It’s 5 a.m. and close to 90 degrees and humid. A fan shifts back and forth, cooling my feet but little else. I am sleeping in a hospital bed, in a ward with five other Jesuits. The bathroom adjacent to our room has semi-running water and a toilet, sans seat. An elderly man standing outside our room groans. He is hungry, but breakfast will be served at eight. Another resident comes to help him dress; he forgot to put on pants and underwear. A fellow Jesuit asks, “It can’t get much worse, right?”
Tapachula, Mexico, borders Guatemala. A place of transit, the town boasts two shelters for men, women and children migrating north. We are staying in a hospital for migrants who suffer illness or injury. Many are missing limbs, a leg or arm, sometimes both. Called the Albergue of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the Poor and the Migrant, the shelter welcomes us. We look out of place.
Ten days earlier our journey began in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The day I landed, a 26-year-old man, Alex, arrived at a nearby terminal on a flight paid for by the U.S. government. Alex is a retornado, a returned one, deported “home” to Honduras. He and 180 other deportees, mostly men, share similar stories. Alex lived in Los Angeles since age 13 and was most comfortable speaking English. Alex asked if I was from “I.C.E.”, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I answered in Spanish: I was in formation for the priesthood; we had come to learn about human migration, so that we could be of help. While Alex thought it “cool” that we were there, it was quite apparent that we could not help. They were on their own, given the equivalent of eight dollars and a bus ticket. Some would immediately try to return to the states; others would seek out extended family. Many, like Alex, were unsure what to do. Their wives, children, girlfriends live in the United States. These men, however, no longer did. Should they restart life in Honduras without them?
Of the migrant people from Latin America who attempt entry into the United States, 80 percent come from Honduras. The rest trickle in from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and even Ecuador. They travel through Mexico, and into one of several gateways: the desert of Sonora, or across the Rio Bravo, the nickname of the Rio Grande. Twenty percent of migrants are women; 20 percent are minors. A few travel with friends or family, some with a coyote, a person paid upward of $3,000 to assist them on the journey. If they do not make it across the first time, the price often covers a second or third attempt. However, the fee could be raised mid-transit; at times, paid guides abandon migrants.
Northern Mexico remains under the control of gangs and narcotraficantes, who capture the migrants and charge them another fee ($300 to $1,000) to enter and exit their territory. When they cannot pay, migrants are murdered or forced to carry drugs across the border. Such harassment comes after a grueling journey: walking, hitchhiking or jumping onto moving freight trains for hundreds of miles.
On the Migrant Path
The migrant journey is well documented. The route our group of Jesuits makes departs from Tapachula, to Arriaga, Ixtepec, Coatzacoalcos, Acayucan, Tierra Blanca, Puebla, Mexico City, Leon, Saltillo, Cuidad Juarez, ending in Nogales, Ariz. This is one of many routes that migrant peoples travel, depending upon which trains are running and their desired crossing point. Traveling in buses in better condition than Greyhound, we will have food, shelter, medical assistance, days of rest, prayer and moral support.
The migrants receive periodic food and shelter, but little rest. Prayer and moral support remains hard to come by, as is medical assistance if they fall off the train. Some will die along the way. Many will turn back. Robbery and abductions are common. Many women and some men suffer rape. No one makes the journey without serious reservations.
The risks remain high; the young are the most vulnerable. When young people in Central America make the decision to leave, they do so because they lack a future. If they die on the journey, they suffer no more than if they had stayed home. Violence and poverty plague their countries of origin. Everyone knows someone who has made it to the States. Can they make it too?
We leave Tapachula and the conditions worsen. In Arriaga, my companions sleep on the concrete floor of a kitchen. In Ixtepec, we sleep outside; there is no room at the inn. The railroad near Coatzacoalcos washes out in heavy rain, so the migrants walk eight days with blistered feet to Tierra Blanca. Our bus, delayed 12 hours and routed through a different city, breaks down. In Acayucan, two Jesuits fall ill. At midnight we arrive at the clinic for IVs. At 2 a.m. we depart, rehydrated. Our group separates: three travel to the Jesuit infirmary in Mexico City, the others stay in Tierra Blanca, greeting migrants with fresh clothes, warm food and an opportunity to shower.
The trip continues north. I become tried, cranky and angry. Angry that I’m tired, angry at living on someone else’s schedule. Angry that poverty and suffering exist.
In Saltillo, in northern Mexico, men arrive who we served in Arriaga and Tierra Blanca, far south. They’ve made it! I’m less angry now. I’m blessed. A cruel system that hurts people exists; but I see God overcoming it. I meet strong people filled with faith. God draws close. Our last night in Saltillo we celebrate Mass with 100 migrants. We thank them for sharing their stories and lives with us, for revealing God to us.
Then it’s time for karaoke. Every country represented sings a song: Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, the United States. I sing “Country Roads, Take Me Home” with another Jesuit. While the lyrics may have been lost on some, most people know a word or two of English. Home, a word we all understand, is a place we want, even when it means migrating to it from afar.