When asked about the migrant caravan recently, US Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed that 600 “convicted criminals” are part of it. It’s unclear where the number comes from or if it is at all true – the Trump administration has lied before – but the implication is clear: These “aliens” are dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States.
The “criminal” narrative fancied by the president of the United States, who once broadly painted undocumented immigrants from Mexico as “rapists”, served as justification for the costly and unnecessary deployment of thousands of US servicemen and women to an already heavily fortified border, one patrolled by tens of thousands of heavily armed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.
Given the “criminal” narrative’s traction in the US, I set out to try and find one of those so-called criminals at El Barretal, the new migrant shelter in Tijuana, amidst the groups of children playing, women chatting, and men queuing for food. As I finished an interview, a young man smiled at me, eager to talk. Little did I know I had finally found my “criminal”.
For his protection, we’ll call him Jose. He is 19-year-old, wears a fake-leather jacket, a baseball cap and worn-out sneakers. He is from a rural area of Honduras. Like so many others in the caravan, he had a tough childhood. “My father went to jail when my mother was pregnant with me. The gang killed him when he got out of jail,” he explained matter-of-factly. When Jose was 9, his mother left his stepfather, who was violent and abusive, he told me.
So Jose had to come up with a way to help financially support his mother and himself. “At age 10, I went to milk the cows,” he said. But that wasn’t enough. Soon, he migrated to Guatemala – on his own. He was 11 and found work in a small hotel-restaurant where he took orders from the patrons and helped in the kitchen. “The owner treated me well, as though he had adopted me, but eventually I returned to Honduras for Christmas and decided to stay at home,” Jose tells me.
That’s when the dream’s seed was planted. An uncle had come for an extended visit, straight from a large town in Texas, where he lived illegally. The uncle told him about the joys of life in the US: work, safety, the big life. Jose decided he wanted a part of it, too. So he left home again, at age 13, to try and find his way to the land of milk and honey, a distorted image of US life his uncle had imprinted in the young boy’s mind.
Along with a friend, Jose made it to Palenque, Mexico, from where they clandestinely boarded “La Bestia”, a northbound freight train. Just like them, many other migrants hid in the wagons, hoping to make it safely to their destination. They didn’t. “Around Chontalpa, the train stopped and around 15 members of the MS-13 came onboard with machetes and two guns,” Jose told me. “They wanted us to pay $100 each to pass, but I didn’t have that kind of money.”
Migrants were beaten and extorted – Jose managed to avoid paying, but he received no “password” from the notorious gang to prove to others further down the route that he had paid. At another stop, several hours later, other gang members came on board, asking for money, threatening those who didn’t have it. Jose and his friend jumped off the wagon, running for their lives.
After spending seven months working in Veracruz, Mexico, Jose continued his journey towards the US. His uncle helped him find a coyote – or human trafficker – who helped him cross into Texas alongside a few others. Once in the US, Jose said Border Patrol quickly found and arrested them. “I was detained for two months and they treated me well. An investigator asked if I had tattoos and if I had seen people killed by the gangs. I told her about my cousin and father who were killed,” Jose told me.
At the end of the two months, Jose said he was released to his uncle while his asylum claim was processed. For the first time since he was 9, he was enrolled in high school, he told me. For a while, things went well for Jose. He studied and lived with his uncle, presenting himself to the immigration court once every 3 or 4 months.
But in 2015, the dream went awry when Jose missed an appointment with the immigration court. It was scheduled for 11am, he said, but his uncle couldn’t take him and he struggled to get there by public transportation. He arrived 3 hours late. The court was closed. “I went back a few days later and they told me that I had to find myself a lawyer,” Jose said. When he called a few lawyers, he explained they all told him the process would cost him around US$10,000.
All this, and Jose was only 16.
So Jose decided to go underground. “I was afraid that ICE would show up at my school, so I abandoned my classes, found a job in construction, and rented a room elsewhere,” he told me. Around that time, Jose had his first encounter with those policing the American dream.
“I was coming back from work with friends and we wanted to buy food but we were short a dollar. So I went to ask a Mexican who sat at a terrace nearby if he could lend me one,” Jose told me. The man refused and insulted Jose and his friends for being Honduran. The discussion got heated and the man pulled out a handgun, Jose said. A passerby called the police. By the time the officer showed up, Jose said he and his friends were walking away.
“When we saw the police car, we stopped. They arrested us, and I was accused of threatening the Mexican man,” he said. A judge sentenced him to 3 months in detention, but Jose got out after a month since he worked in the detention center’s kitchen and showed good behavior. By then, Jose had lost his spot in the apartment he and others rented as well as his job.
Jose being Jose, he quickly figured out a solution and found a new place to live, not too far from a gated community. But his trouble didn’t end there. “One night, a friend invited me to play PlayStation at his house. He was drunk, but I decided to go with him nonetheless. As we walked towards his place, a white security guard called out to us and said only those living in the area were allowed,” Jose said. When the security guard noticed Jose’s friend was drunk, he called the police. Both were arrested for trespassing. Jose was released after a month, without charges he said.
Jose said his third and final encounter with US law enforcement took place a few months later. Like many young people, Jose fell in love. And his girlfriend lived in the same gated community where he had been arrested for trespassing. But Jose being a young man in love, that didn’t stop him from entering it. The same guard however did. He had warned Jose not to come back to the area. Upon seeing him walking in the street, he followed him all the way up to Jose’s girlfriend home. And once more, he called the police, despite the young woman’s pleas to let him alone.
That was the final straw – Jose said he spent a month in county detention and was then transferred to immigration. “Two weeks after I got there, they had me sign a paper. I didn’t know what it was,” Jose explained. It turned out to be his deportation order. “One day, they came to my cell and said: ‘pick up your things, you’re going back to Honduras.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about…” Jose recalled.
US immigration officials cuffed Jose’s wrists and ankles and brought him aboard a plane. “I felt like an animal,” he told me. And a few hours later, he landed in the gang-ridden town of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “I went to my grandparents, out in the mountain. They didn’t recognize me at first,” he says laughing. There, Jose worked in the coffee fields with his grandfather, “a hard-working man.”
Two years ago, Jose posted a photo of himself on Facebook, with the following text: “From the past, I don’t own anything, so I can move forward without looking back. Best to try and ignore the bad memories and continue living the present as I want it to be.” So when he heard of the Caravan leaving for the US, Jose didn’t think about it twice. He missed his friends and life there.
And so off he was again, hoping to make it back to the dream land.
But his chances are dim. If you listen to Secretary Nielsen, he is just a dangerous “convicted criminal,” anyway.