When You Can’t Go Forward and You Can’t Go Back

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, President Trump began talking about the “migrant caravan” making its way toward the American border. “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border,” he tweeted. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” He wasn’t the only one: From Fox News to Infowars, anti-immigrant propagandists spewed lies about a George Soros–funded “migrant invasion” infiltrated by undercover ISIS fighters and rife with contagious diseases. Yet the influx of “criminals” and “gang members” Trump and others described seemed at odds with the harrowing photos we saw from the border in late November, which showed mothers and young children fleeing clouds of teargas fired at them by U.S. officials.

In reality, the caravan consists largely of people fleeing abusive living situations or violence at the hands of gangs or cartels in Central America, including many women with young children. The caravan started as a Facebook group with about 160 people in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where migrants embarked on a six-week, almost 3,000-mile journey to Tijuana, on the U.S.-Mexico border. The journey through Central America and Mexico is a treacherous one, and traveling in a group is a safer option than traveling alone. As the caravan progressed, word spread on social media, and more and more people joined its ranks. By the time it reached Tijuana, the caravan was about 6,000 people.

For this week’s episode of The Cut on Tuesdays, reporter and producer Sarah McVeigh visited Tijuana, where migrants are waiting in hopes of gaining access to the United States. In a large, makeshift camp on a concrete lot, thousands of people had set up tents or were sheltering under tarps, waiting in an uncertain state of bureaucratic limbo. Upon completing this harrowing journey, on foot and on the back of freight trucks, migrants must begin the convoluted process of applying for asylum. Because of the large number of people seeking entry into the United States, a limited number of applications are processed each day, and would-be asylum seekers are told to take numbers and wait. Most will have to wait weeks or months for their cases to be heard. And even then, their fate remains uncertain: Under Trump, the rules have changed, making it much harder to qualify for asylum even with valid claims of persecution. But the women the Cut spoke to remain hopeful about being allowed to enter the U.S. and attain better lives for themselves and their children.

Interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Fanny, 25: “My heart broke to say good-bye to her”

Fanny is from Honduras, and she’s traveling with her 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth. She says she grew up in an abusive home and left Honduras to get away from a violent ex-partner. She’s been planning to leave even before she heard about the caravan, but the idea of traveling for free, in a group, was much more appealing. Once she found out about it, Fanny made a quick decision to join the caravan, but her 9-year-old, who was in school, didn’t want to come. She left her older daughter with her own mother and brought her younger daughter with her. It’s a decision she sometimes regrets.

I decided to join the caravan since I was already planning to go to the USA to get away from the father of my children. He abused me, and I didn’t want my daughters to hear the insults or see the beatings. One time, he would have killed me if it wasn’t for my eldest daughter. I lost everything we had. We had a coffee plantation, a big house, a car, and cattle. But I need to provide for my daughters, and I knew to get that, I needed to move. My daughter Elizabeth, who’s with me, is about to turn 5. The other one is 9 and is in Honduras with my mother. My heart broke to say good-bye to her.

The trip here was hard, especially at the beginning — I had to get used to walking a lot and carrying two backpacks and my daughter. But at the same time, people helped a lot with rides. And they gave us water, cakes, juice, especially to my daughter. The hardest was jumping on moving trucks and pulling my daughter up. My worst times were when I was sick, and when my daughter gets sad and asks me to go back home or cook for her. With the caravan, we slept in the street many times with plastic or blankets because the hostels were full. We had to wait five days by the Honduras-Mexico bridge until we crossed into Mexico by raft — some friends paid for us. It was really dirty, that’s when I got sick.

We haven’t heard much of the news. My plan is to ask for asylum in Mexico. As long as I have a job, I’m okay staying in Tijuana and seeing how things work. Maybe stay here if I feel stable and we like it. We call the USA “the other side” — everyone here calls it that. I picture it prettier, with a better quality of life, better. I always dreamed of going there — I have family there. My idea is to work here for three months to be able to send for my daughter and then cross. I decided to bring the youngest one because she’s the easiest to carry and more attached. The other one didn’t want to come. She is in school and wanted to stay with her grandmother. I didn’t want her to miss a year.

I haven’t been able to talk to my other daughter in 22 days because I don’t have a phone — it was stolen in the caravan. Sometimes people lend me their phones, but it’s not the same as having your own phone. … I miss our video-chats. My 9-year-old gives me the strength to carry on, telling me not to worry about her. It’s really hard how much I miss her; I was so used to spending time with her. At night, I always think about her and want to call her, but I can’t. Sometimes I regret not having brought her. All three of us would be here together.

