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One family’s ordeal

Unable to enter the United States and unwilling to return to El Salvador, the Yanes family waits in Mexico

One family’s ordeal

Migrants queue at a breakfast meeting point in Tijuana. (Omar Martinez/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

Kenny Yanes and his wife Ezequiel lived in a gang-infested, poverty-wrecked barrio in El Salvador. A full day’s labor in the fields earned them $7 each. “There’s no freedom,” Kenny told me. “The gangs watch every move you make. What kind of life is that? Forget about finding a job. Forget about living life. That alone should make anyone want to leave the country.”

But they stayed, because they’d heard horrific stories about the migrant’s journey to the United States. Throughout the years many Central Americans have headed north for a better life, and many have perished along the way. Drug cartels, bandits, and corrupt police extort, abuse, kidnap, rape, and murder migrants. Coyotes (smugglers) rob, abandon, or sell their clients to sex traffickers. 

Last October a Facebook page, since deleted, and a WhatsApp group, “Caravana Santa Ana,” mobilized Salvadorans to head 2,700 miles to the Promised Land together in a caravan. Migrant caravans provide safety in numbers: With big numbers come media attention and international scrutiny, which pushes authorities to behave and evildoers to look for victims elsewhere.

When Kenny and Ezequiel heard about the upcoming caravan, they stuffed two changes of clothes into a backpack and scraped up all their cash—about $80 in all. Together with Kenny’s nephew Alexis and Ezequiel’s cousin Marcos (they only gave their middle names, stating fear of harm from authorities), they showed up on Oct. 31, 2018, at the capital of El Salvador and joined 2,000 others. 

They began on foot: Most wore hats or draped T-shirts over their faces to keep the blazing rays away. They walked what seemed like endless miles, lying down when the sun set and continuing the journey when dawn broke.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

Migrants (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

A few days later, the caravan crossed the border to Guatemala, where the Yanes family hitched rides from passing vehicles. When they reached the Guatemala-Mexico border, the Guatemalan and Mexican police let them through to Chiapas. Throughout the trip, they relied on charity from local residents and priests. In some towns, people offered them tortillas, bread, snacks, and bottled water. In others, residents glared and slammed their doors. On those days, the Yaneses went hungry. 

Their caravan did not take the shorter, northeastern route to Texas, which crosses precarious, crime-ridden Mexican states. It took the longer but safer northwestern route to reach Tijuana, which has more shelters and nonprofit volunteers than any other border city and is adjacent to California, a “sanctuary state.” 

The Tijuana the Yanes family entered on Nov. 27 was a city already buckling under the burdens of housing thousands of migrants like the Yaneses. Ezequiel said she assumed when they reached Tijuana they’d breeze right through, just as they did at other border cities. Instead, “everything came to a halt,” Ezequiel said with a despondent smile: “I’m disillusioned.” 

Mexican officials put the migrants in an open-air sports complex close to the border, but rain created muddy swamps. Just after Thanksgiving, hundreds of frustrated people rushed the border, inciting Border Patrol guards to release tear gas. Officials then moved many migrants to a vacant nightclub 10 miles away from the border, but the Yanes family stayed behind in another shelter closer to the border, as did many others who refused to lose sight of their destination. 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Tents populate an overflowing sports complex where Central American migrants are sheltering in Tijuana, Mexico. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

When I met the Yaneses in early February, they were sharing a tiny room at Agape Mision Mundial, an evangelical church perched on the edge of a dusty hill that used to be a city dumpsite. When that church’s pastor, Alberto Rivera, found the family, they were living in dismal conditions, so Rivera invited them to stay in his church, which currently houses about 65 Central Americans, including three unaccompanied minors. Now the family lives in a tiny but warm room with concrete floors, a small desk, and a full-size bunk bed.

Sophia Lee

Alberto Rivera (Sophia Lee)

Kenny and Ezequiel are unsure about what to do. Now that their optimism has burst, fear and apprehension have oozed in. They don’t dare seek asylum from Mexico or the United States, fearing they’ll be targeted and deported. They don’t dare cross the border illegally. The idea of returning home fills them with dread. They feel stuck.

The Yanes family is better off than many others. In December, robbers killed two boys, ages 16 and 17, from Honduras after they left a youth shelter for another shelter. Pastor Rivera has met many unaccompanied children clutching tragic stories: “There is not one minor I’ve met who’s not going through some kind of emotional trauma of abandonment or abuse.” 

One 14-year-old boy from Honduras who came to Rivera’s church alienated everyone else by constantly stealing from them. Rivera understood the boy’s plight: He has no legal guardian and cannot legally work, which means he’s always fending for himself. Later, the boy befriended some young American activists: Rivera says they offered him marijuana, which is illegal in Mexico. 

Rivera showed me videos of the activists nonchalantly smoking inside their cars while police officers tried to convince the boy to return to the church. The boy crossed his arms and snarled, and when an officer leaned in, the boy kicked, screamed, tried to bite him, and pulled out a switchblade. “Poor boy,” Rivera said. “He’s scared. He needs special help. I tried my best to help the boy, but you can only help so much.” 

Kenny Yanes asked me, “What are the chances that the Trump administration will grant people like us asylum?” I told him, “Not good.” His expression remained the same, but the light in his eyes dimmed.


