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From Mexico to California, and back

Caroline Moorehead
19 November 2003

Imelda is neither a refugee, nor an asylum-seeker, nor even, at the moment, an exile. She is in limbo, displaced by poverty and circumstance, a woman for whom migration is not a matter of choice, but necessity. Her story says much about the limits of the debate surrounding the question of where refugees end and economic migrants begin, as it does about the hardship and misery of human migration in our time.

Imelda is a thin, compliant woman of 30, whose thick hair is wound into a smooth plait. She is Mexican, from Guadalajara, the mother of three children. The eldest, Dolores, is 9, a spindly little girl with new sparkling sneakers and a jaunty manner. Dolores speaks English, and acts as interpreter for her mother.

Four years ago, Imelda and her husband realised that they were sinking ever further into debt. They were living with her parents, a brother, two sisters and several children, and Imelda’s husband Jaime worked on a ranch. There was not always enough to eat. The grandparents were getting older, and frailer, and there were always more children to feed. At night, they would discuss following in Jaime’s brother’s footsteps and going north, crossing into California, and finding work so that they could send dollars home. But they always shrank back from such a move, fearing the journey with such a small child. What they would not do, they agreed, was leave Dolores behind.

Crossing the border

The day came when Jaime lost his job. There was no other to be found. The couple took Dolores, packed a small bag with one change of clothing each, and took a bus to Tijuana, the frontier with San Diego in California. They had, of course, no passports and no papers, and they knew that they would not officially be welcome in the United States. But they had been told that it was not hard to cross the border, particularly at night, over the mountains, though the route was rough, and frightening, and not easy for either women or children.

Since Operation Gatekeeper, in the early 1990s, the deterrents put in place to keep Mexicans from crossing illegally into the United States had grown tougher. There were 100 kilometres of fence, made of steel panels and fortified pylons, with floodlights and sensory detectors, and increasing numbers of Border Patrols to keep would-be immigrants at bay.

Arizona, further along the 3,200-kilometre border that separates Mexico from the United States, was even tougher to enter. There, the desert is wider, and there were vigilantes, who went out at night in their four-wheel drives to round up the migrants.

On their first night in Tijuana, Imelda, Jaime and Dolores made their way to the Casa del Migrante, a refuge run by the missionary order of San Carlos to care for migrants journeying north. The family was split up – Jaime into the men’s dormitory, Imelda and Dolores with Sister Hema, the Brazilian nun who ran the women’s house two doors away. Talking to the other men in his refuge, Jaime learnt all about the routes over the border, the mountain passes and river beds, the spots to avoid and the changes of shift in the border patrols. He heard about the coyotes, the human smugglers who for a fee – $1000 for a crossing over the mountains – will guide a migrant to the other side.

The family had no money for a coyote, so Jaime proposed crossing alone first. One night, he left the Casa del Migrante after dark and, following instructions left behind by other migrants, made his way across the mountains and through the scrub into California. He went to Hollywood, where his brother found him a job in a restaurant. Soon, by working long hours and borrowing from Mexicans already working in Hollywood, he saved $1,700.

This was enough for Imelda to cross from Tijuana into California with a coyote, and for Dolores to be taken openly across the border at San Ysidro, where Tijuana and San Diego meet, by a Mexican woman with false papers for a small girl. Imelda hesitated. She had heard stories about women entrusting their children to Mexican coyote rings, and never seeing them again. But in the end, as with so much in her life, she felt she had no choice.

Imelda describes her journey, and Dolores translates: “Late one night, they came to collect Dolores. I cried, because I didn’t think I would ever see her again. Then a man came to fetch me in a car. We drove to the edge of Tijuana, and a young boy appeared. There was another woman, with a child a bit older than Dolores, and two men. The coyotes now use boys as guides because they know that, if arrested by the Border Patrol, they will be released. We walked for several hours. No one spoke. We had water in bottles and some biscuits. Every now and again we saw the lights of the Border Patrol and we hid. We spent most of the next day hiding, behind rocks and in the bushes. Once we heard the noise of other people, other migrants crossing into California. At last we were told that we had reached the other side, and we were taken to a safe house to rest. I found Dolores there.”

Streets paved with migrants

And there, Imelda’s story might have ended. She had become one of many tens of thousands of Mexicans who cross clandestinely into America each year in search of illegal work in agriculture or the service industries. Undocumented and paperless migrants, they feed California’s need for cheap labour, and often cross backwards and forwards over the border, either alone or with coyotes, trying to avoid capture.

They are also trying to stay alive, for the border has taken the lives of over 350 migrants in the last year alone, people driven into ever more dangerous and arid terrain by the increasing fortifications in and around Tijuana and San Diego. These crossings continue because of a genuine ambivalence on the part of the Americans. They need and therefore tolerate the illegal cheap labour, but they must also be seen, with the help of border patrols, high fences and bright detecting lights, to be keeping them out.

As it happened, Imelda and Jaime did not fare well in Hollywood. Though Jaime got a better job, making toy bones for dogs at $285 a week, there was never enough money to send home, and soon not enough to feed the two children born after they reached California. And so, in October 2003, they decided to go home. They packed up their rented room in Hollywood, put their few belongings into cases and took a bus down to the border at Tijuana.

Crossing this time was no trouble: they were Mexicans, going home, except that they had no savings, indeed no money beyond the bus fare from Hollywood to San Diego. When they reached Tijuana, they went back to the Casa del Migrante, where Sister Hema welcomed them in. And Jaime went out in search of work, to earn enough money for a bus to Guadalajara for himself, Imelda and their three children. There is very little work to be had in Tijuana, however, and a week after their return to Mexico, he had still not been able to make enough to pay for their fares.

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