Sonia, 53: “I would prefer to see him suffer here than end up in a bag or a canal.”

Sonia had never wanted to leave Honduras. Until recently, she’d barely left her town. Back home, she made a living selling vegetables on the street. But last year, Sonia told McVeigh that her nephew was murdered by gangs, and now gangs are trying to force her son — who is 17 and with her in Tijuana — to extort businesses on their behalf. She says she went to the police, but there was no help for her.

I sold tomatoes, chilies, onions, that’s how I got by, selling my vegetables. But the criminals there have ruined everything. My son is going to turn 18 years old and my grandson is 13 years old. They have threatened my son with the war tax [extortion money from Honduran gangs]. My son fell into a depression, he didn’t want to talk to anyone. That’s why we left, for them.

I had never left my country, and I never imagined living these dangerous days that we have lived. You can see how God is with us, even though so many horrible things have happened on this journey. All of this is for my son. Six months ago [gangs] killed my nephew, and I didn’t want to live with what my sister had to go through. I would prefer to see him suffer here than end up in a bag or a canal.

They gave me a little number — I’m getting closer to be able to go in. They say you have to show proof that what you are saying is true, and I have my police report that I filed a few days before the caravan. I hope to God that Trump listens to us. It’s not that we want to leave home; it’s because of the criminals. And it’s not because of the poverty because there is poverty in the whole world, but the crime that doesn’t even let you sleep, the crime that scares me and makes me nervous.

I pray to God that my boy can study, and I can clean or care for children or whatever I have to do so he can be someone in life, that he learns the English language. I will do whatever is necessary; I will do anything so we don’t die of hunger. All over, you can find work. We all deserve a chance. He should give us an opportunity as human beings. We need Donald Trump to listen, and he needs to be a human being.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Claudia, 29: “I knew nothing about the caravan, all I wanted was to get as far as I could.”

Claudia is in Tijuana with her 6-year-old daughter Angelina, but she has six other children back in Honduras. She says that after their father died a couple of years ago, she became involved with a man who had a grown-up son. Soon after, that man’s son was murdered, and Claudia knew who’d done it. When she wouldn’t tell her partner, he violently attacked her. Her oldest son managed to stop him, and temporarily defuse the situation. But Claudia was worried he’d turn violent again, and kill her. Or he’d somehow force her to say what she knew, and then gangs would kill her children. It was an impossible situation, so she decided to leave.

I’m scared to go back home, especially now that I’ve left. The day I decided to leave, he kept insisting I tell him who killed my son. He hit me against the wall and punched me in the face. That day when he wasn’t paying attention, I went to the bus terminal with the little change I had with me and just the clothes I was wearing. I got rides by writing “going north” on my shirt. I knew nothing about the caravan, all I wanted was to get as far as I could. I told my kids to not go back to the house. One of my daughters followed me to the store and that’s how she ended up coming with me.

It was really sad that I couldn’t say good-bye to my kids. But he would have suspected and stopped me. Now, I tell them that it’s for the best, that hopefully I will get something out of this. They say I must have a police report or complaint, but I had no time — when you live with the person that hurts you, you just can’t. My children did ask for help one time before, but the police didn’t help at all. They said we needed more evidence, and that only made it worse. The abuse lasted two years. Men always know how to defend themselves and make you their property and have all the power.

I got my number yesterday. I may have to wait a month or longer. I don’t know what the conditions for asylum are, no one explained. We will fight the fight and see what happens. I am looking for employment opportunities and to be able to bring my family. I don’t care if it’s in the USA or another country, it’s just that in Honduras you earn very little. I want to turn myself in and just make money in dollars to have a better life. My sons are waiting for whatever I can send them. We are not all criminals, and I just want to work. We are here to make things better, only to work, and many of us are mothers. I believe it’s true that God is going to touch some hearts and open some doors, and I will be able to find work in the USA. I don’t expect life to be easy in the USA, but with my work and my effort, my children won’t suffer from hunger or needing basics.

We just want what’s fair, a speedy process, to be given humanitarian visas and not be taken out. Mothers are the ones that suffer the most to get here. We’ve already struggled so much to get here. They deport mothers and children that needed it so much.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Lucia: “I was trying to smile so she wouldn’t be scared and start to cry like I was.”

