. Oaxaca has become one popular stop for Central Americans as they make the long, tiring, and life-threatening journey to the border of the United States. I have been living in Oaxaca for about a month now, studying Spanish and trying to wrap my mind around the reality of immigration from the other side of the border. As I make friends and participate in language exchange with people here (in hopes of improving my terribly broken Spanish) I am allowed an even closer look at what goes into the journey of people crossing the border undocumented. For me, the answer unlocks the door to the extreme violation of human rights and human dignity stretching across the North American continent in which the United States government participates, and the way in which ordinary people are trying to stop it.

Juan is a 30 year old Zapotec man living right outside of Oaxaca City, in Tula. He and I meet about twice a week to practice English and Spanish, but sometimes we lapse into speaking French (the only language between us that we both speak fluently). Juan got his degree in Computer Science at a University in Guanojuato, Mexico, and since then he has been working as a computer technician in Oaxaca, as well as teaching math at a local high school. He is also preparing to make his trip across the border undocumented. When I asked him why, he said it was because even with his degree, even with his job at the school, he couldn’t make enough money to live on in Oaxaca, and he wanted to get married soon. “If I can’t live on my salary, how will my children [be able to survive]? No, it’s better if I go, work for a little in construction, and then come back and start my own business with the money.” Juan is planning on leaving in a month. I am not sure what will happen to him. He may be robbed of everything along the way, or die in the desert trying to cross. It is estimated that 3600[i] people have died on American soil trying to cross the deserts and mountain regions that separate Mexico and the US in the last ten years. But he knows all of this, and it is a chance he says he is willing to take.

Nobody knows the risks to crossing the border better than my friend Abby. She works for an organization here in Oaxaca known as COMI (Centro de Orientation del Migrante).  COMI is part of a string of sanctuaries running through Mexico and the United States that offer food, shelter, and advice for the men and women who are making the trip across the border. Every day, tired migrants trickle into the shelter to share their stories and talk with other people who are making the journey. Set up like stops on the Underground Railroad, each shelter points the way to other shelters, which start in Chiapas and run up to the border towns of Mexico through Texas and Arizona. Abby has been working in the Oaxaca branch for months now, meeting migrants and taking their information before they continue on their journey. Because migrants are often unidentifiable when discovered in the desert (wearing no identifying markers or eaten by vultures) their families may never know what happens to them after they say goodbye in their home country. COMI records migrants’ information and dental records, so if they do die, COMI can at least notify the families. COMI runs an alburgue (shelter), which offers the migrants rest, shelter and work for three days. Even though the migrants are tired, they take the opportunity to work because most have already been robbed of their possessions on their way to Oaxaca.

COMI also offers much needed advice to the migrants. A map on the wall indicates places that the migrants should avoid on the journey. COMI also informs the migrants that it can take up to 6 days to cross the desert, not the 3 days that their coyotes (guides) advise. “It will take 3 days if you are walking all day and all night, but most people can’t do that. They can only walk at night. So people only bring enough water for 3 days, and then they end up dying of dehydration.” This information is just one piece of advice COMI gives. “We also tell people that when they are traveling through Mexico, they should blend in,” says Abby. “Migrants are so easy to spot. Sneakers, jeans, and a backpack. If they have a name that is too indicative of El Salvador, we tell them to change it to something more Mexican. We also tell them to carry a loaf of bread with them when they are on the buses. So they look like they are just on an errand or something.”

COMI is a religious organization, and this has come in very handy as similar migrant shelters spring up across the US. “Because we are religious, we can give sanctuary to the travelers.” When I asked Abby if her own religion comes into play in her work, she became pensive. “I am not a practicing Christian, but something Dorothy Day [a Christian theologian] said really stuck with me. She said that she always welcomed people into her home because anyone could be Jesus Christ. For me, I believe that there is a piece of divine in everyone. We are all connected by that.” Respecting that divinity by acknowledging migrant’s human dignity is what keeps Abby at her job.

And in truth there is little human dignity on the journey to the US. People must leave their families, often mortgage everything they have in order to get the money (usually about $2-5,000) to pay first for a lodrones (boatman) to help them cross the border to Mexico, then to pay for a coyote (guide) to help them across the border to the US.  These men are often unscrupulous, and can rob the migrants of all their belongings before they even make it through Mexico. Women crossing have been told to go on birth control before they begin their journey, because they will inevitably be raped by the men they are paying to help them cross.[ii] If the migrants do make it across the border, they then walk through the desert for days, and are often left behind to fend for themselves if they can’t keep up with the group. United States citizens who see these migrants, helpless and often near death, are prohibited to help them under the pretense of harboring an illegal alien. This type of horror and suffering can only lead a conscionable person to ask the question: why?

Why people literally risk their life to cross the border every day, and why the US government ignores this humanitarian crisis along its borders, and promotes continuous anti-immigrant sentiment among laymen and political pundits is a direct result of the greed of US big business. NAFTA agreements have made it impossible for Mexicans and other Central Americans to compete with American mechanized farm production. A region and culture that once was centered around the production of corn now cannot compete with US mechanized corn farmers. Abby claims that every person who comes through her office says the only reason they are making the trip across the border is because they cannot feed their children.  Poverty, however, is not recognized as a reason to grant refugee status in the United States, even poverty that is a direct result of US involvement in the region. US involvement with coups and puppet regimes in Latin American countries such as El Salvador has led to bloody civil wars, but refugee status again not granted because these governments were US backed.

I remember last year I worked in an extremely fancy restaurant in DC. Most of my coworkers were from El Salvador, and talked of how they fled the gruesome civil war so they could seek safety for their families. One of our regular customers was a former advisor to Reagan. I cringe when I think about my fellow El Salvadorian coworkers, serving a man who directly forced them to flee their country, hoping to get a %15 tip for their troubles.

Immigration to the US is a far simpler issue than the people of the United States care to understand. Are immigrants stealing our jobs? No. Most economists agree that as service sector jobs increase, there is a need in the US for low-skilled workers to fill them. A study at Harvard and a study at UC Berkely both indicate that undocumented immigrants have no negative impact on US wages.[iii] Are immigrants using up our resources? No. Again, most economists agree that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take in resources. Is the way that our government deals with these undocumented immigrants inhumane, undignified, and based on racism that time and time again groups in our country have had to overcome? Yes. It really is that simple.


[i] De La Torre, Miguel. Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration. ( Orbis Books, New York: 2009) 15.

[ii] Watson, Julie. “Boston Globe” April 28 2006

[iii] De La Torre 76

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