In 2011, Ana Cañuenguez snuck over the U.S. border for the second time. Eight years earlier she first left El Salvador. Ana says, “It was a very difficult decision to flee from my country and leave behind my family and all my people. But I had six children and one died because of severe malnutrition. I did not earn enough to feed them.”
On the second trip Ana brought the last of her children, Mario, 13, and Erick, 11. “Their lives were at risk because of the explosion of gangs in El Salvador,” the 43-year-old Ana said through an interpreter by phone. Ana first had to travel to Mexico “to rescue my children.” Immigration police there had detained Mario and Erick and were going to repatriate them.
“For two months, I fought and begged for them to be released. When they finally released them to me, we started back on the road to the United States. We crossed the Chihuahuan Desert near El Paso, Texas.”
She borrowed more than ten thousand dollars to pay a smuggler, who told them to pack lightly as the trip would only take eight hours. In the blazing August sun their guide was sickened with heat stroke and got lost. “Our water and food ran out the second day,” says Cañuenguez.
“We spent five days in the desert. I was running so much, but I didn’t give up because I was fighting for my children’s lives. We finally found a house in the desert. The owner asked me why I was in this hell with my children. He gave us water and some crackers. I told him a little of my story and he said he would help us, but would turn us over to the Border Patrol.”
Ana and her two sons were released but they have open deportation orders, as do two of her other children. They reside in Utah where Ana cleans hotels full time and lives with the Mexican father, who is also undocumented, of her two U.S.-born children. None of Ana’s four children at risk for deportation have yet qualified for the federal program that defers action on deportation, but as a family their cases are not a high priority for enforcement.
Ana says, “I am terrified because I don’t want to be separated from my children again. If I were to leave, three of them would stay here. I have so many hopes and dreams, I would like to be able to buy a house, plant a garden with my children, plant flowers. I can’t do these things because I am so afraid of being deported.”
That fear did not stop Cañuenguez from joining in a 100-mile pilgrimage called “We Belong Together” that began at an immigrant detention center in York, Pennsylvania, and ended in Washington, D.C. One of a hundred migrant women who marched for eight days, Ana walked in the same black tennis shoes she wore when she was lost in the desert with her children.
“My feet are blistered and cracked but the pain I feel is not enough to stop me,” Ana said hours after watching Pope Francis’s parade in the capital. “I did it for my family and for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who want to live with their families. We want to be treated with dignity and equality, and for people to stop seeing immigrants as people who don’t have any value, as worthless. I want to touch people’s hearts, and share my work and my stories with the Pope so he can be our voice with the politicians.”
Ana’s words were indeed echoed by the Pope in the first-ever papal address to Congress. Pope Francis said, “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” He also noted the thousands from the Americas who “travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones.”
It was a gentle rebuke to immigrant bashing that has become extreme in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Billionaire Donald Trump has sucked up the oxygen in the room by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. Republican candidates have called for deporting all undocumented migrants or demanding they “self-deport,” saying immigrants should abandon their language, history, and culture, and blocking meaningful immigration reform. Most Democratic candidates who propose a pathway to citizenship also endorse militarizing the border further and would deport many undocumented immigrants. No candidate, not even Bernie Sanders, endorses the type of sweeping amnesty supported by Ronald Reagan and passed by Congress in 1986 that made 2.9 million undocumented immigrants U.S. citizens.
The conceit is there are policy solutions to an unending crisis. But apart from Sanders, no major party candidate acknowledges it is largely U.S. policies feeding the flow of migrants. It’s similar to the refugee crisis in Europe where political leaders who enthusiastically backed U.S. wars in the Middle East are now shirking responsibility for the millions of refugees created by their policies.
Many say those from the Americas fleeing persecution should be labeled refugees. Natalicia Tracy, director of the Brazilian Workers Center in Connecticut, says, “It should be called a refugee crisis not a migrant crisis. They call it migrant to reduce the responsibility to welcome those people.”
Clay Boggs of the Washington Office on Latin America agrees. He says the U.S. and European crises differ in the number of refugees and the conditions they are escaping from, but there are commonalities. Boggs says, “A large number of people are obligated to flee their homes. Their journeys often involve a dangerous trip.” He says the United States and European countries “in a position to receive these refugees are capable of receiving them. It’s manageable. It’s really just a question of political will.”
In the Americas Boggs points to U.S. policies that undermine economic and political security creating refugees, such as the drug war, free-trade agreements, and the legacy of the 1980s wars in Central America.
Now, new policies are making the routes North ever more perilous. In Mexico one survey found some 20,000 migrants are kidnapped annually. Migrant deaths along the Southwest U.S. border have averaged more than 400 annually for years despite the fact border arrests are the lowest since the 1970s. This is partly due to the U.S. economic crisis and the pressure Washington is exerting on governments to make the journey harder. But hundreds of thousands are still making that journey every year.
Boggs says Mexico’s Southern Border program initiated in July 2014 has led to a 70 percent rise in deportations of Central Americans from the country. It’s making the crossing more dangerous, pushing migrants like Ana Cañuenguez to depend more on smugglers. This strengthens organized crime and intensifies government corruption in the region, further destabilizing countries and leading to new outflows of migrants.
Refugees will keep coming as long as U.S. policies devastate their countries. Tracy says, “You can build a wall as high as the sky, but people are starving. They will still risk it for a better life.”