Monday, December 29, 2008

Justice, Fairness, and an American Education

This is something I ran into the other day and is worth considering when talking about immigration in the United States.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Crosses

Here is an article on the Sojourner's website that might help put a little perspective on our upcoming holiday. I share this not to shame anyone but only that we may grow in love and understanding.

Christmas Tree Crosses

A special thanks to the writer of People Migrate for posting this link.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Douglas and Agua Prietta

My last week in Arizona I traveled with Francisco, another No More Deaths volunteer to the border town of Douglas. We were sent to help staff a migrant resource center set up by one of the local churches in Agua Prietta, the town just across the border. The church was kind enough to hook us up with a trailer to stay in and a couple of bikes to get around. The purpose of this shelter is to minister to migrants who have been dumped off by Border Patrol at the port of entry. Most migrants are not from this area and being dropped off in a foreign city with no contacts or money can be quite scary so the resource center provides a place for migrants to rest, get their bearings, grab something to eat and get oriented towards the shelters and other public resources in Agua Prietta. After a few moments of rest and coffee most people are eager to get moving and reconnect with their groups to attempt another crossing.
During our shifts Francisco and I saw a decent number of people come through the resource center but never in a steady stream. Border Patrol has no rhyme or reason to when they deport people. It could be day or night, in groups of one or to or an entire bus load. For that reason we tried to keep the resource center open 24/7 but staffing wouldn’t allow that often times.
On rare occasions we were able to sit with the migrants and hear about their journeys. It struck me that even though all the people we encountered had just been dealt a major setback. Most were still very driven and ready to attempt the journey again. Border Patrol was not seen as an impossible barrier but simply an obstacle that with enough time and patience would be overcome.
The most significant moment of my time in Douglas came on Friday evening. Each week some of the local volunteers have a memorial event remembering those who have died in the dessert just outside of Douglas. Each of us took an armload of white wooden crosses. On the front were the names and death dates of people who had been found. We then started walking along the road, calling out the names of the people on our crosses and placing them along the curb. Hundreds of crosses were layed down and by the time we reached our last one we were near the port of entry. Right there in front of the passing traffic we gathered around and remembered four names in particular pastor ----- reminded us that the names we saw were lives once, they were maybe mothers, maybe fathers, maybe brothers or sisters to someone who loved and missed them. They were also image bearers of God and loved by him.
As we walked back we gatherd the crosses in a shopping cart. Each week a few more are added to the pile.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Arizona Desert

After a summer hiatus putting in a leisurely 80 hours a week at architecture school, it is time to finally let you know how the end of our trip went. Before we get into it though, some of you have mentioned that only blogspot members can leave comments on our posts. That should be fixed now so we would love to hear from you regardless of whether you are a blogspotter or not.

As I mentioned in our last entry, Steve headed back to California once we reached Tucson but I stuck around a few more weeks to finnish out our research. I had heard that the Arizona desert was one of the deadliest parts of the border and wanted to see what that meant. In Tucson I hooked up with an organization called No More Deaths and volunteered with them for two weeks in order to see the Sonora desert firsthand.

No More Deaths is an organization that was started by several local churches in response to the rising number of migrants dying in the Sonora desert. They send out patrols through the desert to look for people who may be in danger and also leave out gallons of water along well traveled trails to help prevent severe dehydration. (Just recently one volunteer was cited for littering because he left several gallons of water in the desert.) The sole purpose of this organization (if the name did not tip you off) is to prevent deaths in the desert.

My first week volunteering I spent hiking on patrols in the desert just south of Arivaca. I had done some work with No More Deaths before so I thought I knew what to expect. I had no idea we would run into 40+ migrants, manage two medical evacuations, and then wait helplessly for days to hear from a migrant named Sergio after he took off into the desert with no water, food, or maps. (he made it safely by the way)

Our first morning in the desert I had been selected to stay at camp while the rest of the crew split up to go on patrols. After constantly being on the move I was looking forward to a leisurely morning of reading and reflection. Half an hour after the crew had left, I heard a pickup roaring over the hill. It was Jimmy, one of our volunteers and in the bed of the pickup was a migrant he had found along the road just outside our camp. His name was Pedro and he had been waiting all night along the road hoping someone would come by.

Despite his latino complexion Pedro looked quite pale. He was doubled over and could barely walk to the cot we hastily brought out for him. He said he had been vomiting all night and as soon as he laid down he began to dry heave. Immediately we called 911 and after a twenty minute conversation, the lady at dispatch figured out where our base camp was (apparently she was new). We tried to give Pedro some water but he threw it up right away. He complained of pain on his sides, an indication that his kidneys were failing. The look on his face betrayed the fear he was trying to stifle.

As we waited for the ambulance I started asking him about where he was from, his family, anything to keep his mind off his current situation. He said he had a wife and three month old daughter back in Mexico. We congratulated him on his new child and he began to calm down. After an hour of waiting, a pickup with a firefighter and a paramedic arrived. They started an IV of saline and within minutes Pedro's body began to look better.

We discovered that he had been separated from his group and after a day without water he drank from a cattle tank which is nothing more than a manure filled pool. That evening his body had reacted and soon he had vomited out more water than he gained. If he had spent another day in the Arizona heat, he most likely would have died.

Eventually a real ambulance arrived and took Pedro to the hospital in Nogales. He would soon recover and be sent back to Mexico.

This is just one of the many migrants I saw that week. Most were in groups and quickly went on their way after thanking us for the water and snacks we provided. Some had been separated from their groups and would have continued wandering had they not found our patrol. One woman had to be airlifted out by a Border Patrol helicopter. Some people were from Mexico but many had come up from Central or even South America. Each person had their own reason for crossing the desert. For some it was a calculated risk, some were simply ignorant of the risks before they left, still others had been overtly lied to by Coyotes (smugglers) who cared more about money than the cargo they transported.

Friday, June 20, 2008

To the Line

First of all I must apologise. Our blog posts have been a little deceiving lately. Steve and I are not still in Mexico. We got back into the U.S. on May 29. We have been a little behind on keeping you up with our current events but hopefully by the end of the weekend everyone will be caught up. So for those of you still wondering and worrying, we are back to our respective places and both in good health.
After a day in Tierra Blanca Steve and I realized we were running out of both time and money. For both these reasons, and because we did not want to be left stranded in the middle of Mexico, we decided to hop, skip, and jump to the border so we could learn about what it takes to actually cross into the States. The bus ride North took us two and a half days. We crossed all kinds of different terrain and were exhausted by the time we got to Nogales (border town between Sonora and Arizona). With our handy dandy passports we hopped right through the border and made straight for the shuttle heading to Tucson. I was so excited to be back in the U.S. that I walked right up to the ticket desk and asked in proud English how much it was for a ticket.
I was met by a blank look.
"¿Como?" said the guy behind the desk.
Turns out people speak Spanish in America too.
Eventually we made it up to Tucson thanks to the generosity of a few No More Deaths volunteers. Being in an American city again was welcoming. It felt strange to walk past a group of people and understand their conversation. People were so white there too. I can't figure out how you can live in a desert and not have an ounce of tan. The next morning we visited the University of Arizona to use the Internet and enjoy the beautiful air conditioning. Steve decided he had had enough and we parted ways after he booked a Greyhound ticket for San Diego.
I was thinking about why we did this trip and was brought back to Matthew 22:37-40 "And he said to them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
Love, the law hangs on love. Often one of the questions we got while preparing for this trip was whether or not the people we were going to talk to were illegal immigrants. I don't know why people asked this question and I am sure there are plenty of reasons for it but the answer I never dared to give was: "does it really matter?". The people we met on our trip were our neighbors. They are moving thousands of miles to make that literally true. So if all the rest of the law depends on the command to love God and neighbor, what does it matter if they are in possession of a few extra legal documents? In my interpretation the word 'depends' could be equally translated as 'is subordinate to' which means laws such as immigration take a back seat to the more important law of love for neighbor.
I understand that it is tough to see people as neighbors and friends when the rhetoric we hear screams 'illegals' but I hope as we continue to share more stories with you that you may see the people we describe as image bearers of God with families and lives all their own. I would argue that our adherence to the second greatest commandment for any Christian depends on learning how to see through our circumstances to find our neighbors.

