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Overcoming Misconceptions of the Origins of Mexican and Central American Migration



Hundreds of Central Americans were still riding La Bestia, in Ixtepec, Oaxaca in 2012. Photo (c) Joseph Sorrentino

The story in the US is that Mexicans and Central Americans who are trying to enter the US are all criminals. That’s absolutely untrue. Certainly, there are some criminals trying to enter the US but the vast majority aren’t and all the data support this. Because of the increased danger of traveling through Mexico and the fact that it’s almost impossible to obtain asylum in the US, more Central Americans are seeking to live in Mexico. The problem is that, while Mexico may be able to absorb thousands of Central Americans, there are very few jobs available to them and the jobs that they are able to get won’t do much more than allow them to survive. That story is underreported.

At a time with massive deportation out of America, we are constantly hearing news of people trying to make

Women are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and abuse and, in many documented cases, have reported that they had to have sex with a supervisor in order to keep their job.

their way into America, both legally and illegally.  What insights can you offer on what our Government in the USA and the people living and working here can realize to help them overcome their misunderstandings of what is going on?

Noel is a 16 year old Honduran walking to America because he wanted to find a job so he could help his mother who had cancer.

Let’s begin with farmworkers and dairy workers in the US, the vast majority of whom are Mexican. It’s estimated that more than 50% are undocumented and, given the current political climate, are at real risk of deportation. I’ve written about farmworkers and dairy workers for just over 15 years and can literally count on one hand the number of non-Mexican or Mexican-American workers I’ve encountered. I’m certain that the majority of workers I’ve interviewed were undocumented. It’s often said that Americans won’t do that kind of work and while that might be true, I’m thoroughly convinced that if farmworkers and dairy workers were paid a living wage and given benefits, Americans would flock to the jobs. I know this because I’ve written about former uranium miners. That was, and is, a dangerous, filthy job yet people did it because it paid well. Farmworkers and dairy workers work long hours for minimum wage (and often less than minimum wage) and have no benefits. They’re routinely subjected to wage theft and Social Security fraud and female

A campesino harvesting coffee in Santa Catarina, a village in the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico. Coffee from this remote village has to be brought to the warehouse in San José Tenango. Most campesinos can’t afford mules, so they carry 70 pounds of coffee on their back, through the mountains; a trip that takes seven hours. They earn, on average, $2/day.

farmworkers are subjected to rampant sexual abuse and harassment. If the US deports undocumented workers, as has been threatened, we will have little to eat and few dairy products. The campesinos I’ve interviewed in villages across Mexico want to come to the US to work for a period of time to earn enough to support their families; most don’t want to stay e permanently. I’ll address conditions for Central Americans below.

Many people if not most people, live in a bubble. They know what they see in front of them and therefore have a limited World View.  What knowledge can you provide to others to understand the reasons that people are trying to leave their communities in Mexico and Central America?

As I mentioned in the previous answer, most Mexicans are leaving their villages for the US because they want to earn money to support their families. Recently, there have been more Mexicans leaving villages and cities because of drug violence.
The overwhelming majority of Central Americans are fleeing the Northern Triangle Countries (NTCs) because of almost unimaginable violence, most of which is perpetrated by two notorious gangs, the MS-18 and Mara Salvatrucha. I’ve interviewed people who have had sons and grandsons murdered by the gangs because they refused to join or refused to sell drugs for them. They cannot go to the police either because the police are ineffective or colluding with the gangs.

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 What are the situations really like? And why are they like this in these communities?

José carrying green chiles, Hatch, NM. . This is a chilero, a chile-picker, in southern New Mexico. They’re paid between 85¢ and $1 for a full bucket of chiles, which weighs 20 lbs. I uncovered rampant wage theft and Social Security fraud.

The gangs in the NTC’s murder, kidnap and rape with impunity. They extort money (it’s called renta) from businesses and it’s a fact that if a person is a cab or bus driver in those countries, a large portion of their income is paid to the gangs. If a person refuses to pay it, they’ll be murdered. I’ve interviewed people who lost businesses because the gangs wanted increasing amounts of renta. One couple I remember was paying half their income to the gang and had to flee when the gang tried to force the husband to sell drugs. When I asked the wife what would happen if he refused and they stayed she just shrugged and said, “They would kill us.” In some cities, people have to pay renta just to live in their neighborhood.





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What are the risks that people take to leave their communities?  What happens to them during migration?

