Last spring, Amnesty International warned of the grisly plight of Central American migrants attempting to reach the United States by way of Mexico. Threats to their safety constituted a potential human-rights crisis. In August, the warning was starkly confirmed: in an abandoned warehouse in San Fernando, Tamaulipas (about a hundred miles from the Texas border), seventy-two migrants were found brutally murdered, victims of the feared Zetas drug cartel.
We know the dangers migrants face because at Casa Juan Diego, the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Houston, we’ve been told countless times by the migrants themselves. In fact, our phone and doorbell never seem to stop ringing. Our work is largely with immigrants and refugees, undocumented persons hidden from the eyes of most of the world. Usually the calls come in Spanish. Frequently, a request is preceded by a statement like “They told me you could help,” or “The hospital gave me your number.” People get in touch with us after long, painful journeys; others have lived in Houston for a time but come when there is a new crisis.
A mother and her two children recently came to us because her husband, the breadwinner, had been deported. After a few days, her seven-year-old son told us, “I was born here, and my father has worked here for many years. My dad was arrested for robbery. They found out who did it—someone else—but since my dad was already in jail, they deported him for not having papers.”
People suffer through a horrendous journey to get here, only to risk deportation back to what was often a desperate situation in their own country. Our experience tells us that the global economy is not helping the people who come to us.
Three young people—two teenage boys and their sister in middle school—came to ask for help. Their parents had been deported. A neighbor woman helped them and told them about Casa Juan Diego. They hoped it wouldn’t be too long before their parents could return to the United States to be with them. We helped the children with the rent and gave them food. They came back a month later for help, saying their parents had called and were on their way back. We helped them again. When they came back the following month, they said their parents had been apprehended and deported again, but would try again. The parents called twice more, assuring the children they would be here soon. That was two years ago. The parents have not been heard from since, and we are still helping the kids. The oldest has graduated from high school. What happened to their parents? Did the Zetas kill them? Did they die in the desert?
Rafael just arrived at Casa Juan Diego. He told his story before the Wednesday evening Spanish Mass with our guests. He said, “I could never have imagined that with my own eyes I would ever see so many rapes and tortures of men and women, and I wonder how many people have been kidnapped by the Zetas. I was kidnapped for three months in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, where, in front of my own eyes, they raped mothers and beat immigrants with baseball bats because their families did not send thousands of dollars.” For years, we have heard stories of the cruelty of the Zetas from young people who have just made it across the U.S. border in search of work they could not find in their own country.
When we started Casa Juan Diego thirty years ago, the journey to the United States was difficult. Refugees tried to make their way here alone; or the people they paid, who came to be called “coyotes,” helped them find the way. Many would walk for weeks and arrived dehydrated, with bruised and swollen feet. Coyotes were often cruel; there were only a few good ones. Some people still make it on their own, but that is more and more unusual. The mafias of the drug cartels and the violent gangs have taken over the “business” of migration.
One could say that the victims of the massacre in San Fernando are martyrs. They refused to become members of the Zetas—to carry drugs or become assassins. One wonders why people continue to try to migrate here when the risks are so great. The answer is that they know desperation, and so they begin a desperate journey.