Tierra Blanca

The morning after our train ride I woke up surprisingly comfortable. The motionless quiet of the field we slept in was a great luxury next to the screaming and churning of the train. Just 50 feet away there was a sign warning of all the poisonous bugs and reptiles in the area. I laughed at how small that danger seemed next to what we just went through. After everyone was up we went and grabbed some breakfast before saying final goodbyes. Even though we were headed the same direction it seemed unlikely that we would run into each other again.
We took a taxi to the nearest town and grabbed a bus to Tierra Blanca, the next known stop for the train. Tierra Blanca was a hot, dirty city. There were no birds singing but our sticky shirts let us know we were still in the tropics. Again in a new city, we were subjected to the stares of people who were not used to gringo visitors.
Along the tracks we ran into Alex and Roberto who we had met back in Arriaga. They said everything had been going well so far and that to their estimation there were about 500 people in town waiting for the next train. Alex had lived in the U.S. for 9 years doing construction work before getting deported. This was his eigth trip to the U.S. Roberto was his nephew, an adventerous 15 year old who decided to go with his uncle to find work. Alex said they hadn't had money for a meal in a while so Steve quickly ran to the store to get some bread for them to pass around.
As we talked Alex said he was not trying to work in the U.S. anymore. He said he was fed up with being deported so this time he was going to try to make it all the way to Canada where it was less likely that he would be deported. His motives for leaving however, were quite unique.

Alex's family had been fighting with another family for quite some time. He already had four relatives killed by the other family and he had left for the States fearing for his life. Now that he had been caught and deported several times he decided to try his luck working in Canada. We asked him why he had not tried to go to another Latin American country and he said he did not like the corruption that was always around. He was afraid he would be found unless he headed somewhere completely away from his Honduran ties.
The United States has a mandate to accept any political refugees seeking asylum but as far as I know that policy does not apply to family situations even if the threat is the same. I will never really be able to understand what it is like to flee a country fearing for your life but I sympathize with Alex's positon. Sircumstances have forced him to leave everything that he knew and now if he goes back to the U.S. he will be considered a criminal. I hope he and Roberto make it to Canada. I hope they find good work there. I mourn the fact that there is no way for them to find safety in a country that works so hard to keep me safe.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Train

On May 23 Steve and I traveled to Ixstepec where the train makes its first stop after starting out in Arriaga. We took off on a bus two hours after the train left but it only took 15 minutes of driving before we spotted it along the roadside. The trip that took us only three hours in a bus lasted all day and into the night for the train riders. The tracks along this stretch are particularly bad so conductors take it slow. Safety is important but it makes for an exhausting ride. By the time they reachIxtepec most migrants have had enough for one day and opt to take a few days rest before heading out again. For the hearty few who don't care to waste time on things like sleep, the train leaves again that evening as soon as it can change over its cars.
Steve and I made it into town around noon and as we were searching for a hotel we ran into Mauricio and Wilfredo who we had met inTecun Uman (see Mauricio's story). They had been staying at the migrant house for the last few days and were getting ready to take the train out that evening. They invited us to visit the migrant house so after finding a room and grabbing some lunch we went to check it out.
The shelter was barely deserving of its name. It consisted of a few tin roofs and a couple storage sheds strewn about on a half acre of dirt on the outskirts of town. Walls were a luxury that were yet to be acquired although a few power cords held up by dead branches assured that the TV was in working order. A couple of guys from Colorado came out to greet us as we walked walked in. They showed us around and explained that this shelter was independently set up by the Catholic Church inIxtepec. It had no ties to the Scalabarini order (in charge of all the other shelters we visited so far) which helped explain the more laid back approach. The shelter had an outdoor kitchen and offered meals whenever it had the donations to do so. We tried to sit and chat with some of the guys lounging in the shade but Rambo IV was playing in the background so the conversations were short lived.
We headed back to town and found Wilfredo and his girlfriend near the food vendors. They had just received a dinner of beans and tortillas from a generous vendor and walked over to see how we were doing. We talked about how our project was going and they invited us to join them on the freight train heading out that night. The opportunity was too good to pass up so we grabbed our stuff from the hotel, inhaled some dinner, and met them in an open boxcar down in the train yard. It was just after dark and the train yard was filled with long shadows cast by the single set of overhead lights at the far end. Despite the hour everyone was in good spirits, ready to start the next leg of their trip.

Our group consisted of six people. Steve, myself, Mauricio, Wilfredo, his girlfriend Mirian, and Nolvia who had been traveling by herself but joined the other three a few days ago. We played a few card games until we heard the train from Arriaga coming in, then we crossed the tracks and crawled into a gondola style railroad car. The top was open and the sides low enough for an average person to see out when they stood up but it provided plenty of security from falling out.
It took another hour and a half before the train was ready to go but once we left town things started to move fast. Really fast. The boom of boxcars running into each other reverberated down the track every time the conductor changed speed. The hiss of air brakes and screeching metal was almost constant. We could barely make out each other's voices over the noise. Along either side of the train were thousands of fireflies illuminating the edges of our metal transport as it bobbed down the tracks. We were moving at least 60 mph but the wind was nothing more than a strong breeze as it was whipped around in the air pocket created by the cars in front of us. Above us was an expanse of stars interrupted only by the jagged peaks ahead of us. We stood at the front of our car for hours admiring the brute force of the vehicle hurling us through narrow mountain passes and fields of fluorescent green.
It didn't seem fair to rest rather than admire the moment but our bodies eventually told us otherwise and we laid down in the middle of our car with jackets as padding and backpacks for pillows. The noise of the wheels made it hard to sleep but I eventually dozed off.
Some time during the night Steve shook me awake. A couple men had entered the back of our car and were standing over some migrants in the corner. I glanced over just in time to see one migrant hand the man some money.
Steve and I quickly woke up the rest of our crew in case the men with flashlights came our way. We hoped our group was big enough that they would just pass us by but that was just wishful thinking. They shined their flashlights right in our faces and started talking in a tone too low to decipher over the noise of the train. I didn't see any weapons but something felt wrong. Mauricio got up to talk to the men and see what they wanted even though was obvious that Steve and I were the ones causing them concern. They said they were train employees and had come to collect money for riding on their train. In other words, they were extorting money from the migrants.
Riding freight trains in Mexico is the same as in the U.S. The benefits are free albeit dangerous travel to wherever your destination is. The downside is that it is not regulated which makes riders vulnerable to theft and exploitation (In case anyone is getting ideas it is also illegal which is enforced in the States but not in Mexico). I don't know what agreement these guys had with the rest of the employees on the train but you can be sure no money they collected was going much further than their own pockets. Steve and I stood up and explained that we were reporters riding the train in order to learn migrant's stories. After hearing that their attitudes took a sudden shift. I don't know if it was the power of our reporter status or that we stood a foot and a half above these guys but they never asked us for a dime. Instead they told us we should have informed the train line before boarding that night and shuffled off to the next car. We watched as their flashlights slowly worked their way from group to group all the way up the train.
A few hours later the train stopped at a fork in the tracks named Medias Aguas and we got out and slept until morning.
Riding the trains is not the only way to get through Mexico. If you have the money many Coyotes can take you from your native country all the way to the U.S. either by car or by bus. I talked to one guy who took public buses and made it through 19 checkpoints without being asked for documents (this is extremely rare). But the trains are still the most well known way of travel since they avoid most checkpoints and fit any budget. Steve and I feel privileged to have ridden the train and not run into any problems. This is not the case for most migrants.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


On May 18 we left Tapachula and took the bus to Arriaga which is where we were told migrants board the freight trains heading north for the first time. Arriaga is a quaint Mexico town. The streets are clean and buildings well kept and in many ways it reminded me of my home town in Iowa. The train yard splits the town in half with the North side shoved up against a bluff and the south side trickling out across the plain.
Our first evening we took a stroll to see if we could find anyone we thought might be migrants. As the last threads of daylight faded away we approached the train yard and discovered dozens of groups strewn about in circles of five or ten. Some laughed and played cards while others lounged on railroad ties. Under the only tree in the yard a few people had built a campfire and were cooking something in reused coffee cans.

