Ernesto \(at Continued from cover black and white television showing programs like “Rambo 3.” We are all gathered on the front porch chatting while the sun sets behind the nearby hills. Dusk is the perfect opportunity to talk with Ernesto about the trip and ask his relatives how they feel about him leaving once again for El Norte. According to his aunt, very few men actually leave Jutiapa for the U.S. She only knew of Ernesto and one other from their neighborhood. “The decision to leave is not something to be taken lightly,” she explains. “But when a woman comes home from a 10hour work day with less than 10 Quetzales buy just enough food to feed our families. But what happens if someone in the family gets sick? Where does the money come from?” Ernesto and I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk at length about the journey or my reasons for traveling with him. We had met in Austin when he was staying at Casa Marianella, a shelter for Central American refugees, where I’d been working for two years. After his deportation, his girlfriend Angelica told me he was planning to come back to the U.S. a second time. From other residents of Casa I’d heard about the difficulties Central Americans encounter in Mexico. Often they would arrive with severe injuries from train accidents or other misfortunes along the way. Somehow, in the midst of the 1994 political firestorm over “illegal aliens,” their story was being missed. FOUR YEARS EARLIER, Ernesto left his family for the first time. When he heard the Guatemalan army was com ing to his village for conscription, he fled the country with another friend. He was 17 years old. Other reasons compelled him to leaveErnesto’s father had suffered severe nerve damage to his right leg 15 years earlier in a construction accident and his family was too poor to afford corrective surgery. Since then his father had become an evangelical minister, driving a cab to support the family. Observer intern Michael Daecher lives in Austin. Ernesto’s options were to stay and offer what little he could with the military on his tail or to go to the United States where there might be a chance of better supporting his family. The second of eight children, he left his family not knowing if he would ever see them again. That was in 1990. After he arrived in the U.S. he applied for political asylum and within several months received his temporary work permit. He lived and worked in Austin, cleaning offices in the middle of the night, sending money home to his family each month. He enrolled at Johnston High School, learned English and played varsity soccer. He also met his future fiancee, Angelica, a Mexican emigrant who became his motivation to stay in Texas. His political asylum case never got very far. He had little proof he was in immediate danger back in Guatemala, a problem thousands of refugees face each day in the immigration courts. When the letters started arriving from the INS, they were sent to the wrong address. After staying at Casa Marianella for nearly two years, he had moved into an apartment when he had to leave school to work full time. He forgot to notify the Imof his change of address. After several letters had been sent, he finally received word and drove to San Antonio to meet with the INS officials. According to Ernesto “they didn’t waste a second.” As soon as he identified himself, they confiscated his social security card and driver’s license, im pounded his car and put him on the first plane back to Guatemala. His political asylum case had been dismissed. The letters had been sent to alert him that his work status had expired and he was expected to leave the country. When he did not respond, the INS put out an order for his deportation. He was back where he’d started four years earlier. For Guatemalans it is just as difficult to obtain a visa to enter Mexico as it is to enter the United States. For legal entry they must have a passport, a $25 fee that many Guatemalans cannot afford, and a tourist visa. To issue a tourist visa, the same financial criteria are used by the Mexican INM INS in the United States. Social status is a large consideration. “For a poor Guatemalan it is virtually impossible to be issued a visa to travel through Mexico,” said a Mexican Consular official in Austin. He also mentioned that Mexico has never appreciated being a stopover on the way to the United States. For Ernesto and others like him, the journey to the north is simply not possible by legal means. Ernesto had more to think about than just avoiding the Mexican authorities. He had a Mexican birth certificate sent by Angelica, and a good story and some luck would get him through any bureaucratic holdups. But his real concern were hold-ups of the more common type. Ladrones, or bandits, are common along the route. In event of an attack he would have little chance of escaping with his life, let alone his money and documents. As obvious as a Cockney Englishman hitchhiking through Alabama, a Central American emigrant is an easy target for corrupt officials and thieves. “We come to the United States to work but we have to get through Mexico first. And if you don’t have connections, you are easy prey,” said one Salvadoran refugee living in Austin. Even after the passage of California’s Proposition “187, which denies educational and medical services to the undocumented, entering the United States seems to be little threat compared to the prospect of rape, extortion and other abuse many have experienced at the hands of Mexican immigration officials. 6 JUNE 30, 1995
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