“They told me: if you do not join us in three days, we’re going to start killing your whole family. We’re going to cut them up and we’re going to send them in bags.” It was that phrase that, when he remembered it, broke his voice and pushed the tears out from his eyes. Juan Carlos, as we will call him for his safety, is only 15 years old. However, at his young age he has already traveled through two countries, on foot, and with only the clothes he has been wearing for the last 3 months.
Watch Juan Carlos tell his story (turn on CC for subtitles):
Juan Carlos had to flee El Salvador during the night with his whole family, leaving everything behind. His home was located exactly in the middle of two gang territories. “If I walked to one side I was in the territory of Mara 13, and if I went to the other side it was in Mara 18,” he said.
Juan Carlos was brutally beaten in the face with bats and kicked by several members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang after refusing to sell drugs and join the gang. “I remember that when they hit me here, I saw little stars. I lost consciousness, but when I could, I just ran,” he said as he pointed to his scarred face. He, his mother, his sister, and his niece, left El Salvador together. They walked, crossing Guatemala and then Mexico. It was a lonely start, between empty roads, sleeping in parks or riding on “the Beast”, the train that has claimed more immigrant lives than any other. That is why, both for Juan Carlos and for other migrants, meeting the caravan represented a new light of hope.
Juan Carlos is part of the migrant caravan that has for weeks been approaching the U.S.-Mexico border, the caravan that Trump has been ranting about and the impetus for the Administration wanting to send the National Guard to the border. Juan Carlos is just one of the more than 1,200 migrants who started the journey with the caravan in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico. Together, they traveled across Mexico in what is now known as El Viacrucis Migrante, or “Migrant Caravan”, which stopped in Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, and Guadalajara, and culminated in Tijuana. Of the original 1,200, only 350 decided to continue to the northern border of Mexico.
Juan Carlos was not only traveling with migrants; his fear accompanied him and his family all the way to the border with the United States. There were days and nights when he was afraid that the shadows would find him and his family and end their lives. “There is no difference between Mexico and El Salvador,” he said. “They are going to look for me; they are going to kill me and they are going to kill my family.”
According to him, the shelters of Mexico cannot offer him enough protection. That is why Juan is looking for asylum, which will give him security for his family — which he believes can only be found in the United States. “We are only one step away from being able to reach the United States,” he said. “We just want an opportunity to be free from this fear.”
In Tijuana, dozens of volunteers from the United States gathered to attend to the Migrant Caravan. Among them were some Nevadans who decided on their own to travel to assist the group of migrants, consisting mainly of Hondurans and Salvadorans, as well as some Guatemalans. Volunteers included lawyers informing migrants of their rights to people who entertained the more than 100 children who are part of the caravan. Many of these migrants do not have the necessary tools or documentation to present their case before a judge. Helping them is the mission of experts in the legal field.
March towards the border
But these migrants have not yet reached their goal — the U.S.-Mexico border — which they decided to arrive at on Sunday, April 29. Around 3:30 pm, the members of the caravan got up, formed a line, and began to walk towards the border crossing. Through tears, songs, silences, and some smiles, they advanced towards “El Chaparra”, the nearest border entrance, about 20 minutes from where they spent their last night indoors.
The tired families were informed by Mexican authorities that the U.S. would not receive them because they were already “at capacity.”
That argument has been highly criticized by organizations within the United States. “This administration has all the tools and resources to address this humanitarian situation. Instead of running from it, it should uphold the rule of law, apply it to this group, and appropriately ferret legitimate claims of asylum, as required under the law,” said Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice.
“We are a nation founded by refugees seeking religious freedom. We must continue to uphold the rule of law that values life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must do so not only in words but in actions, as required here.”
However, for these migrants, if 3,600 kilometers were not enough to stop them, neither will a “no” coming just 50 meters from their destination.
Camping meters from the border
After a group discussion, the caravan decided that they will not move from there until the United States government listens to their stories and understands that their fear is real. The group of the first 50 migrants advanced to the border crossing around 4:30 pm Sunday. Meanwhile, another part of the caravan, consisting of about 100 people — mainly mothers, children, and unaccompanied minors — camped out in the cold weather of Tijuana. “Here we are going to stay, because we have the right to request asylum,” said Irineo Mujica, one of the leaders of the caravan.
The wait between fear and anxiety
Days have passed and hundreds are still waiting to be processed. But the wait is full of mixed feelings, between anxiety for their story to be heard, and fear of separation from families. Each of the migrants, during processing, will be asked if they are afraid to return to their home countries. Then they will face an agent who will give them a “credible fear” interview where they have to demonstrate that their fear is real. After passing this interview, they will be placed in detention centers where they could spend weeks, if not months, as their case proceeds and they see an immigration judge. Hopefully, mothers and children will be placed in family detention centers together. But if they do not have space, the children will be sent to a home and the mothers placed in a center for women. Some may be placed on probation with an ankle bracelet. But the reality is that none of the migrants know whether the path to freedom has come to an end — or whether it has just begun “on the other side.”
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