Quite a few people took interest in the white boys walking around but no one seemed too concerned. We had thought it would be tricky to approach migrants outside of a shelter but our pale skin and better than average stature made a good ice breaker. As we walked around people shot questions at us, curious about who we were and why we were there. After humoring the interrogations we continued on.
We found a man named Elmer hanging out with a group of Hondurans. He said he was in charge of the train yard so we asked him if the crowd we saw that night was normal and why the people were not worried about the police. He said the local police didn't give migrants any trouble ("why would they?") and that Immigration officers only come around occasionally. The train company was obviously not raising a stink either so migrants were free to hang around the yard.

Later that evening we were walking through the town square when we ran into Dennis. Back in Tecun Uman Dennis hung out with us as we went around taking pictures (he is the guy cutting bananas with a machete) and we were glad to see he had made it this far in good shape. We invited him to dinner and he told us about the walk from Tecun Uman to Arriaga. Like so many others he had fallen victim to the bandits that prey on migrants as they pass through "La Rosera ", an area between two small towns known for harboring lots of thieves and small gangs. Fortunately, he said, he only had 70 pesos (U.S. $7) on him at the time so he did not loose much. Others he was with had much more and lost it all.

Despite being robbed Dennis was still in good spirits and was excited but slightly nervous about the train ride ahead. We gave him a little money so he could find food in the next town and then said good night.

The next morning we got up before the sun to see the train off. We were told it would leave at 7:00 am and didn't want to miss a moment.

The train yard was a buzz of activity. The groups from the night before had multiplied to hundreds (300-350 we estimated) all anxiously waiting to get on their way. People were crawling all over the train, throwing water bottles and backpacks to those already perched on the top, and trying out different locations for the safest, most comfortable ride to El Norte. Local vendors walked up and down the tracks selling food, water, candy, and Popsicles to migrants. Some of the more prepared groups dressed in plastic bags or cardboard to stay dry from the morning drizzle.

Around 7:45 the railroad workers finished their final preparations and the train, dragging empty cars and eager migrants, slowly made its way out of town.

The next few days we talked to residents and business owners about the constant stream of migrants going in and out of their town. They didn't seem to mind too much one way or the other. Some were slightly annoyed by people constantly coming to beg for food but no one held much resentment. Yes, they said it made the town a little dirtier but Arriaga has its fair share of emigrants as well. It is hard to see migrants as just an issue when you know their reasons for leaving.

Steve and I hung around Arriaga four more days until the next train came and went then we grabbed a bus and headed to Ixtepec where the freight is reshuffled before heading further north.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

First of all Steve and I want to thank your for all the support we have received over the past month. Almost every day we get emails from people who are excited about this project. It is a blessing to know how many people are praying for us and seriously thinking through what we have encountered along our journey.

We also want to thank those who have made it financially possible to do this trip. With your support we have now made it half way with many stories, photos and interviews to show for it.

In order to finish our journey we still need to cover a few more costs. Please help us see this journey through to completion.

We now have a good idea of how things work so we thought we would break down our daily costs to show how your donation can help:

$2 means an hour each of Internet time which is an essential for keeping up a blog.

$10 provides a bus ticket to the next town.

$20 lets us stay in a hotel for a night instead of fighting over park benches (just kidding we haven't had to do that. yet)

$60 will cover our expenses for an entire day including food, water, hotel, Internet, and transportation.

Steve also mentioned that if we got 4000 people to donate $0.50 we could cover all our costs and then some. Spread the word...

Donations are tax deductable as well.

In all we have about 25 days left before finnishing up in Tucson.

If you like using technology you can send donations using the donate button on the left column of our blog.

If Paypal makes you squeamish you may also mail donations to:

Immanuel CRC
Attn: Desert Footprints
1405 Albany Ave. NE,
Orange City, Iowa 51041

God is at work here there is no doubt about that. We see him working through the ministries at Casa Del Migrante, we saw him touching the lives of injured migrants at Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor, and we hear the testimony of his faithfulness from migrants almost every day who continue to be tested along thier journey.

With your help we hope to continue learning how we as Americans may best join in God's work here through seeking justice and showing love to immigrants in the U.S.

Thank you for your support,
Steve Eaton & Nathan Poel

Mauricio's Story


Mauricio is a 29 year old man who we met at the Tecun Uman house. He left to work in the United States for the first time at age 25 and has attempted to make the trip six times since that first try. Each time he was caught and sent back but he continues to go for the sake of his family. When we talked with him he was kind enough to tell us about a few of his past attempts.

Mauricio told us he leaves for economic reasons and that its harder to leave each time knowing that it may be the last time he sees his wife and children. He stated that it is harder now because his children are getting old enough to understand the reality of the daunting trip he faces. The migrant horror stories circulate in Central American towns and knowing that his children are hearing them makes leaving all the more difficult. Mauricio's kids are now ages 13, 8, and 6. In response to why he makes the trip he referenced them and their education. "Not to have luxuries, but to have their needs met".

On the first attempt he told us about how he ran into problems in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. He was walking the three day trip from Tapachula to the tracks now at Arriaga. This stretch is known as "La Rosera" and is infamous for migrant robbery. Soon after crossing through the town of Huixtla he was robbed. He wasn't carrying much money but they took everything he had. When asked who the bandits were he described them as "Not gang members but people who are opportunists. People that say here comes easy money". They used a pistol to rob him. Once they had robbed him they let him continue north. That same day as he continued to walk he was assaulted again by a different group of robbers. The robbers were angry when they found out that he had nothing. Not wanting to be left empty handed for all of their trouble they took Mauricio's shoes. After telling us this story he stopped abruptly and told me "But that story doesn't even compare to the time before that".


The events unfolded in a town near the Texas border named "San Louis Potosi".
"We got there about two in the morning from another train", Mauricio began.
"We were tired after a long train ride so we decided to get off in San Louis Potosi to rest to re-cooperate our strength. At this point we had enough money to continue by bus but the bus left at seven in the morning, five hours from when we got off the train. I was traveling with a childhood friend from my Neighborhood in Honduras. I had grown up with him and we were practically brothers. Suddenly after about two hours of rest a train appeared, moving fast. Without talking it over my friend jumped up and started to chase it yelling for me to follow over his shoulder. Since I didn't want to be left alone I got up and followed him running. Because it was still early in the morning it was dark and hard to see. My friend up ahead of me managed to get on so I ran trying to do the same.
As I ran I didn't see one of the planks on which the tracks lie sticking out past the rest. Because I couldn't see I tripped on the board sending me flying through the air. As I fell I did not shut my eyes, I saw everything that happened. It was just a second but I saw that I was falling towards the wheels. And I don't know how it happened but I was able to turn and landed right next to the moving wheels. My head hit something on the way down and that's how I got this scar."

