Migrants still hope for chance at American dream

Wendy Fry
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Tijuana, Mexico – The images and stories captivated the world’s attention.

An exhausted 4-year-old collapsed to the ground, crying, her tiny legs unable to carry her another step.

Thousands of Central Americans, each with their own unique personal story, many from Honduras and fleeing gang violence, gathered at the base of a tall, yellow fence at the border with Mexico in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, ready to break it down. The crowd stretched as far down the road as anyone could see.

Carlos Jefferson, 12, from Honduras, works on math as he homeschools himself and others at Su Casa, a home for Central American migrants, in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 14.

A year later, some of those iconic images and stories cannot be forgotten, even as the people in the caravan that arrived in Tijuana on Nov. 19, 2018, have scattered in different directions of the world: some making tentative and fragile lives in the United States; some back in Honduras; some working and living in Tijuana; still hoping for their chance at the American dream.

“I still have faith I will get a chance to make a life,” said David Enamorado, a 22-year-old from Honduras who arrived in Tijuana last November. Working this past year for 12 hours a night in a nearby maquiladora, or factory, Enamorado said he is waiting for his turn to make an initial U.S. asylum claim.

He said he did not put his name on Tijuana’s giant wait list to approach U.S. border officials when he first arrived.

“I was hoping to find a sponsor first in the United States because none of my family (there) will help me,” said Enamorado, who said a man pulled a knife on him in Honduras, putting it to his throat and threatening to kill him for being gay.

Enamorado said he is still hoping to find a sponsor in the U.S. – someone who will assure the U.S. government he will continue appearing at his asylum hearings and support him financially as his case proceeds through court.

The notoriety of the 2018 and 2019 caravans that arrived in this region was fueled partly by the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted regularly about it, as it made its way north through Mexico ahead of the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018.

Trump labeled the people in the caravan “invaders” and deployed American soldiers to the border, foreshadowing a confrontation that brewed for weeks before U.S. border agents deployed tear gas on asylum-seekers in Tijuana the day after Thanksgiving.

The Trump administration made sweeping changes to the U.S. asylum system in response to the migrant caravans. Many of the initiatives are still being challenged in court. Mexico has also changed its approach to immigration as a result. It recently used its National Guard to stop a caravan of about 2,000 people, mostly from Africa, from traveling northward.

“Already, there are so many Op-Eds being written in Mexico and commentaries on television that Mexico has essentially become the wall for the United States. Rather than following through on Donald Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, Mexico is the wall for the United States and it will essentially stop migrants from coming up through the country,” Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at The Wilson Center, told Bloomberg News in June.

Yenni Lopez, 33, from Honduras, stands in Su Casa, a home for Central American migrants that she helps run, in Tijuana, Mexico on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

The caravan’s far-reaching impacts could hardly have been predicted when the Central Americans started their journey. On Oct. 13, 2018, the original group of about 1,000 set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras “with nothing more than a suitcase full of dreams,” reported the Spanish-language newspaper El Heraldo. Thousands joined them as the caravan swelled in numbers moving north.

Many would later say leaving their home was a matter of life or death.

“I’m not going to leave this world for lack of struggling. I’m going to fight for my life,” a migrant from Guatemala recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Others wanted to bring the world’s attention to the violence and oppression they faced in the North American Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Some wanted to highlight the oppression migrants face from other countries when they flee for their lives, a goal experts say they largely achieved.

“There are sick children here, and we are cold and hungry,” Carlos Lopez said last year. Lopez, a Honduran, led a group to the El Chaparral border crossing on Thanksgiving Day in 2018. At the time, he said it was inappropriate to shelter the women and children outside in the muddy, makeshift Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana.

“The whole world is watching what is happening here,” he said.

Through all the desperation and harsh conditions, some of the most unforgettable moments were the ones of tenderness, community, and unparalleled resilience amid seemingly hopeless circumstances.

There was the barber who set up shop in El Barretal, a vacant event space in the outskirts of Tijuana turned into a shelter.

And a white flag signaling peace that waved in front of the caravan’s marches to the line at the El Chapparal point of entry on the other side of San Ysidro.

Couples fell in love and people from the LGBTQ community said they found acceptance for the first time in their lives.

Even this past week, groups of Central American migrant children — some as young as 3 years old — organized themselves into temporary classrooms in a Tijuana shelter. They sat in a circle last Thursday, teaching each other what they remember of mathematics in the absence of any formal system for schooling for this past year.

Alfonso Guerrero Ulloa is the Honduran migrant who caused an uproar last year by marching to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and delivering a letter that suggested the U.S. should pay $50,000 to each person to return home. He said he is still in south Mexico, awaiting a response from the U.S. to his demand.

“The only answer I got out of that letter was them arresting me and holding me prisoner. That was the only answer I had from that letter,” Guerrero said last week.

David Enamorado, 33, from Honduras, sweeps in a courtyard at Su Casa, a home for Central American migrants, in Tijuana, Mexico on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Guerrero said though he raised important issues in his letter that have yet been unanswered, like the United States’ role in the humanitarian crisis in Honduras, he doesn’t regret it. He said the U.S. pledged billions of dollars in investment to develop Central America, along with Mexico. And, the caravan successfully drew the attention of the U.S. media to the corruption in the Honduran government, he said.

For people still waiting in Mexico or the United States, life remains in limbo much like it was when they first arrived in Tijuana a year ago.

Michel, a migrant who made it across to San Diego, said every day he worries about whether he will get to keep his job in his restaurant and where he can live long-term, after his asylum case is resolved. He declined to give his last name for fear that talking to the media would hurt his asylum chances.

“I just wake up every day and thank God I have this opportunity. ... I am thankful for those who have supported us along the way,” said Michel.