Honduran Ruth Elizabeth Gomez gave up on her American dream after US immigration authorities locked her in a cold cell and then deported her back home.
After reaching Mexico by foot, the 25-year-old had paid a “coyote” to smuggle her across the US border by boat, only to be arrested after arriving in Texas.
“After the whole journey, (the detention) was the hardest part. Until then I had never suffered, even though I’d walked for long days feeling hungry,” Gomez said.
After leaving her five and eight-year-old children with her mother, Gomez and her brother Jose Tulio joined the first central American caravan that set off from San Pedro Sula in Honduras on October 13.
She left in the hope of joining her father, a taxi driver who emigrated to the US 14 years ago and hasn’t returned home since.
Despite US President Donald Trump sending troops to guard the country’s southern border with Mexico and making threats to cut off aid to the central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador if they didn’t halt the flow of migrants heading northwards, new caravans have continued to set off on the long journey.
Things hit rock bottom for Gomez on November 25, when she tried to scale a border wall between Mexico and the US. She was among 2,000 migrants at whom US immigration agents fired tear gas to force them back.
“At that moment I felt like I was going to lose consciousness... I was on top (of the wall), I fainted and fell,” she said.
She was transferred to the northwest Mexican border city of Tijuana, where she spent six hours in a hospital and received treatment for her injured back.
She remained in Mexico, working in a supermarket before deciding to try her luck again.
She was caught and deported on January 19 to San Pedro Sula, with her “hands and feet in chains.” Though her brother has remained in Mexico working in construction, Gomez says she won’t try heading north again “for fear of American migration.” “For me it was the worst experience,” she said.
Gomez said she was kept in a “cooler,” a very cold room where she had to sleep on the floor. The detention centre was “totally overcrowded,” she added.
While she’s given up on the hope of a new life in the US, Gomez said she met some people who had far more to lose than her. “A friend took her three children. She went because (gangs) wanted her oldest son, who’s 12, to sell drugs,” said Gomez.
Migrant caravans usually set off after dozens or even hundreds of people respond to a social media message announcing a gathering point.
“That’s the power of social media,” said Sally Valladares, who studies the migration phenomenon.
But the motivation comes from elsewhere. “People are totally desperate because of the lack of work and the violence,” Valladares said in an interview.
The Honduran government blames people smugglers and political opponents for organising and instigating this form of collective mass migration, though Gomez say the fault lies with President Juan Orlando Hernandez himself and that “the situation was better” with previous governments.
Meanwhile, experts say socioeconomic conditions are the caravans’ real drivers.
“It doesn’t matter who calls them, the caravans are... formed due to unemployment, violence and for family reunification,” said Ricardo Puerta, who studies migration.
More than a million Hondurans live in the US and send home upwards of $4bn a year in remittances, a staggering amount that makes up a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.
“Water doesn’t enter a coconut, the coconut grows on its own. That’s how caravans are... They’re formed of people who have no money and have decided to emigrate,” said former opposition lawmaker and journalist Bartolo Fuentes.
Puerta said caravans are here to stay as that’s how migrants have always travelled.
And while Trump rails against the waves of migrants heading for the US, Puerta said the brash president is the person who stands to benefit most from migration.
He’s used it both as a campaign theme during last year’s midterm elections, and also pointed to it to justify his project of building a wall stretching across the US’s border with Mexico — an issue popular with his core supporters.
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