He pointed to a scar about an inch and a half long cutting his left eyebrow into two sections. He told us that his childhood friend then came running up to him in tears because from his perspective he could not see the lower part of Mauricio's body. His friend thought that Mauricio had become another victim of the train. When he saw that Mauricio was alright he was overjoyed but Mauricio told him to leave him alone for a while, he needed time to think.

"I lay there for about an hour and a half because of the scare. Because that happens in seconds, you don't mess around with the train. A lot of people have been cut in half by the train, but there's a saying... He who doesn't risk, doesn't gain. As I lay there while the train was rushing by I only thought about my family. My mom, my kids and my wife. I lay there thanking God for this new opportunity. A lot of people mess up like that because they don't want to be left alone. Not everyone can catch a train when its moving that fast. I couldn't judge how fast the train was going because it was still so dark out."

Mauricio's story is a lucky one. A single trip to the Hospital in Tapachula or a walk by the tracks in Arriaga will show you that not every story ends happily.


Shifting gears Mauricio then told us of an experience when he felt blessed by the generosity of the Mexican people, whom he told us had helped him many times.

"It's a hard trip, the one who helps us is God. God touches the hearts of the Mexicans who help us. There is this one place where the train moves slowly for thirteen hours, and when it stops, there's nothing around. On this day the heat was extreme up there on top of the trains. Making things worse, a lot of us had thrown our water bottles when we had hopped on because sometimes its impossible to catch trains when you are weighed down by water bottles. So we were left thirsty without water in the heat of the desert."

The heat in the desert is often over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Couple this with the fact that people are on darkly painted metal trains and you have an easy recipe for heat exhaustion. Fainting in these circumstances accounts for many of the deaths associated with the train aptly named by migrants, "El Tren de la Muerte" or The Train of Death.

Mauricio continued. "So what happened next is we went by this little town rather slowly and we asked this guy by the tracks for water, but he didn't get the water out to us in time to throw it up. But since the train was moving slowly he got in his truck and caught up to us. He parked ahead of the train by the tracks and set up to throw the water up to us. He was able to throw up about 4 bottles of water, thank God. Sometimes the people, a lot of people, throw bags of food up to us near Mexico City."

At this point we asked Mauricio if things like that ever happen here in Chiapas.

"No not in Chiapas, but there are some people who will share food. The problem is that some migrants don't ask out of fear, because there are bad people out there too. What do they do? Well you walk by and they tell the migra 'There go a bunch of migrants' and the next thing you know there is a squad up ahead waiting for us. But in the end its all worth it, for that chance to better your family's way of life".


As if the prior experiences were not enough Mauricio still had stories to tell us. On another attempt to make it to the United States Mauricio made it to a border town by the name of "Piedras Negras". Once in the town he made a deal with a Coyote to lead him across the unfamiliar terrain to the United States. It was November and and very cold.

"We had no idea it got that cold on the border" Mauricio began. "I got in on a Tuesday around three in the afternoon and our group of 15, including four guides, crossed the river at about two am that night. We walked for the next hour then rested for an hour and everything was fine, but then it got cold".

We asked if the group was wet from crossing the river.

"We weren't wet because we carried our clothes in black plastic bags. And the water is shallow at Piedras Negras, it only goes up to about your knees. But then the wind picked up and it got very cold and as the sun was coming up it started to snow. The trip was only supposed to take two days, but because of the cold, wind, rain and snow the guides got lost. So we walked and walked and never got there.

We ended up walking for five days, but after day two we were out of food because you dont carry a lot. Only what you can carry in a little back pack. Not enough to fill a person up, just enough to get by. So we were out of food, we were out of water, but the real killer was the cold. The snow was gathering on the ground and with each step we sank deeper. Once the snow was past our feet it began to pack around our shoes and as you know snow gets heavy when it sticks like that. So by the fourth day people started fainting. In our group there was a sixteen year old kid, well he seemed like a kid to me. I saw him fall over. He was traveling with his uncle who pleaded with me to help him carry the boy. I really wanted to help but I couldn't. If I had stopped to help carry the boy the guide would have left us and we would have died in the cold.
At this point the group was all split up. There was only one guide in front of us because the other three couldn't take the walking. They were somewhere behind us at this point. My knees were all swollen and I prayed, 'My God, let us arrive, help me, If I stay here I am going to die!'. Because the thing about coyotes is that they aren't going to risk staying behind for one if it means endangering themselves or the rest of the group. If you fall behind they will tell you to hurry up, but if you don't, they will leave you. They are in it for the money. That's what's important to them, the money. They aren't about to risk staying in one place too long for fear of the 'Migra', because they have trucks and planes on their side."


"One time I made the trip with my wife and the Coyotes left us. My wife just wasn't strong enough to make the journey." Mauricio told us, still talking about the dangers associated with using a coyote.
"We had only been walking for a day, but it was at a fast pace. My wife was exhausted and her knees were all swollen from the journey so I pleaded with the coyote to let us rest. I begged him not to leave us because we had no idea where we were. All around us were mountains not a house in sight. I told him that if we rested for a while that my wife would recuperate and be able to continue at a faster pace, firmly believing that to be true. I just thought she needed to rest.
Reluctantly the coyote agreed, but he insisted we could not stay for long, a quick rest would be all he would allow. I layed her down to rest for a while but when it was time to keep moving my wife began to cry. 'I can't make it! I can't make it!' she sobbed. The coyote and the rest of the group got up and left."

Mauricio was left alone with his wife in the middle of the night in unfamiliar territory. He knew that since they had already walked for some time they must be near their destination but their options were quickly dwindling with the coyote gone.

"I was desperate. Once again I began to pray. We didn't know where we were, we were out of food, and we had only a little bit of water left. At that point I knew I would have to carry her. So I lifted her to my back and just started walking. We didn't have much water so from time to time I would allow myself to wet my lips. We had to make frequent stops because I would feel like I was about to faint.
There came a point where we were out of water and we stumbled upon a little puddle. The water was dirty and we could tell that this was where the cattle drank because there were droppings everywhere. But we were thirsty and out of options so we used my shirt as a strainer to try and make the water a little bit cleaner. After that we kept walking and walking until I saw a streetlight from a highway and I knew we were saved. When we got to the highway we hugged and fell asleep right by the road. At dawn we were picked up by the Border Patrol. I explained to them that my wife needed medical attention and they were good to us. I didn't complain, thank God we were picked up. She's the mother of my kids, my wife, and I love her. I can always try again, but we only live once. After that trip my wife swore that she would never again make the journey to the United States."


Now that we have moved on with our journey it is time to write about Tapachula and what that city means to the migrants that pass through.

Tapachula has long been known as a central hub for the migrant journey. Historically it is the place where Central Americans hop trains for the first time on their route to El Norte (the north). It is home to another Casa Del Migrante as well as Grupo Beta headquarters and a hospital originally dedicated to migrants who have been injured by the trains.

Tapachula is located in the southernmost state of Mexico called Chiapas. This area has been known for its gang activity particularly the MS 13 and 18th street gangs which were pushed north after anti-gang laws were passed in Central American countries. Steve and I expected to find a run down Mexican city with lots of migrants and gang activity. Instead Tapachula turned out to be doing quite well compared to towns in Guatemala. Streets were clean and families came to hang out in the central square after dark.

We did see some gang markings on a few buildings but most were faded or crossed out. None of the migrants we talked to spoke of trouble with gangs in Tapachula.

After visiting the Casa Del Migrante we discovered trains had not been going through Tapachula since Hurricane Stan took out the bridges in 2005. After resting for a brief time, most migrants walk to Arriaga to grab their first train.

Even though trains no longer run there the shelter was full and Steve and I had to stay in a Hotel downtown. Every afternoon we took a cab back to hang out with migrants and hear their stories.

