Migrants’ endless walk north

Despite punitive policies, the myth of the American dream leads people to caravan to the U.S.

 

California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

It’s been called the largest migrant caravan in U.S. history. What started as a northbound group of 200 Honduran migrants has swelled, at its peak, to an estimated 7,000 people — a quarter of them children — from various Central American countries. They are working-class people fleeing violence, political instability or poverty at home, seeking a new beginning in the U.S.

More commonly known as caminatas migrantes (or migrant walks or pilgrimages), caravans are not new; for over a decade, advocacy groups have organized them on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border to raise awareness of the dangers undocumented immigrants face, including violence by criminal groups. This fall’s caravan is different: It is far bigger than past versions, and it happened organically, without the backing of an organization.

In a now-retracted description, the Associated Press called the caravan “a ragtag army of the poor.” But I see this latest migrant pilgrimage as something entirely different: a bold people’s movement aimed at subverting the class disparities and strict immigration enforcement of a system deliberately stacked against working-class migrants. People with little to lose are traveling on foot by the thousands in an effort to defy the criminal networks that prey on them. And when they reach their destination, they plan to ask for asylum, as is their right — seeking mercy from a government that has openly declared war on them.

“I’ve been there. I’ve had lots of opportunities there, on the other side,” said Job Reyes, one of the thousands who plan on asking for asylum. Reyes, from Guatemala, was captured fleetingly in video taken by the Washington Post. “I think I can go ahead and make it,” he said, as the video panned out to show the hundreds of people walking behind him, carrying kids and bags, even pushing wheelchairs.

Migrants pass through Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on their way to the U.S. border. A quarter of the estimated 7,000 migrants are children.
John Moore/Getty Images

Last April, a different caravan, organized by the advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, drew media attention — and the ire of President Donald Trump. As it neared the border, it dwindled, with some seeking asylum in Mexico and others crossing into the U.S. on their own. Those who did make it into the country, however, found themselves facing one of the most nightmarish and haphazard “zero tolerance” set of guidelines the U.S. government has ever dreamed up.

The White House’s so-called deterrence policy led to the separation of thousands of kids from their families, sent their parents to federal jails, and placed children and infants in makeshift and crowded shelters under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Since last spring, 13,000 migrant children have been held in private, for-profit detention centers across the country, according to The New York Times. In open defiance of international laws protecting the rights of migrants and refugees, the U.S. government has engineered a way to hold hostage some of the world’s most vulnerable people. And yet, today, there are at least 7,000 migrants once again eager to find a way into the country.

I’ve interviewed many migrants like Reyes over the years, in their home countries south of the border, and in California, where Central American immigrants often found a refuge after U.S. interference in countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala fueled violent conflicts and drove them north to us. In cities like Los Angeles, regardless of their immigration status, they’ve found thriving social networks, work opportunities and access to education for their children. Immigrants make up half of the state’s population and a key share of its economy, from the agricultural fields of the Coachella Valley to the tech startups of Silicon Valley.

The myth of the American Dream, the promise of safety and a fair wage, is as powerful today as it ever has been. It brought my mother and me here from Venezuela in 1990, and ultimately drew me and so many others to California. Once here, many migrants come to realize the dream is often a mirage, as the stricter immigration policies and economic disparities make the U.S. a less attractive destination. This latest caravan will have an especially hard time getting through: The Department of Homeland Security has restricted processing for asylum requests, so many may not be able to even apply.

But I think of people like Verónica, a single mother I met eight years ago at a shelter for deportees in Tijuana. She was caught living in Los Angeles with a fake Social Security number and deported for the third time. Defiantly, she told me she’d cross the border illegally as many times as necessary to get back to Los Angeles with her kids, where her boss had told her he’d re-hire her any day.

The hard-line immigration policies of the Trump administration cannot undermine America’s lure, and they never will. Because single mothers like Verónica, despite being caught illegally and deported time after time, will never give up hope. There is still a chance that comprehensive immigration reform, so long awaited, will finally occur and allow them to stay. There’s a chance that men like Job Reyes, despite the pain of the long journey north and the fear of detention, will be able to start over in a state that’s home to 350,000 other Guatemalans. Best of all, there’s a chance that their children will thrive as well — go to school and find jobs and make a home in California, despite the tremendous obstacles they face.

Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing editor at High Country News. She writes from Los Angeles, California. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.