The lure of the North

As Kenny and Ezequiel Yanes wonder what to do next, cousin Marcos prowls the internet, rifling through conspiracy theories about the migrant caravans. Even the migrants themselves wonder who’s funding and profiting from the caravan movement: George Soros, the leftist billionaire philanthropist? Democrats? Republicans? Leaders of Honduras or Venezuela or Russia? 

Some human rights leaders say caravan organizers like Pueblo Sin Fronteras (aka People Without Borders) used migrants as pawns to promote their own political agendas. Pueblo, founded in Dallas, is not registered as a nonprofit. Migrants had already been moving in caravans for years, but Pueblo was the first to coordinate caravans large enough (one grew to 7,000 last October) to draw international attention. 

Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, who founded a shelter for Central American migrants in Oaxaca, Mexico, says Pueblo has “cheated” the migrants and “told them lies” about what to expect at the U.S. border, making it sound as if it’s easier to cross than it is. Solalinde, like many volunteers helping the migrants, has advised them to stay in Mexico and seek asylum instead.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Migrant rights activist Rev. Alejandro Solalinde (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Pueblo organizer Alex Mensing says such public censures have led to a series of death threats against him and other volunteers. He says Pueblo never promised anything or made decisions for the migrants: “We didn’t bring them here. We just accompanied them. … We say to them, ‘Look, this is how the [U.S. immigration] system works. It’s horrible. You’ll probably get detained, but if you still want to go, we’ll accompany you.’”

But when people are in such desperate situations, even a promise by eloquent American activists to accompany them can tip people toward a decision they might otherwise not make on their own. Pueblo planned the route to Tijuana, helped arrange transportation, and raised money online for shelter and food. It says the United States is responsible for the repressive systems in Central America. Last October, volunteers helped several hundred migrants illegally cross the river into Mexico on rafts. (I asked Mensing for Pueblo's financial information, and he said he would get back to me on it, but has yet to send it.)

The group also encourages migrants to confront government officials publicly. In November, Pueblo activists helped lead protests in Tijuana: During one of them, some migrants suddenly shoved their way past the police to jump the fence, prompting U.S. Border Patrol to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas. Pueblo says it advised people against such action, but can it convincingly claim innocence when it stirs a cauldron and the contents boil over?


Members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras march at a demonstration in Tijuana. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Last December, as it became clear that the United States is not softening border policies, Pueblo stopped organizing caravans and opened a migrant shelter on a rented alleyway between two buildings on the side of a shadeless hill. On the day I visited, some migrants were working odd jobs, some did chores, and a small group of men watched soap operas on a boxy TV. Bue tarp-covered tents sheltered 40 people (including six children) and dripped from the week’s continuous rain showers.

Sophia Lee

Temporary shelter for migrants (Sophia Lee)

Two women from Honduras cooked something with beans in a big pot. They rely on donations and usually have enough for two meals a day. Sometimes, all they eat is cooked rice. Both women said they’re on the waitlist to request asylum in the United States, and Mensing drops in often to update residents on the asylum waitlist.

Oscar Carcamo from Honduras, 25, was in charge of day-to-day maintenance. He is handsome with lean cheekbones and dark eyelashes, but his eyes are yellow, his lip split, and he looks tired and malnourished. He said he left his girlfriend and mother in order to look for work in the United States after years of getting robbed while selling produce on the streets. He tried to enter the United States illegally two years ago, but immigration authorities caught him and sent him back to Honduras. 

When Carcamo heard about the caravan last year, he decided to try again, even though he knew he would not gain asylum because of his previous deportation history. He’s heard that many churches in San Diego provide sanctuary for migrants, so he plans another illegal entry: “Tijuana was never my destination. The goal was always America.” 

Gregory Bull/AP

A man holds on to the border wall along the beach, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)

That’s a common sentiment among migrants who refuse asylum in Mexico, which frustrates some humanitarian volunteers. Yabes Manokaran, a Global Mission Fellows volunteer from South India, said the migrants “close their ears” to his advice to settle in Mexico: “They don’t want to listen to anything except the story of the American Dream.” —S.L.

—For more reporting from the border, see "An international emergency."

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Tue, 02/26/2019 02:08 am

    Excellent report Sophia with lots of great detail.  We are affiliated with a Baptist church in Tijuana that has the same name as your cat.  They have been assisting migrants from Central America in the barrios for decades.  They come to the border and get stuck.  They build shanty towns out of scraps of cardboard and wood.  The church provides assistance with food, medical, dental, clothing, computer education, a sewing center and so on.  But most importantly it provides hope in Christ.

  • VISTA48
    Posted: Tue, 02/26/2019 11:19 am

    The individual stories are heart-wrenching and endless, but the solution is not unchecked migration to the US. The latest numbers show 3.4 billion people around the world live in poverty with income less than $5.50/day. America's population is 320 million, which is less than the number to the right of the decimal point by 80 million. We just can not absorb all of that.

    On an airliner, they tell you that if you need oxygen, to put on your own mask first. You simply cannot help anyone else by allowing yourself to become incapacitated. We already have a huge and growing homeless population that needs to be addressed. That this whole thing has been politicized is shameful and counterproductive.