Everyone at the shelter was at a different point in their journey. Some were heading north for the first time. Others were on their fourth or fifth attempt after being caught and sent back. One man we talked to had lived in New York for 20 years. He was deported to El Salvador at age 32 after losing his resident alien status. While in his native country he got married and now two years later he is trying with his wife to make it back to his family in New York.

Two days before leaving we visited Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor, a heath care facility set up for people who are not able to pay their medical expenses. Originally it was started to aid migrants who had lost limbs after falling off freight trains. Albergue still receives some migrants who have lost limbs on trains further north but many of their current patients are locals who cannot afford to stay at the hospital. Along with basic health care Albergue offers ESL (English as a second language), computer, and sewing classes to help patients learn skills they can use later on.

It was exciting to see that a place like this existed. I cannot imagine what life would be like to suddenly lose a limb instead of going to the U.S. to work and support your family. Without the chance to learn a professional skill it would be easy to lose hope. Albergue is a place committed to maintaining the dignity of people who would not have a chance at a decent job otherwise. If anyone wants to donate or volunteer with Albergue visit thier website at

From Tapachula the journey becomes much more difficult. There are eight separate checkpoints on the 140 mile road between Tapachula and Arriaga. This means taking a car or bus is out of the question for migrants without documents. The alternative is walking which takes three days for an able bodied person. Some people take the train tracks, others follow paths through the mountains. Either way they avoid all main roads which means taking on tropical forests. Most of the people we talked to were robbed at some point during these three days. Many were robbed multiple times. There is one area named ¨la Rosera¨ that is particularly known to be trouble.

Still many people along the way are also generous. There are just as many stories of restaurants giving food or people allowing migrants to work and earn some money for their trip.

Some migrants never make it to Arriaga but for those that do, a new chapter in their journey awaits. In a few days we will write about boarding the trains here in Arriaga. From what we have seen already, it will knock your socks off.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


For those who have not discovered this you can see all the photos steve and I have posted so far by clicking on the photos on the left column. The most recent ones are at the top and all previous albums are at the bottom. Check it out now to see photos Steve took in Arriaga of migrants starting their journey on the freight trains.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Border

For Mexicans trying to get to the United States without documents, the journey is difficult and involves a very dangerous border crossing. For Central Americans the problem of crossing a border without documents is multiplied times two or three. Patrols along the Mexico-Guatemala border may seem relaxed compared to the camera towers and unmanned drones scanning the Sonora desert but threats are still real and corruption often rules the day.
Steve and I took a bus from Guatemala City to the border town of Tecun Uman. It was not half as nice as the bus I took in to Guatemala City but the price was right and it went directly to the border. Just west of the city Guatemala turned green and for the next few hours we enjoyed the fresh scents of tropical vegetation while watching pineapple vendors in tin shacks fly through our cracked window.
Near the border town some local police stopped our bus and demanded everyone to show their documents. Everyone in the bus started squirming in there seats and agitated glances were passed across the isle. Steve and I found our passports but the officers skipped our row and went directly to the back of the bus. After some muffled discussion the last half of the bus was escorted off.
For fifteen minutes we sat there. The group that had left was negotiating with the officers. We could only pick out glimpses of concerned faces but the gist was clear enough. As the crew slowly made their way back on the bus they started muttering in the back. They, same as most of the other passengers on the bus, did not have documents and therefore had to pay their way through a checkpoint that was never supposed to be their in the first place. Why were they picked while the front half of the bus was passed by? It was not because the front half was any more legal. We saw many of the same people at the migrant shelter later that day. It was not because they were suspicious looking working age men. Several women and children had been taken off as well. It just was not their lucky day.
Not paying the police is not an option either as one of the guys from the Guatemala City shelter discovered the week before. He did not have money to pay so the police took their pound of flesh leaving several lacerations on his arms and back that are now infected (Father Abraham made sure he went to the hospital the day we left). As undocumented travelers, migrants are constantly preyed upon by corrupt police and local thieves. The only people we have talked to that have not had much trouble are the migrants who are on their first attempt which is roughly one sixth of the people we talk to.

At the shelter in Tecun Uman we were again allowed to stay. We are continually impressed by the generosity we have been shown at these Catholic Missions. The shelter is conveniently located just a block from the river which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The next morning we watched as half a dozen migrants waded across the river in one’s and two’s. A trio of women and their Nicaraguan friend had enough money to pay a local to use his inner tube raft. The river is nearly 200 meters wide and never gets deeper than waist height.

Nearly all the commerce across the river is by inner tube rafts which are pulled across by foot. During the four days we stayed along the border, not once did we see a truck cross the bridge only a few hundred meters away. Instead, everything was unloaded by hand, placed on rafts, dragged across the river, and re-loaded into trucks on the other side. The informal economy here is not only alive and well, it is the economy. We are quite sure that this commerce is technically illegal but no one seems to mind-not the officers protecting the bridge, not the military men driving around in their humvees, and certainly not the local police who we never saw again after our incident on the road.

Breaking the law here, if it even could be called that, is a daily occurrence. It is not hard to see why migrants have little concern for immigration laws. The only people that need to be feared are the ones who can take advantage of those outside the law.

After leaving Tecun Uman, we spent a few days on the other side of the border. We only saw a couple migrants and they were just passing through. The next stop for most people is Tapachula which is a 45 km (28 mi.) hike. In order to walk there in a day migrants cannot hang around for long so most cross the river in the morning in hopes that they can reach the city by sundown.

There are three basic groups we witnessed breaking laws here.
1. Migrants who do not have documents with which to cross the border.
2. Locals who daily bypass formal checkpoints while crossing international borders.
3. Officers who use their position for personal gain through bribes.
We are curious to hear what you think about all the law breaking we have seen along the border. Are these people finding their way around corrupt systems or are they all law breakers that should be brought to justice? If the latter is true who would be responsible for doing it? How does this compare to the border situation between the U.S. and Mexico?


Saturday, May 10, 2008

View Research Proposal

For those who have been asking, you can now view our research proposal from the link in the left column of this blog.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Migrant Experiences

We are now at the Guatemala Border with Mexico. We had a wonderful experience in Guatemala City that really plugged us into the circle of migrants that we are now surrounded by. The Scalabrini Order of the Catholic church is completely dedicated to the welfare of migrants. We have found that there are about 20 institutions set up to assist migrants in North and Central America alone. At the house in Guatemala city named the "Casa Del Migrante" we were able to conduct interviews with six people two of whom were workers at the mission and four were migrants currently making the journey to the United States or on their way back after an unsuccessful attempt. One man was a native Ecuadorian who was returning unsuccessfully from his second and final attempt to realize his dream in the United States. His was a heartbreaking story. During his first attempt through Central America he experienced a shipwreck during the trip from Ecuador (In South America) to Guatemala, that he told us almost took his life. Thankfully his boat was in a caravan that had 140 other migrants aboard. With the help of the other boats they were able to restart the engine and continue to Guatemala. Had they been traveling alone their possibilities for survival would have been slim. The boat was out in the middle of nowhere full of illegal migrants, helpless. As scary as that was, he told us, it did not get any better as he progressed. Once through the Guatemala/Mexico border he hopped on a freight train, after two hours aboard the train he told us that everyone in the freight car was shivering. He told us that had he succeeded in finishing the trip on the 10 hour train he would have been "half dead". Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately in his case the train was stopped after two hours and was searched by the "migra". He was quickly found and deported back to his home country. But the dream did not end quite yet. On his second attempt, now wary of travel by boat he decided to buy a round trip to Honduras legally and simply not return. On this attempt Julio and his family opted to get a Coyote to insure that he make it across the border. Coyotes cost at least five thousand dollars and can get much higher. This number is almost unfathomable to a farmer such as Julio and he left Ecuador on borrowed money gambling that he would make up the money to pay off his debt. Once in Guatemala he met with the Coyote in a Hotel. Unfortunately the Coyote did not uphold his end of the bargain. The Coyote canceled the deal and robbed Julio of his borrowed money. Julio was locked in the hotel for 15 days until he managed to escape. He ran up a mountain to get away from the Coyote as he was shot at. Migrants such as Julio are targeted frequently by bandits because of their social position. On his way down the mountain robbers took the last borrowed $300 he had leaving him penniless. With nothing to his name and not wanting to further his families increasing debt he decided to give up in Guatemala. He was picked up by the police and taken to the Ecuadorian Consulate. At the Consulate he was told that now he must pay for a $600 ticket home. People like Julio have bleak options. In Julio´s case he told us that he is now forced to sell his house and does not know how he will come up with the money. In a tearful call home his wife begged him to come home, and that they would come up with the money somehow. "It´s better to live. If I had been shot and died my family would have nothing." Julio said contemplating his recent experience. Now Julio is saddled with a debt well over five thousand dollars. Unfortunately his story is all too common here.

