Flood of Central American immigrants is focus of UO researcher

Railroad through Mazatlán
Railroad through Mazatlán

Every day, hundreds if not thousands of undocumented migrants, many of them children, pour through Mazatlán in Mexico’s Sinaloa state on their way to chance a border crossing into the United States, a migration that has drawn the interest of UO international studies professor Kristin Yarris.

Yarris has seen the trains migrants cling to rumbling through the middle of Mazatlán, a key transit point on the Pacific coastal route from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to the risky border zone around Tijuana and Mexicali. And she and colleagues have started to shift their research to look more closely at how this flood of pass-through migration is affecting Mexico.

Yarris arranged a research trip to Mazatlán this summer well before the waves of child immigrants started making headlines in the United States. Her research focuses, among other things, on Central American migration and its effects on families.

On her current trip, Yarris is working with professor Heide Castañeda of the University of South Florida and colleagues from the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa in Mazatlán. They had planned to study the phenomenon of migrants returning to Mexico from the United States, but the effect on Mexico of U.S.-bound migrants fleeing violence in Central America has caught their attention.

Yarris isn’t focusing her research on the recent upswing in unaccompanied children reaching the United States. On this trip she’s been looking at Central American migrants (adults, children and families) who pass through Mazatlán by train.  Most of the unaccompanied children seem to be traveling with “coyotes” – human smugglers – on buses, in cars or in other ways.

But she has seen plenty of children traveling with adults – sometimes with parents but often as part of informal “families” they form for self-protection. And those children face the same risks as the adults they’re with.

Two things have stood out to Yarris about flood of migrants traveling through Mexico in hopes of entering America: the terrible dangers they face and the kindness of random strangers offering help along the way.

The dangers are well documented. Migrants are preyed upon by criminals and gangs that kidnap children and hold them for ransom, rape and beat migrants and steal whatever small amounts of money they have left. Yarris said one of the unintended consequences of the United States’ heightened border security is an increase in the demand for human smugglers who prey on poor migrants.

“The fact is that the heightened border patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border has created more of a demand for these human smugglers and thus contributed to the dangers of crossing,” Yarris said in an e-mail. “Migrants bring violence, not because they themselves are violent but because they are preyed upon by all sorts of bad actors – from Mexican federal police to local gang members – all of whom take advantage of migrants’ vulnerability in transit to rob them of the little cash they manage to carry and physically harm them.”

On the other hand, Yarris was struck by the kindness of people such as Eva (not her real name), who lives near the railroad tracks. Every day, Eva cooks a hot breakfast and lunch and offers it to the migrants coming through on the train. She recruited another neighbor to offer migrants a place to take showers and another who helps with medical care.

“I was astounded by this woman’s generosity, bravery and fortitude,” Yarris said. “Many of her neighbors don’t look fondly on what they see as her ‘attracting’ migrants and the violence that follows them. And yet, Eva has created a local network of completely informal humanitarian aid.”

But Yarris also interviewed a young woman she calls Silvia who was driven from El Salvador by gang violence after a young cousin was murdered and her life threatened. She left her 1-year-old and 4-year-old children behind with their grandmother and was traveling with a “family” of fellow migrants.

“Silvia was visibly wracked with anxiety,” Yarris said. “Her hands trembled as she told us of the danger she and her traveling companion had experienced – an attempted rape, several robberies, hunger, cold, heat and exhaustion from trying to hold onto the trains for days on end without sleep.”

Sadly, Silvia believed that she had put the worst of the dangers behind her, not realizing the next part of her journey could be the worst. Yarris said fewer than one in five migrants actually make it through the brutal desert, preying criminals and border patrols at the end of the journey and actually enter the United States.

“I had not the heart to tell her that the next phase of the trek – through the Sonora Desert and then into the border regions of Tijuana and Mexicali – could be much worse,” Yarris said. “For days after my conversation with Silvia, I wondered if she would be among that statistic.”

―By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications