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By geographical misfortune, Central America’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—is the passageway for drug shipments between Colombia and the U.S. market. Together with grinding poverty and political corruption, the drug empires have corroded the Central American society and economy.
Honduras and El Salvador have the highest murder rates of any country in the world. Guatemala and Belize aren’t far behind. They have incompetent politicians, oppressive military governance, and vicious gangs that terrorize neighorhoods. Education levels are dismal. Jobs are scarce. Wages are low. Crime and addiction are rampant.
Meanwhile, their image of the United States twinkles with mythical possibilities. They see on TV Manhattan’s glittering skyscrapers and the beautiful mansions of Beverly Hills. They see opportunities they’d never procure in their own homeland. Victims of oppression and injustice in their motherlands, some head north—only to become easy prey to greed and cruelty on their journeys.
Many who join caravans for safety and protection once again become victims—victims of political agendas and theatrics by activists and politicians, of indifference and mischaracterization from people who fear or despise them, of disillusion and despair when they realize they’ve left a horrible situation for a horribly ambiguous situation.
The truth, they quickly realize, is the United States does not want them. Both the Obama and the Trump administrations have tried to use Mexico as a barrier, but that hasn’t worked. Now, President Donald Trump describes the migrants as “invaders” and “criminals” and has declared a national emergency to funnel billions of dollars to build the wall he promised but Congress blocked.
He has also made it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum: Traditionally, U.S. policy has allowed asylum-seekers to stay in America while awaiting their court hearing. But starting on Jan. 25, through a new policy dubbed “Remain in Mexico,” the Trump administration now requires asylum-seekers, mainly from Central America, to remain in Mexico while the United States processes their legal proceedings, which could take months and years.
And yet, Mexico also does not want these migrants and has been unwilling to invest in basic aid for them. A November 2018 newspaper poll found 7 in 10 Mexicans saying the migrants will increase crime and steal jobs from them.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has offered temporary work permits and asylum to these migrants—a sharp departure from Mexico’s previously harsh approach—but resources are still scarce.
Regardless of whether the United States faces a national emergency, Tijuana, a border city south of San Diego, faces a local one. Floods of migrants overfill shelters to the point where previous occupants—mostly Mexican deportees from America—have had to move out into tent cities. Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum has declared a humanitarian crisis, and many Tijuana residents are also fed up with foreigners camping on their streets. They blame the “bums” for affecting their economy and increasing crime.
And evangelical Pastor Alberto Rivera faces a church crisis. He didn’t plan to make Agape Mision Mundial, where he has pastored since 1999, a shelter. He wanted caravan arrivers to find a decent shelter elsewhere, but he allowed a family of six to sleep in his church last October. When they asked if other family members could come, Rivera said yes, and suddenly about 20 people showed up. Later, when officials shut down a warehouse-turned-shelter, 70 occupants were left without a place to go, so Rivera took them in as well.
Rivera quickly realized his church facility was unprepared to house so many people—they were all sharing one restroom and sleeping hip-to-hip on the floor with no beds or hot water. Churches and individuals, mostly American, sent donations, which Rivera used to build more rooms and restrooms with showers and to buy bunk beds and Lenovo laptops so guests can go online and contact their families back home.
The church now provides three hot meals a day. Local businesses pop in to offer day jobs—washing cars, mechanic work, masonry. To keep spirits alive, Rivera sometimes takes the migrants out to get fresh air at the park or the beach. Some of them began calling him “Papi” or “Abba”—Dad.
On a cold February night I sat with Rivera in the church kitchen, which smelled of bitter coffee and chicken soup. Babies wailed, kids ran around, and dinner conversations rumbled around us. It sounded and looked like a normal communal dinner at a Tijuana village, except nothing was normal.
Rivera sees that the longer people languish in shelters, the more dejected and lifeless they become. At El Barretal, a nightclub-turned-shelter, about 2,000 people were living in tents, eating food served from a military-style kitchen, and catching skin ailments such as rashes, lesions, and lice. By the time I visited, most of the 2,000 residents had already left, having either crossed the border or found jobs and rental units.
Of those remaining at the shelter, half of them had lost all motivation to live on, said Marlo Medina de la Torre, a National Institute of Migration officer: “They do nothing all day. They have no plans to work, no plans to apply for asylum or work permits, nothing.” In effect, they’ve given up on life. In late January, officials closed down that shelter. Where did the rest of the people go? Nobody knows.
A blurry future
Fifteen-year-old Milagro de Jesus from El Salvador joined a caravan on Oct. 13, 2018, in Tapachula, Mexico, a city by the Guatemalan-Mexican border. Her 14-year-old sister, Xiomara, came with her. Both girls are petite beauties with large eyes and full lips. They said they felt unsafe back home, so they took the bus to Mexico, where a two-month relationship with a local man left Milagro pregnant.
When I spoke with her, Milagro was five months pregnant and bedridden after her long journey. She shares a bed in Rivera’s church with her new boyfriend, an 18-year-old Honduran whom she met two months ago at a shelter in Tijuana. Her mother is still in El Salvador, while her father had crossed illegally to Los Angeles six months ago. Her future is blurry: She has no plans to contact her father, no plans to go to school, no plans to go to America or return to her home country. She just wants a stable life, she said. But with a baby on the way, where, and how?
—For more reporting from the border, see "One family's ordeal."