Written by Steve Eaton

Guatemala City

On May 6 I met up with Steve in Guatemala City. After four miles of walking and five local buses over six aggravating hours, we arrived at the Casa Del Migrante or Migrant`s house. The house is run by the Scalabarini order of the Catholic church and was set up as a safe place for migrants to rest before heading out again. The facility is so new they are still finishing the second half. The quarters are modest but very clean and well kept. Compared to the alternative of sleeping on the streets the place was amazing. Father Abraham was not quite sure about us at first (gringos showing up saying they are journalists and want to stay the night) but his generosity won out in the end. All the facilities including three meals are offered free to migrants but people are only allowed to stay three nights before moving on. This is because they want to maintain their ministry for migrants and not simply house the homeless in Guatemala City (there are other missions for that).
Steve and I stayed two nights and had some great opportunities to talk to migrants as well as the volunteers and priests that ran the house. Steve will tell you a little more about our interviews but I wanted to talk about an interesting observation from the night before we left. That night we gathered together and talked about human rights at the prompting of Father Abraham. Each night he brings us together before going to bed to talk about a topic pertinent to migrants.
As the conversation rounded the horn I was struck by the diversity of the group. Everyone spoke Spanish (Steve and I were they only second-language Spanish speakers) but each in their own accent. Father Abraham was raised in Mexico. Juan and Adolfo are from Guatemala although they each had lived in the States for some time, spoke English, and brought their own unique perspective. Then there were Juan and Javier, the brothers from El Salvador. Javier had lived in the states for 9 years but was deported after he was stopped for not using his turn signal. This time he decided to bring his brother to the States with him. On the other side of the room was Eric, a Garifuna (black) man from the north coast of Honduras. He spake English quite well but his Spanish accent was so thick I could not understand it. Just a few days ago he had been beaten by Guatemalan police and was here to rest and recover. In the corner, tucked away in his quiet but confident demeanor, was Julio. Julio is from Ecuador and was told to come here by another church after being robbed of his last $300. It is an extremely long trip from Ecuador to here and there are still 2500 miles until the U.S. border.

An English equivalent to this group would be like gathering people from British Colombia, Texas, Australia, New Zealand, and New York all with the same goal. As an outsider it was hard to catch all the cultural subtleties going on but they were definitely there.
Earlier today I was going through the library here and say a poster asking the question: ¿Somos familia en la migracion? Are we family in migration? It´s hard to imagine such a diverse group being family yet stories of migrants helping and sharing with each other are very common. People here need to rely on strangers and sometimes that means getting robbed or beaten but without this family of migrants, No one would get where they wanted to go.
That next morning one of the guys had a loaf of bread he had bought the day before. Instead of eating it himself he broke it into bite size pieces and shared it during breakfast. There was not enough for all nine of us but he shared it anyway. I imagine we are going to run into a lot more generosity of this kind on our way to the states. At least we hope so.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Leaving Tegucigalpa

Two nights ago was my first true migrant experience although it only lasted a few hours. There is a bus that leaves Tegucigalpa every night at 10:00 pm for the border of Guatemala. I was told it was the bus that most migrants take so off I went. When I arrived at the station it was already overflowing with working age men. They all seemed somewhat on edge and besides few brief conversations, they mostly kept to themselves.
Earlier that morning as I was planning the trip, Jo Ann (Calvin Professor and wife of Kurt Ver Beek) said I should buy the ticket early in case the bus filled up. The bus certainly filled up but buying a ticket would not have been a problem. Once the seats were full we started filling in the isle. Standing room only was quickly becoming a reality. I was by far the tallest person on the bus and the ceiling left room just for my shoulders. I started envisioning what my body would feel like after riding eight hours in a semi-upright position. The prospect was not good.
In the Meantime some of the guys around me learned I was from the U.S. and I quickly became a center of attention. I tried to turn conversation around and ask them about their upcoming journey but it was no use. I was the odd man out. One guy asked if I liked ´musica negra´and in a moment of relaxed judgment, I pulled out a few rap lines from high school. For the rest of the night I could hear guys chattering about Eminem in the back of the bus.
It took less than fifteen minutes to be sick of standing up. I tried to convince the guys around me that if we all sat down there would be enough room but that was not happening. Instead, I found and empty spot in front of the guy next to me and left the others to practice sleeping on their feet. By shoving my legs under one seat and my head under another I discovered I could lay out almost flat. It was not terribly comfortable but it beat standing. I spent the rest of the bus ride there on the floor.
At 1:30 am we arrived in San Pedro Sula where those going directly to Guatemala City were filtered out from those stopping at the border which happened to be most of the bus. The migrants stayed in their same cramped space while we precious few were ushered onto a brand new movie equipped, air conditioned, air suspension bus. My legs which are so used to being discriminated against by public transportation were excited to see the generous seat spacing and before we left the station, I was out cold. That next morning I discovered we were following the same bus I had taken from Tegucigalpa. Even though there were seats to spare in our heaven on wheels those who were to be dropped off at the border rode like sardines. As we approached the border the other bus pulled off at the last Honduran stop so its inhabitants could find their way across without documents being checked. We took the more formal route and after our passports were checked, we crossed into Guatemala without event.
This time I went the easy way. This time all it took was a nod from the border patrol but soon we will discover what happens when that other bus pulls off. Where do those migrants go? How do they cross the border? At the crossing in to Mexico we will search out the subtleties of what it takes to cross a national border.

Nueva Suyapa Interviews

Over the past few days I have conducted interviews with many people through Nueva Suyapa and around the capital building in Tegucigalpa. A few people asked for photos after my last post so I am trying to update our Picasa album (hopefully it works this time).
Nearly every (I am not exaggerating) family has someone who has left for either the U.S. or Spain to find work. Over the next few weeks we will be giving you an idea of what it takes to get to the U.S. but the trip to Spain in comparison is safer, and cheaper. The potential migrant will take a plane to Europe as a tourist and then stay and work instead. This is also illegal without a work visa (same as in the U.S.) but a plane ticket will often run under $2000 as opposed to $6000 which is a common rate for Coyotes who take people from Honduras to the U.S. Ironically migrating to the United States illegally is very expensive. Most people cover these costs by getting loans from friends or family that they will then have to pay back when they find work. Spain is now clamping down on supposed tourists and cross checking to make sure people actually have plans to travel and not work so it is quickly becoming more difficult to migrate there as well.
Unfortunately I don’t have space to write about all our interviews so I picked a few to talk about instead.
I met Oscar at the Christian Reformed Church in Nueva Suyapa. He just got back from the U.S. after being detained for two months in Austin Texas for crossing the border illegally. Oscar has who brothers in the U.S. (North Carolina and New York) but his wife and children live in Nueva Suypapa. He said his trip to the U.S. was difficult especially for his wife and children because he had no way of contacting them and letting them know he was alright. Sometimes people leave for the States and are never heard from again either because they start a new life or because they die along the way. Because of his two month incarceration and subsequent deportation, Oscar’s financial situation has only gotten worse. He is now several months behind on rent and back (literally) where he started. Still, despite his bad experience, Oscar said he is not angry. He thanks God that the U.S. has been blessed with prosperity and prays that God will continue to be with them in the future.
In most of the interviews I have done so far, the theme of family comes up quite often. Many people decide to leave in order to support their families and unfortunately, it is the family unit that suffers the most. Kurt Ver Beek, Calvin College professor for the semester abroad program in Honduras, says one of the biggest reasons he often does not support people leaving is because of the many families he has seen suffer as a result of one or both parents being gone.
This spring Calvin students Jill Van Beek and Katie De Yong conducted interviews with teachers and children in a rural village in Honduras. The teachers reported that many negative behavioral patterns began when one or both parents left the home to work elsewhere. One teacher reported that children know how to love their siblings but don’t know how to love in the context of marriage.

