Reflections from a Migrant Rights Caravan IV: The Graves in Arriaga
A line of black crosses sticks out from this stretch of parched earth in Arriaga, Mexico. They bear dates, written by hand in white paint, but no names. The participants in the Migrant Rights Caravan Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz (Step by Step Towards Peace) huddle around these crosses, tired from the walk through the cemetery in the scorching sun.
“Here lie the bodies of fallen migrants,” Father Heyman Vasquez, director of the Arriaga migrant shelter, tells us. He goes on to say a prayer for these unknown migrants, reminding us to also pray for their family members, who are likely oblivious to the death, still eagerly awaiting the return of their loved ones.
The migrant plot in the cemetery is filling up. Some migrants meet their end because the 300 kilometer walk from the Southern border to Arriaga through inhospitable and oppressively hot terrain leaves them dehydrated, weakened, or injured. Others are killed or mutilated while riding on the top of the wagons of the infamous cargo train, which runs from Arriaga to the Northern and provides a cheap (though very dangerous) ride to the northward-bound migrants. Many migrants, poor and without the immigration authorization needed to pass roadside checkpoints, decide to travel this way, riding on the tops or sides of the boxcars and holding on for dear life. As the train races along, the risk of falling and being caught in between the wheels of the train is ever-present. In addition, violent assaults by robbers and corrupt police leave people with injuries, of which some end up being fatal.
In front of the unknown graves, Father Heyman tells us the story of a young man who died from multiple stab wounds from an assault by the train tracks. He arrived in the shelter in a critical state, but when they took him to the hospital, there was nothing more that could be done. He died soon after.
Later on in the day, resting in the migrant shelter of Ixtepec, I ask the recently-arrived migrants why they decide to take the trip, in the face of all this danger. One young man tells me that he really wasn’t aware of the situation in Mexico before making the trip. If he had known, he wouldn’t have come. However, the rest of the men said that they were indeed fully aware of the danger. They decided to make the trip, despite the risks, because of the economic necessity of their families and the unemployment in their home countries.
Looking at the faces of these migrants, tired and dusty but still showing traces of hope, I begin to grasp the enormity of the decision they make. For many of these migrants, from poor backgrounds and with the goal of working in the United States, this dangerous journey really is the best option they see for their lives. The U.S. gives a maximum of 5,000 green cards each year for low skilled workers. This number pales in comparison to the more than 1 million immigrants who enter unauthorized to the U.S. each year.
Temporary work visas are primarily only available for highly skilled workers, but most migrants that cross Mexico are seeking more basic jobs. And for the low skilled spots that are available, the worker must already have connections and a job offer with a U.S. company in order to even have a chance of obtaining the work visa. People who have family members with legal status in the U.S. also have options for immigrating legally. But for poor Central Americans with limited connections in the U.S., the options are virtually nonexistent. Only a select few of workers manage to obtain a visa, thereby avoiding the dangers of the journey through Mexico.
Meanwhile, the rest of the migrants continue climbing aboard the train, trudging through the dusty heat, and risking their lives on the trip through Mexico. And the little black crosses keep appearing in the cemetery of Arriaga, in a dusty grave far away from home.
Read previous posts in the series “Reflections from a Migrant Rights Caravan”:
Part 1: Step by Step Towards Peace–A Six-Day Caravan for Migrants’ Rights