By Juan Luis García
When the national outcry began over the separation of children from adults who crossed into the United States from Mexico illegally, the Texas Tribune sent me to the border.
This was my first experience covering a story in the center of U.S national attention, and what started as a two-day visit extended to the whole week.
As I drove six hours from Austin to McAllen, on the southern tip of the state, I discovered how green Texas is, and watched deer crossing the roads. I also learned how weather can play a significant role during the coverage of a news event.
I was raised in Guatemala, a small country where earthquakes take place on a regular basis, and eight of 288 volcanoes are frequently active. Nothing of that background was useful when, once in the Valley of Texas, I received two weather alarms before sunrise: a flood and a possible tornado. The dramatic immigration story began competing for attention with the dangerous weather story.
The Alfred Friendly fellowship program gave me the chance to cover migration in a new way. As a Mexican/Guatemalan reporter, I have followed the emigration routes in the southwest of Mexico. Central Americans get on the top of noisy trains, nicknamed “The Beast,” and cross the country on the shaking roofs day and night, hoping that the fatigue doesn’t cause them fall to their deaths.
On this occasion, I was able to speak for the first time with migrants who have already reached the U.S. border. At the Matamoros-Brownsville international bridge gateway, a group of immigrants were requesting asylum. They spent many nights there, even during rainfalls, waiting to be received.
While they wait, others cross the border from Mexico as part of their daily lives. Long lines of pedestrians and vehicles are on the U.S. side of the border, waiting to get into Mexico. The countries share a nearly 2,000-mile border, and trade transactions between two countries are valued as high as $1 million per minute.
Listening to the asylum seekers on the bridge reminds me of the violence and poverty in the North Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala).
One of the migrants I interviewed, a 22-year-old from Guatemala named Marcos, decided to abandon his country with his wife and four children to avoid gang violence.
They had a small seafood restaurant, a “cevichería,” in Mazatenango, a small town in Southwest Guatemala. But their business enterprise ended in a nightmare when gangs started to extort money from him. As an icebreaker, I tell Marcos I used to travel to “Mazate” when I visited my former girlfriend’s family in a nearby town.
As soon I said this, his face showed surprise. Maybe he found a piece of Guatemala in me, so far from his home. He opened up and told me that his wife and kids came days earlier to the same bridge seeking asylum, and they were split up.
Even as I checked the facts of Marcos’ story as we always must do, I couldn’t help personally relating to his plight. I saw his fragility and lamented that he had to struggle with violence. I myself lost a relative because of it. Marco said he had to make this arduous journey before someone in his family was murdered.
Central Americans fleeing violence are common to find among to migrants. I was seven years old when a peace treaty was signed in Guatemala after 36 years of civil war. The government attempted to stop the violence, but slowly the gangs, “maras,” turned extreme violence into common criminality. Some people feel no choice but to emigrate. The Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton aptly described its people as “los tristes más tristes del mundo” — the saddest sad people of the world.
The family separation crisis has placed the border issues in a more intense national spotlight. During the week at the border, I was able to cover visits to child shelters by U.S. senators and members of Congress. Democrats and Republicans agree on this issue: families should stay together. But the reunification after the zero-tolerance policy seems that it will take time. At this writing, only 550 of around 2,500 separated children had been reunited with their parents.
Federal courts have started to dismiss cases under the zero-tolerance policy. When I watched an immigration hearing in Brownsville, 42 people pled guilty of illegal entry. It is curious that all the officials here seem to be Latin descendants. The sound of the chains clashing was the only thing I heard when the judge was silent between cases.
As part of a group of reporters, I was able to speak with a public defender one morning. Rudy Rodriguez is a veteran lawyer who wore a blue suit and has stylish white hair over his shoulders. “You have been busy, we can tell,” someone said. “We have a busy president,” Rodriguez answered, smiling.