Still, for many people the benefits of leaving far outweigh the negative consequences. Pastor Valasquez of the Christian Reformed Church in Nueva Suyapa talked about a young woman named Merari. She left for Spain the day after I arrived in Honduras because her and her siblings were under severe financial pressure. Here parents are not in the picture (I did not find out why) so her siblings are now staying with their grandma while she goes to find work. Pastor Valazquez said this could be good for Merari´s family since it is harder for women in Honduras to find work than men.
Over all it seems like the decision to leave is tough. For some families the financial benefits for a family member to leave for work and send money back are good enough to give them a significant boost while others suffer family disintegration, financial loss, or other hardships (I talked to one man who lost both his legs while trying to get on a train in Mexico). Still, more people decide to leave every day and it does not seem like that will change any time soon.
If you have more questions or comments about these interviews, let us know and we will do our best to respond.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why We Go

Throughout the next few weeks we will periodically post Bible passages and attempt to apply them in Light of what we see along our journey.
Today I want to talk about a passage that is commonly brought up in Social Justice circles, Matthew 25:31-46. This is the passage where Jesus talks about the final judgment and separating the sheep from the goats. As we prepared for this trip, I used Matthew 25 quite often to explain why Steve and I wanted to do this project so I thought it would be a good place to start.
At first sight it seems like the works based mentality that God uses to judge his people in this passage is at odds with the grace based gospel we are more frequently taught. What is the point of Jesus´ sacrifice if we are judged by what we do in the end anyway?
I think the truth in this passage has little to do with proclaiming a works based salvation and much more to do with diligence and seeking God wherever he is manifest. The two parables prior to this passage deal directly with diligence while waiting for something to come (parables of the ten virgins and workers given money by their master). As a follow up, verses 31-46 seem to work as a ´how to´ for what this diligence should look like. “As you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”
The other night I had the privilege of sitting in on a book study of the “Irresistible Revolution” with a college class studying in Tegucigalpa. As the conversation progressed, some of the students lamented how hard it is to hear God’s voice in terms of finding your calling. I remembered thinking this many times myself. How can people feel called by a God you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell? As the question was presented this passage popped into my head. Are we really dealing with a God so aloof that we can’t begin to approach him? Or is he already so close that we would go cross-eyed before we really saw him? Maybe the reason we often do not hear God’s call in our life is because we are waiting to hear from the God of the universe and we forget he is also the God of our tangible, everyday lives.
I think when Steve and I started forming the ideas for this project, it was because we started to see God’s call in Matthew 25 played out before us in a blatantly obvious way. Not once did I have a ´feeling´ about what God was saying to me specifically. In fact there were many times while planning this trip that I wondered if this was God’s will or our will sending us to Central America. But every time these questions came up, I could not bear the thought of not doing something in light of what we learned about immigration last spring. In the end, we had to do something and understanding the journey of migrants firsthand seemed like a good place to start. So here we go as fallen but faithful servants to a God too close to see.

Friday, May 2, 2008


I am now in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. For those of you who don´t know our background, Steve and I studied international Development in Teguc for a semester last spring. That is where the idea for this project began. Steve is not down here yet since he still has to graduate from Westmont. I will be meeting up with him next week in Guatemala City. Despite our skeleton crew of 1, I will do my best to give you some background from the starting point of our journey. Tegucigalpa has seen a lot of growth in the last few decades. Similar to most other third world countries, as work becomes more industrialized and farming more mechanized, many people have moved to the city to find work. As a result, informal neighborhoods have sprung up around major cities. I am staying in one of these neighborhoods called Nueva Suyapa. Although Nueva Suyapa´s population is generally poor, there are many organizations, churches, and businesses working here. Several years ago the main road into Nueva Suyapa was paved and many of the residents are receiving legal titles to their land. Development is happening here quite rapidly but the evidence of poverty is still prevalent. Opportunities for work are scarce, especially for the majority of people who have not received a high school education. Wherever you go you can see people selling mangoes, brooms, water, candy, and any number of other things on buses and street corners. In Nueva Suyapa there are some nice houses but many are no more than wood and tin shacks clinging to the hillside along dirt alleys. For those who have plumbing, water comes every 15 days (each house has a tank that gets filled so the water lasts more than a day). Despite the poverty I can´t help but say Nueva Suyapa is also beautiful. Don´t ask me to explain how. I have tried and I can´t. you will just have to take my word for it or come see for yourself.

Deciding to leave a place like this in order to support your family by working in another country can´t be easy. If this is all you know, the U.S. must seem like a very foreign place.

Over the next few days I will be talking to several residents of Nueva Suyapa who have family who left to find work either in the States or in Europe. I hope to discover how the decision to leave happens and what life is like for the families still here in Honduras. If you have questions you want me to ask families here, please send a comment to this post and I will be sure to bring them up.

Until then, Que Dios Les Bendiga,

Sunday, April 13, 2008


This is a piece written by Jessica Howen, one of our classmates in Honduras this past spring. It does a very good job of summing up our experience and will hopefully give you an idea of where our project was conceived.


Dinner with Honduras

On a dark, cold night, I knocked on the door of a small, earthen house. I came from curiosity, knowing that there were things to learn inside, though not yet knowing what. And perhaps I just wanted to get out of the cold. The door was opened by the small, gnarled hand of a small, gnarled woman. She quietly regarded me as I waited in anticipation on the porch. Then opening the door full, she welcomed me into the warmth of her home with a tired smile: "pase adelante." I entered her house with an eager step, eyes open to soak up what I could. I kissed her with the obligatory kiss of a stranger, to do what was expected. Then with her lips she pointed to a plastic chair and I sat as she went about her work.
She is Honduras, and I have come to know her.

I watched her as she began to prepare a plate of food for me. Her hair was drawn back, growing sparse like the mountain forests. Her aging skin, the color of roadside honey, her hands, worn with the work of many mornings and her arms as strong as ceiba trees. Her belly and hips were casualties of the joy she took in her many children. Over her old skirt she wore an apron with yellow frills, in which she kept the earnings of the day, selling tortillas and mangos. On her back was a second-hand shirt made by the sweat of her children. When she smiled, warm as the tropic sun, her teeth showed like scattered kernels of corn and her eyes sparkled blue like the waters of the northern coast.
She is beautiful, though she doesn't know it.

She set the plate in front of me: rice and beans, golden plantains, fresh corn tortillas, a lump of cheese, and smooth mantequilla. I began to eat and continued to study my hostess. I saw on her arm a bruise where her lover had gripped her too tightly. A foreigner from the north, he came with a strong grasp to take from her what he needed. He still hangs about the house, their relationship close and amicable, but the power differential is clear. She loves him and hates him. He will never leave, and she would never leave him.
But she is strong, though she doesn't know it.