This photo is from a shelter in Tapachula, Chiapas. Felix Antonio had his neck sliced by a Mara Salvatrucha member, losing the ability to use his right hand. They also murdered his mother. When I asked him why, he said, “Only God knows.”

The journey through Mexico for Central Americans can only be described as horrific. The best estimates are that 80% of them will be assaulted and robbed, 60% of all women will be raped. In fact, women are so sure they’ll be raped that most of them will get injected with Depro Provera, a long-lasting birth control (many Mexican shelters offer these injections). Until 2014, the majority of asylum-seekers and migrants rode the freight trains known as La Bestia and trains would be crammed with hundreds of people clinging to the tops of train cars. But that year Mexico, under pressure from the US to stop migration, instituted Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program). Mexican authorities have prevented people from riding La Bestia by stationing immigration officials and police at train stations and, at times, by literally pulling people off trains. There are documented cases of police using Tasers, shooting at and, in some cases, killing Central Americans. Train companies have erected cement poles along some tracks so people can’t run alongside trains and hop on, and have also hired custodios, private security, to ride the trains. Custodios have robbed and beaten people riding the trains. Because they can no longer ride La Bestia, people are literally walking to the US. This is leaving them easy prey for drug cartels, who kidnap people and hold them for ransom, as well as local thugs. A shelter for Central Americans was opened in Chahuites, a small city in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, about a month after Programa Frontera Sur was instituted because virtually everyone passing through that town was being attacked.

There’s a quote from a shelter worker that sums up conditions: “People think, if I stay (in my home country) I will die. If I leave, I may die. They choose between certain and possible death.”

What are some of the solutions that you see that can help to transform their situations for an improved quality of life?

Obviously, immigration is a complicated issue and there are no easy answers. One thing we absolutely need is a fair guest worker program. We need farmworkers and dairy workers (and restaurant, hotel and landscaping workers) and the majority, right now,

A hidden area in Chahuites, Oaxaca where Central American women were dragged to be raped.

are undocumented. We need a program that ensures fair pay and treatment and allows them to come out of the shadows. In Central America, and I say this knowing US intervention has caused many of the problems there, we need to work with governments there to curb the gangs, build infrastructure and the economies and ensure safety. The majority of people do not want to leave their communities but staying has become far too dangerous.

Is the local and national media in Mexico and Central America representing the stories of the local communities properly and effectively, and, if not, what is story that is being told?

I can’t answer in much depth about the media in Central America and know only a little more about the media in Mexico, but most of my knowledge comes from more liberal newspapers and magazines. I have interviewed a large number of Mexican workers and every one of them has told me that Central Americans are discriminated against: they’re paid less than Mexican workers and are subjected to verbal and physical abuse. I also know that being a journalist in Mexico (and I’m sure in Central America as well), especially one reporting on corruption and abuse, is a dangerous job. In fact, according to Radio Free Europe, Mexico ranked second as the most dangerous

Zenaida is harvesting nopal. The work is done under a punishing sun and she and her husband, like most campesinos, earn about $2/day.

country for journalists in 2017, behind Syria and ahead of Afghanistan.

I know more about media in the US and the story here is that Mexicans and Central Americans who are trying to enter the US are criminals. That’s absolutely untrue. Certainly, there are some criminals trying to enter the US but the vast majority aren’t and all the data support this. Because of the increased danger of traveling through Mexico and the fact that it’s almost impossible to obtain asylum in the US, our media is reporting that more Central Americans are seeking to live in Mexico. That’s true but the problem is that, while Mexico may be theoretically able to absorb thousands of Central Americans, there are very few jobs available to them and the jobs that they are able to get won’t do much more than allow them to survive. That story is basically being ignored.

What are the solutions that you see and how can they be enabled?

Hondurans. MS 13 wanted him to sell drugs. When he refused, they threatened to kill him. They didn’t have the 20 pesos (just over $1) it cost to take a raft across the Rio Suchiate–the river separating Guatemala and Mexico–so they swam across. “The river is deep, it is dangerous,” said Alan “but we did it out of necessity.” Sandra, his wife, was pregnant with twins.

Again, we need a fair guest worker program for people seeking to work here. We need a program that allows the estimated 11 million undocumented people to come out of the shadows and to live and work freely. For those fleeing the extreme violence in the TNCs, we need to acknowledge the fact that they are refugees and we should grant them asylum.

To hear a conversation with Joseph Sorrentino, please click here:

Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer who has been documenting  the realities of life in Central American communities.  He currently resides in New Mexico.

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