This is Part II of a series I’m writing about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about who may choose to immigrate and why, and some of the difficulties of the journey itself.
A wide range of people cross the border, but in general for different reasons. Often times fathers leave to support their families for the promise to earn a higher income. Machismo culture can place pressure on men to cross the border as a proof of manhood and rite of passage of sorts. Leaving to support one’s family can be seen as a sign of responsibility. Often this decision is made in the face of extreme poverty. People who are indigenous often endure discrimination and suffer this poverty the most- for example, the people of Chiapas, a region in the south of Mexico that is responsible for the production of many raw materials important in the Mexican economy. However, since the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), in the early 1990’s, conditions have steadily gotten worse in many areas. One of the many negative effects of this agreement was to drive down the price of United States corn that was exported to Mexico, leaving the small farms (often run by people who were indigenous) unable to compete. With the loss of their farms and livelihoods, many farmers have sought work elsewhere, especially the United States.
Another effect of NAFTA has been the explosion of maquiladoras along the US- Mexico border. Largely owned by American companies, these factories are famous for their low wages and hazardous working conditions. For example, many of the products manufactured produce radioactive waste as a byproduct, causing elevated rates of cancer and other diseases. Another horrific consequence is the increased rate of the anencephaly, a condition in which a baby is born without a full brain. Largely staffed by women, these employees routinely encounter sexual abuse from their employers and can be fired for pregnancy. However, these conditions can flourish because NAFTA created a zone along the border where there are lower levels of regulation and tax benefits for American companies to manufacture products. This has also promoted the creation of a border culture in which people routinely cross back and forth between the United Stated and Mexico as a matter of course.
Sometimes the mother and father make the decision to come to the United Stated together, and leave the children behind with other relatives or friends to care for them while the parents support them from afar. The thought process behind this can be that the money will go farther in one’s native country, and so although there is separation, the parents can allow the children to build a better life for themselves in the land they left behind. However, for many reasons, the parents may decide later on to bring the children to the United States. This can be a very stressful and even terrifying experience, because the parents cannot accompany their children on the journey. They must rely on coyotes, who if they are unethical, may physically or sexually abuse their children, abandon them, or hold them for ransom.
There has been a huge increase in the number of children who have been crossing the border, much of the reason being the rise of violence in Latin America, largely related to drug cartels. (These cartels rely heavily on income and arms from the United States). There is often strong recruitment pressure on the children to join the cartels, who may use them as soldiers against an institutionalized army. If the children refuse, they or their families may face horrible repercussions. So many choose to leave, and might even make the journey without help from a parent or guardian. The children may also be stopped by border patrol, which to be honest isn’t much better, and may lead to a worse fate for them.
Violence has been historically been a strong motivator for migration. This past century was one of widespread genocide in Latin America, largely fueled by CIA engineered coups. For example, hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans were horrifically and systematically killed in Guatemala in the 1980s, which drove many to seek refuge elsewhere, including the United States, which then in turn rejected them. The economic and cultural devastation that this genocide wrought still affects the country today, and has in many ways enabled the growth of the drug cartels that drive so many to try to escape.
What is the journey like?
The journey to the United States has never been an easy one. It is probably impossible to be honest for me to convey just how tortuous and inhumane the conditions really are. However, US policy changes in the early 2000’s made it even more so. In an attempt to “deter” migrants from crossing to the United States, the border patrol began heavily patrolling all but the most dangerous migration routes. These remaining routes are largely in the desert, where migrants must cross on foot through blinding heat. This is very painful, and unsurprisingly, death by heatstroke is extremely common. Sometimes, migrants cross by riding La Bestia, or on top of a train. Obviously, this is extremely hazardous, and the risk of death or serious injury is very high. In towns such as Pima County, Arizona, the number of deaths has spiked so drastically in recent years that the medical examiner had to construct a second cooler just to store the bodies, and organizations such as the Colibri Center are dedicated to identifying the remains of the dead. These include men, women, and children.