As I sat at the table, savoring the food, her children were passing back and forth through the kitchen. Some children were well-dressed with long-toed shoes, others were dirty from working in the garden. One eyed me to the side as he passed, flashing an 18 tattooed on his wrist. Some were leaving through the back door, chasing a dream, but the children kept coming out of the bedroom to fill their place. The more I watched, the more I understood what they were about, but I could never claim to really know them. They spoke to me with grace and I to them with broken lines and phrases unsure, but somehow the meaning made its way through the muddled words, cutting windows into their eyes so that I could catch a glimpse inside. At times the windows stared, and at times, looked away.
They are my brothers; oh, that I would know it.

I am full and it is time to go. I look sadly at the plate. So much food has been left on it that I couldn't finish. My hostess smiles and shakes her head, takes the plate away, and gently leads me to the door. A tear hides in the corner of her eye, and one in mine, but perhaps the tears mean different things. One last embrace and I am gone. As I walk out the door, my legs are a little stronger, my skin is a little darker, my belly a little rounder, and my eyes, hopefully, a little wiser. Mucho gusto, Honduras, and thank you for your hospitality. My dinner with you has left me satisfied and wanting more.

-Jessica Howen

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Day on the Border

As a place to begin, this is a reflection I wrote after volunteering along the border in Arizona last summer. I worked with an organization that gives out food, water, and medical help to migrants in an effort to keep them from dying in the desert.
I changed some of the names of people. I'm not sure I had to do that but it was fun. Be assured though, these people are real and this day actually happened.
Please respond to what you read. I would like to hear what you think.

A Day on the Border
I heard the crackling of eggs as the sun rose over the neighboring bluff. Mrs. Breen is making us breakfast before we take off for the border. Her and her husband George, a pastor at one of the local churches, have been hosting Ali and I for three days now. The stucco is barely dry on their new house in the hills and the view out the picture window across the room is strait out of a John Wayne film.

As we slide through our morning routine Ali tells the Breens a little about what we expect to see today.

“Yesterday we ended up sitting around for five hours and no one came. Then when we went to get lunch, they said two busloads came and they couldn’t keep up with everyone. You never really know when Wackenhut will show up.”

Ali is from Seattle and is working on her nursing degree. I met her four days ago in Tucson where we discovered we would be spending the next week and a half together. She came to the border to help and to learn, the same as all of us. The Organization gave us a car to get down here. Pretty generous I thought, considering they didn’t know us a week ago. No More Deaths is like that though they figure if you are willing to come here to spend time in the desert, you are trustworthy. So far it seems to have worked.

At the border we park the car and hoof it across the line. A mustached man in cowboy boots glances from his paper as we step into his country. He is the only witness to our migration. In a traffic island covered with flies we see the tent that has become our office these last few days. Gilbert is already busy preparing the morning meal and wetting down the dirt floor with a sanitizing layer of bleach.

Several others mill around this morning as well. There are the usual venders who stop in for a cup of coffee before selling papers and cheap mandolins to impatient motorists heading to the U.S. At the edge of a bench I see a woman with three little children. She is so small I would have guessed she was a child herself if her age hardened face didn’t give her away. She wasn’t there last night. Where did they come from? A few minutes later Jason, our veteran volunteer and local info-source showed up. He explained that that this woman and her children showed up last night after we left. The shelters were closed so they spent the night at the aid station (where the most comfortable furniture is a wooden bench). Yesterday they had been picked up by Boarder Patrol a few miles in and were promptly given to Wackenhut who bussed them back to this side of the line.

Based on the shopping bags their belongings were in, it was hard to imagine this family was ready to hike the desert. The mother, her name was Dora, did not have any socks and already you could see the blisters beginning to form on her heel. The children seemed healthy but were certainly not old enough to attempt the crossing. The oldest boy was Carlos, he was 7. The younger two were Nadia and Isis. I’m not sure they could walk across a mall parking lot let alone the three day desert journey to Tucson and still, here they were.

We discovered Dora’s husband lives in North Carolina. Her oldest daughter had already made the journey and was living with him. Their plan was to meet him up in the States but unfortunately, there was a line in the way. With the tightening of border security more and more former seasonal workers are staying in the U.S. rather than risk the journey every year. Because of this, families like Dora’s are put at odds and are faced with many difficult decisions. If Dora’s husband were to move back to Mexico, he would forgo the economic opportunities provided in the U.S. If he stays, he is separated indefinitely from his family.

These are tough decisions. I cannot fault Dora for wanting to reunite her family. It is what any mother would want. But now they face a dangerous situation in a foreign place with no one they can trust. As aid workers positioned here to keep people from dying in the desert, we are compelled to help in any way we can but unfortunately our options are limited. Bringing them across the border ourselves is out of the question. It is illegal and could jeopardize all the work the organization is doing.

Jason considers talking to some Coyotes he thinks are trustworthy. Coyotes, also known as Polleros (chicken herders) have a notoriously bad reputation. They are the guides that bring people across the line and if you go with a bad one, you may be better off on your own. At this point maybe talking to one that Jason believes is trustworthy might be the best option but that poses its own problems.

The Coyotes in Nogales are controlled by the mafia who conveniently control turf right across the street from our aid station. Each day we see deals going down as migrants eager to make another attempt, are solicited as soon as they cross the line. We were told on our first day that the presence of the aid station was ‘tolerated’ and any bad encounters with the guys across the street could mean finding a new place to set up camp. People seemed to make a point of getting along regardless of what side of the law they were on but it was still nothing to mess with.

Jason finally decided that ‘asking’ for help in Dora’s case might mean ‘owing’ a favor later on. This is a precarious position that the organization could not risk. So the idea was dropped.

As we began tending to our morning duties we started talking about what could happen. As people who are not accounted for before the law, migrants are in a vulnerable position. Stories of rape are relatively common and selling children, particularly young girls, can happen as well. As we continued to talk I found myself discussing things that would have been absurd where I am from. The only problem is, this is where I am from. All these things taking place, where do they happen? Where are children sold and mothers raped? right in the United States. Did Dora know about this when she left her home?

This realization hit like a brick. No longer were human rights abuses reserved for news clips from foreign continents. This was not a story of an African village conveniently confined the pages of a National Geographic. It was here. Right here before my very eyes. This woman, these children were the ones risking themselves to reunite their family in my country.

As morning turned to afternoon Dora was able to call her husband. She got the name of the Coyote who helped their daughter. As they were talking I showed the children my sketchbook. Nadia was particularly fond of the picture of my house in Grand Rapids and on my request, she drew hers as well. I gave them my backpack and a pair of sunglasses. At least that way they could use one less shopping bag. We found a clean pair of socks for Dora and late that afternoon they took off. The Coyote they were to meet was supposed to be good. They were told they would be picked up seven miles past the border by a car and would not have to walk three days to Tucson. In my mind they made it. In my mind they are safe and will soon see their father and husband in North Carolina. But I don’t know.

As the sun begins to set I see a few more buses approaching the line. Today has been slow, we have only seen about 100 people. As people get their food and water I am given the chance for the first time to help patch a blister. Thanks to the patience of the man I am helping I finally get him on his feet after three failed attempts at cutting the right size moleskin patch. My mind is somewhere else.

That night we go back to the Breen‘s house. Stakes are just coming off the grill and the wine is properly chilled. As I savor a mouthful of buttery green beans I think of the hotdog soup we served at the aid station today. Then I think of Dora and her children. Where are they tonight? Did they cross the line? Are they safe? I think about how easy it was for us to cross. A Michigan driver’s license was all it took. One time they didn’t even stop me.

Who is it we are trying to keep out of our country anyway? Is it Dora and her three children? Is it her husband who wants to provide for his family? I know there are people in the world who seek to do our country harm. I know it is important for a country to maintain the safety of its inhabitants but when is the cost too much?