In the Hands of the Coyotes

Mexican border 

“He has decided to come to America. And as a young, poor Honduran, he will come illegally. And I am going to help him.”

So reads the mission statement of S. Gonzalez, an American citizen who chose to help his brother – born in Honduras, and a stranger to the opportunities that he had enjoyed from birth – to jump the United States border earlier this year.

To offer a glimpse into the experiences, thoughts and emotions of an illegal immigrant and his family, he shared his story with Honduras This Week.

Illegal immigration to the States from Central America is an issue of growing concern: US Office of Immigration statistics show that, after Mexico, Honduras provides the country with the greatest number of ‘deportable aliens’ – around 17,000 in 2003; almost 5000 more than El Salvador and a sizeable 41% of the Central American total.

Setting out his reasons for swelling these statistics further, Gonzalez points out that he had a better quality of life than his brother only because of a “simple 8×10 piece of paper, my birth certificate.” Compared with the States, he argues, in Honduras “rights to assemble and free speech can be fragile at times.” And although his brother finished high school in his native country, “the public education he received was poor.”

On graduation, his family gave his brother the choice between continuing as he was, and leaving his home behind to seek a new life in America. Like so many thousands of others each year, he chose the latter.

“A nation has a right to make laws. The United States has the right to decide who may enter its land and who may not,” Gonzalez admits. “It is not unreasonable for a country to restrict immigration … We are under no moral, legal or contractual obligation to open our borders to all who wish to enter.”

But whilst maintaining that border patrols must do all they can to protect the country from terrorists and criminals, he draws attention to the many immigrants whose families are living in wretched poverty.

“I was given privileges of citizenship, an education and a social safety net that will all but ensure a prosperous life. I did nothing to earn or deserve this. I cannot stand in the way of others who merely wish to obtain the same freedoms and prosperity that I have by the grace of God.”

It’s certainly an attitude that costs the United States government. Back in 2000, Joe Banda – an INS Special Agent at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa – told Latin American Press that it costs approximately $3000 to capture and deport one illegal Honduran migrant. By this estimate, the annual expenditure to deport 17,000 of them runs into millions of dollars for Honduras alone.

Banda was discussing Operation Disrupt, a five-year programme that saw US immigration officials intercepting potential migrants before they even reached the border.

During the eighth phase, known as Operation Forerunner, US authorities captured notorious Honduran coyote Jose Leon Castillo after he was re-routed to Los Angeles from Guatemala, instead of heading straight to Honduras.

The operation – run across Central America – came under fire for largely targeting the migrants themselves rather than the people smugglers who act as a catalyst. Commonly referred to as ‘coyotes’ or ‘polleros’, they are for many an unavoidable part of the process. But the thousands of dollars that change hands have never been any guarantee of safety, and the massive risks involved are well-known across the world.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal stated that 36 people died in transit in Yuma County, Arizona last year alone. And given that a friend of their father’s had already drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande, Gonzalez and his brother were only too aware of the potential dangers.

The first coyote they encountered passed on by word-of-mouth from a friend also planning to migrate, quoted $6000. When the first attempt to smuggle their friend, Pancho, failed, the pair sought another quote: $2000 down-payment for a total cost of $4000.

After this trip was delayed for several weeks they began to lose faith, but when a call from Pancho confirmed that he had made it to the States, they made the necessary arrangements to leave on 14th January with the original ‘pollero’. The trip would take two weeks.

“The coyote came to the house early in the morning. My brother took three changes of clothes and a toothbrush. He cried as he said goodbye to his mother. His mother told him to stop crying, that he had to be a man now.” That night Gonzalez received a call from Guatemala: The trip would be made by car. “Although they were packed in like sardines and only consumed tortillas, frijoles and water, he said that he hadn’t done any suffering yet,” he recalls.

Fears that the fee would be jacked up at every opportunity proved unfounded, despite frequent calls from the coyote’s personal cellular phone to the States and Honduras to update the family on progress. Another friend had been force to borrow thousands of dollars and work two full-time jobs for a year to pay off the swelling fees after her son was smuggled across the border, including a sizeable telephone bill, but these costs never materialized for Gonzalez.

A call from the coyote announced that they were about to cross the border and demanded the rest of the money, but after several days of silence – with the coyote’s number now ‘out of service’ – there was still no word. “At that time I did not ponder as I do now what it must be like for the families of those who don’t make it,” says Gonzalez. “I can only imagine the financial consequences of the death of a primary breadwinner. I cannot, however, imagine their grief.”

Eventually his brother made contact from a bus station in Laredo, Texas, having been abandoned by the coyote. “He didn’t have much time to talk. His phone card was running out. I didn’t have time to tell him to get as far away from the bus station as possible. The ‘pinche migra’ would surely pick him up there.” Indeed, according to the Office of Immigration, in 2003 over 70,000 ‘deportable aliens’ were intercepted by the border patrol in Laredo alone.

It didn’t take long. Less than an hour after he had tackled the Rio Grande in an inflatable raft, Gonzalez’s brother, who was carrying a Honduran passport and ID card, found himself in a holding cell with a cement floor, living on water and bologna sandwiches while the border patrol attempted to contact a fictitious Aunt.

After two days without sleep he was released with a record of his illegal entrance, apprehension and release and a summons to appear in a court in New York, where the Aunt supposedly lived. Once a set of false documents – ‘chuecos’ – have been produced, Gonzalez claims that he’ll be able to work at “almost any business that’s hiring.”

“I’ve heard stories about illegal immigrants crawling under barbed wire, hiding in ravines with biting ants, driving from mud puddles and walking all day in 100 degree heat,” he says.

“The journey took a little over two weeks. [My brother] says that he suffered, but a couple of days in a holding cell with bologna sandwiches and an uncomfortable bed is a vacation compared to the experiences of many illegal immigrants. He got off easy.”

This article was published in Honduras This Week, Saturday April 16th 2005

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