“We are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship,” stated President Barack Obama (USA) in his November 2014 speech to the U.S. American citizens about his plan on immigration. The border between the United States and Mexico stretches 3,145 kilometres (1,954 miles), from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. In some places, only a sign or a fence mark the border. In other places, it is reinforced with barbed wire or tall steel barriers that separate the two nations. Immigration to the U.S.A. has been unavoidable for years, especially at the U.S.A./Mexico Border. Migrants travel from as far as Central America at a chance at their “American Dream” risking everything they have and walking up to 12 or more days through the desert.
Aspects of the journey are typically individually depicted, however, not much is known about the journey to the United States itself from migrants and what they encounter on their journey. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico at a migrant centre and then common themes were classified afterwards. The interviews were conducted with seven participants including four men and three women from the nearby shelter and participants of the migrant centre. In addition, the migrant centre’s volunteer coordinator was also interviewed to gain a perspective on the changes and shifts in immigration and to identify new challenges that migrants face on their journey to the U.S.A.
The Migrant Resource Center’s primary purpose is to provide assistance to those who have been recently deported or those migrants that are in transit to the U.S.A. by providing basic human needs, medical care, human rights violations and meals. The Migrant Resource Center as well provides orientation and information about the dangers of crossing the border. The purpose of orienting migrants is to inform them about their options so that they can make an educated decision about but not force them towards crossing the border illegally or not. The Migrant Resource Center’s Volunteer Coordinator explained the importance of the organisation and their presence for migrants that are in transit to the U.S.A.:
Their safety [is important]. We are at the border, there is a lot of smuggling of drugs, so we just worry about them, especially women and children [they] are vulnerable. That’s why we provide these resources for them- the shelters just in case they want to use it. Since they don’t have any money, these shelters are very safe. (Translated by author)
The reality is that migrants are unprepared for their journey. The migrants underestimate their journey and put too much faith into the hands of their “Coyotes” or human smugglers. The “Coyotes” are notorious for lying, abandoning migrants, overcharging and causing even more trouble for migrants. Over the course of the interviews with the migrants, there were three common new themes that were discovered. The old themes that had been aware of at the border included organised crime in paying the human smuggler, kidnapping, rape, and violence.
The slang word for human smugglers amongst the migrants include “Coyote” and “Pollero (poultry dealer)” referring to the action of illegal human smuggler. Jamie shares that there are disadvantages to paying less for a “Coyote” which Jamie discovered is not knowing if the intention to help the migrants get to their final destination is there or not. Jamie paid for a cheaper “Coyote” because of a lack of funds and felt like he had been betrayed because he was a friend of his that was working with the mafia and assisting in trafficking drugs illegally to the U.S.A. The mafia is referred to by migrants and most people in Latin America to their human smugglers and often, those human smugglers are also involved in organised crime such as with the drug cartel. In relation to his journey and his friend he said:
This time I think he is, because he told me he wasn’t working with people anymore, that he was only with drugs but that he was still going to help us. And since I know the path, I told him I only needed help with the mafia and I could take the rest, but he played us really bad…We all had a bad time. The fact that I didn’t have any money made me choose a cheap “Coyote”. He told me I could pay him later there (U.S.A.) with work…He said you pay me there—they even got me boots and clothing. I thought they were doing that because he was my friend and I thought that everything was going to be fine, but no.
A journey would take a migrant a few days at the most fifteen years ago, however, with the increasing border changes, migrants are being forced to push themselves to the extreme when crossing the desert walking up to 12 days or more at a time. After being paid less for his work at a family business and hearing about the potential to earn money in the U.S.A. Manuel set off with his sister, Nancy, to travel to the U.S.A.. Manuel recalls his experience through the desert, reflecting on the struggles he dealt with:
We were dehydrated and only being guided through the phone is also very difficult because we didn’t know the area. Guiding us one way and then sending us to the other. Sometimes, we would get lost, then we would call and from there, he would guide us.
Manuel’s narrative shows how much the border has changed. “Coyote’s” are deceiving migrants by convincing them they’ll guide them through the desert only to leave them alone in the desert to guide their way solo to the safe house.
The Mafia and the Dangers of the Journey
Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred in the last five years is the “quota” or the code and fee that is required to pass on behalf of the mafia. Migrants are now faced with paying a fee otherwise known as the “quota” that they must pay in order to pass through the desert. Jamie has been crossing back and forth into the U.S.A. for several years. Most recently, he was trying to return to the U.S.A. after going to Mexico to see his sick mother. Jamie reflects on his experience when he first crossed the border in 2004 versus recently crossing:
The first time in 2004, we arrived and we didn’t have to pay, there was no mafia, there was nothing. Some people used to pass drugs, but back then the famous ‘quota’ rate didn’t exist. We would arrive, stay at a hotel and the next day a taxi used to drive us to the line, we jumped and walked for a while. But now, not even the taxi’s want to drive there because they also get murdered. You need to have a code-permission, many things have changed, it’s very difficult, and they know you come like this with no money.
However, the trip is no longer a straight shoot path to the U.S.A., Migrants are also faced with trafficking drugs over the border with no decision. Jamie wanted to return to the U.S.A. after his mother had fallen ill and he had returned to Mexico to see her. Jamie reflects on the moment of being blindsided into trafficking drugs:
[We] were close to the border line and they [the “Coyote”] started to take out bags, filled with marijuana and they said I had to carry one. And I couldn’t say no, or I would be killed there in the middle of the mountain. So I said that I would help with the bag as far as I could. They told me I had to cross and jump or they would kill me.
In the end, Jamie decided to return to his home state of Michoacán, Mexico in fear of the Mexican mafia because he didn’t successfully carry out their requests. New dangers were identified that showed that the border and the journey has become more dangerous, including mafia fees and being left by guides to navigate via mobile. This essay examines these new factors that migrants encounter and the lengths at which migrants are being put at risk and exploited.
For years, Migrants have encountered several dangers at the border between Mexico and the United States including kidnapping, being forced into smuggling drugs, mafia encounters, rape and forced prostitution to name just the most common themes. However, new challenges have risen in recent years that are now faced by migrants including desert dangers, the mafia and the dangers of the journey and the “Coyote” experience. In this essay, we have shed a light at the new developments and changes occurring at the border. A migrant will do what it takes if it means providing a better life for their family. For migrants, the journey is only the beginning of a new experience for them enabling them in their search for a better life.
Ms. Blanca E. Chávez is a recent graduate from the University of Kent’s School of Politics and International Relations in Canterbury, UK with a Masters in International Relations. Chávez graduated with a Bachelors of Arts from the University of Washington in Seattle with a degree in American Ethnic Studies and Interdisciplinary Visual Arts in 2012. She is passionate about shedding light on broader issues at the U.S.A/Mexico border and capturing the shifts and changes. Chávez aspires to start a PhD Migration Studies in the UK or return to her homeland in the U.S.A.
*Cover image ‘México Lindo‘ by Martin D