Moises Vazquez, once in line for food at Desayunado Salesiano shelter, now serves breakfast for up to 1,200 people each morning.
He is one of the many volunteers at the shelter that caters to immigrants and the needy in Tijuana, Mexico. Vazquez has been a part of the team for a year and lives above the dining hall. He said the shelter is supported with donations – food, clothes, money and time given by the community, has kept the shelter running for 16 years.
Many of the immigrants they serve are part of a mass child migration coming from Central America. There have always been children coming across the border without their parents, but last fiscal year U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) recorded apprehensions of unaccompanied minors reached a record high. The media and immigration experts refer to this phenomenon as “the surge.”
The drastic rise of unaccompanied minors (0 to 17 years old) arriving at the U.S. border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, also known as the Northern Triangle, has more than doubled each year since the surge began in 2011. In most recent years, there were 20,805 apprehensions in FY 2013 compared to 51,705 in FY 2014.
Why did the surge occur?
Many have formulated their own opinions as to why children are traveling 1,600 miles alone. Some believe they are coming to find their parents, while others say they are coming for a better life. The experts believe the main reason the minors are fleeing is due to violence in the Northern Triangle.
Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at University of San Diego, said those in Haiti, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic are just as poor as the Northern Triangle, yet they aren’t fleeing to the U.S. According to Meade, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans are escaping violence, not poverty.
“Their murder rates are through the roof, with Honduras’ being four times as much as Mexico’s during their recent drug wars,” Meade said.
Jill Esbenshade, associate professor of sociology with published work for the Immigration Policy Center, agreed with Meade’s conclusion. She said the minors are also fleeing to surrounding countries like Nicaragua, which is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere.
Audio: Esbenshade said the statistics prove that the minors are fleeing violence.
The Impossible Choice: Leave or Stay and Die
Unbearable living circumstances in the Northern Triangle are forcing the minors to have a “leave or die” mentality according to Carina Carballo, a volunteer who conducted numerous interviews with Central American immigrants in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala last summer.
Esbenshade said no one feels completely safe in the Northern Triangle because no one is exempt from the violence.
“It’s not just the active gang members that are targeted for violence, but also people related to them or connected to them,” said Esbenshade. “It becomes a much more widespread net of people who are experiencing risk.”
The U.S. Office on Drugs and Crime’s most recent Global Study on Homicide report contains 2013 data that named the Northern Triangle as three of the top five most violent countries in the world. Honduras, rated number one, has a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. For San Diego, that would be about 2,800 murders in one year. El Salvador was number four and Guatemala was fifth.
The Journey North
“La Bestia” (the beast) is a network of freight trains that run from south to north Mexico. It carries products like food, cement and plastic to the U.S. for export; and many times Central American immigrants as well.
The trains do not include passenger railcars, forcing immigrants to ride on top of the cargos. Many get swept under the train while trying to hop on, while others face serious injuries by falling off.
Esbenshade said there are the dangers of the “La Bestia” ride, but there are also the dangers of Mexican authorities and organized criminals that prey on the Central American minors.
“There have been…unidentified cadavers of Central American migrants who are robbed and killed on their journey up,” said Esbenshade. “There’s a lot of abuse and violence perpetrated by the Mexican authorities.”
Organized criminals who control the routes are known for kidnapping, extorting and sometimes killing the minors.
Save Havens Along the Way
MULTIMEDIA: Slideshow of Tijuana Shelters and interview with church volunteer Carballo, explaining her duties.
Despite the many dangers of the journey to the U.S., there are many shelters and churches along the way, aimed to educate and help immigrants. Some provide shelter and assistance to all, while others separate the immigrants by gender.
Many of the churches and shelters in Mexico offer similar support like clothes, shoes, baths, haircuts, food, temporary shelter and medical and legal assistance.
Instituto Madre Asunta is a shelter for women and children, while their partner home, La Casa del Migrante, cares for men. After 1 to 15 days at the shelter, the volunteers either help the immigrants acquaint to Tijuana life by finding a job or they may choose to leave.
Desayunador Salesiano welcomes immigrants from various backgrounds, ages and genders. Velazquez said they receive immigrants from all over, many from Central America and some even from the U.S.
Pastoral de Movilidad Humana de la Diócesis is a church at the southern border of Mexico for Central American immigrants traveling to the U.S. Made up of volunteers like Carballo, they educate the immigrants about the route north and the dangers they may encounter if they continue to travel. Carballo said the volunteers create case files for each individual because many die or go missing on the journey north.