Lucia and her daughter Meylin left for a straightforward reason: for a better, more prosperous life. Lucia had a job in a factory, sewing sleeves on shirts. It was long hours for bad pay and she says she had to send her daughter to another town to live with her grandmother because she had to work so much. There has to be something better, she thought, and then she heard about the caravan from a friend in the factory. She thought this could be her ticket to a better life. Now, they’re living in the freezing migrant camp at El Barretal, on the outskirts of Tijuana, celebrating Meylin’s birthday surrounded by strangers, a very different experience from her birthday last year. Someone had donated gifts — a bag of toys and some paper party horns — and everyone sang birthday songs.

It’s very hard to get a job. There’s almost no work and even if you get a job, you only get it for less than two months and you have no rights. In the nine months I lived in San Pedro in northern Honduras, I was robbed three times. We heard about the first caravan and that everyone was let in, so we joined this one, and now we see that’s not happening. We thought this was an opportunity to get to the United States. The opportunity we hoped for, for so long. We didn’t expect that by the time we got here we wouldn’t be allowed in.

Today is December 1. My daughter is turning 2. Honestly, we didn’t expect to spend it this way, at the caravan, but that’s how it is. We did it all for her first birthday, the piñata, cake, her friends came over. But here we are today.

As you can see, she is very light and she doesn’t walk very well, so I had to carry her. At times it was really hard because there were a lot of people climbing on the tall trucks, and we had to climb up, too, and that was bad because the trucks were moving and we had to climb however we could. I sent my cousin first and then my aunt, and then I would pass my daughter to her, and then other people traveling with us would help me up. Many times, we had to take rides and climb these tall trucks. My daughter almost fell once and that was horrible.

The worst thing I experienced was once when the truck was moving and I was lifting my daughter and she almost fell. At that point, I didn’t want to be myself. I felt so bad because I felt, What am I doing risking my daughter’s life? If anything happens to my daughter …. God forbid. I was trying to smile so she wouldn’t be scared and start to cry like I was.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Karla, 39: “I don’t have a plan. I am just waiting.”

For most of the women in the caravan, getting to the U.S. is a dream. They think that if they can make it across the border, their lives will be better. But for Karla, the U.S. is not an imaginary place. It’s her home. Fifteen years ago, Karla says she left Honduras and walked, on her own, across the border. Back then, Karla’s journey wasn’t the political football it is today, and she walked across the border undetected. When she got to America, she found work. She sent money back home, so her two kids, who were still in Honduras, would have food and diapers. She settled in South Carolina, fell in love, and had three more kids. She made a new life. Last year, after 15 years of living, working, and raising her children in America, Karla was deported. She is now in limbo. She can’t go back to Honduras because it’s not safe for her there. And she can’t get back to America. She’s stuck. She is desperate to see her children but has no idea how to make that happen.

I want to see my kids. They live in the United States, in South Carolina. I am very sad because they are over there and I am here. I want to see them. I came to the United States 15 years ago because my two children needed milk, diapers, clothes, juice, everything, you know, and it was very difficult. I worked in a restaurant, golf club in South Carolina. Jaheer, he is in the United States; he is 14. Donovan, he was born in the United States; he is very smart in school. My last baby, her name is Kiara; she is so sweet. She’s 7 years old. She misses me. She tells me, “Mommy, I want you to come back, please. I miss you. I need you.” I don’t know how I can tell you what it feels like. I am so sad.

The woman whose house I was working in tried to help me but couldn’t. She was so sad when I told her I had to go back to Honduras, and she told me, “Karla, I need to help you, but I talked to somebody and no answer.” She tried to talk to the government, and nobody answered.

When I left my kids over there … I don’t want to talk about it. I miss my kids. I don’t see them when they go to school, when they come back. I don’t do nothing for them because I don’t stay with them. It’s very difficult for me.

It’s very dangerous in Honduras. Drugs, guns — that’s why I didn’t take my kids with me. My friend, she told me, Karla, a caravan is going to Mexico. Can we go? And I said yes. I need to go back to the United States because I have my three kids over there. We walk, we walk, and sometimes we don’t eat. That was hard, very hard. Right now, oh my God. I didn’t sleep last night. It is very, very cold. I don’t have a mattress. I don’t have blankets. Last night, oh my God … I don’t have a plan. I am just waiting, if something happen here.

Translated by Silvina Baldermann and Andalusia Knoll Soloff.

Three Days With the Women of the Migrant Caravan