Guatemalan Safe House Educates Migrants Headed to US

01 September 2009

Illegal immigrants detained by US Border Patrol
Illegal immigrants detained by US Border Patrol
On the Guatemalan border with Mexico, a safe house for Central American migrants is providing more than just a bed and a meal to the scores of travelers who pass through on their way north.  

In a courtyard, a small group of Central American men of different ages is engaged in a spirited discussion about the political situation in Honduras, which quickly gives way to opinions about the improving prospects of the national soccer team taking next year's World Cup.

The discussion could be taking place anywhere in Honduras.  But this is the village of Tecun Uman, on the Guatemalan border with Mexico, and those involved are hundreds of kilometers from home.

The men are temporary residents at a migrant safe house - the first in a series that stretches from here north, through Mexico, along the most frequented routes used by migrants traveling to the United States.  Here, the travelers can stay a few nights and eat a good meal, while they take a brief respite from their long and dangerous journey north.

The house in Tecun Uman has been at the service of migrants for more than a dozen years, explains Ademar Barilli, a Catholic priest from Brazil, who supervised the construction of the house on the site of what was a city garbage dump.   

Father Barilli says the home opened soon after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as Mexico stepped up its efforts to curtail undocumented Central Americans passing northward through Mexican territory.

He says a primary function of the home is to give migrants a safe place to sleep and something to eat as well as to provide them with information about the dangerous journey ahead.  Migrants face a number of hazards along the way, including wild animals, unsafe transport and criminal gangs.

A woman named Liseth, who has just arrived at the house carrying her two-year-old daughter, is one of a group of three women who say they crossed Guatemala from their native Honduras.  She says the route has already been difficult, even before facing the dangers farther north.

Liseth says they have faced extortion from border officials, and been robbed of all their possessions and money as they crossed Guatemala.  After a few hours at the safe house and after having spoken with a social worker, Liseth says she is worried about the dangers that await in Mexico, where Central Americans, who can legally travel to other Central American countries, become undocumented migrants.

Ademar Barilli says that women traveling alone are especially vulnerable, and that the safe house pays special attention to such cases, although they are not unusual.  He says he has seen all types of migrants at the house, including countless mothers with babies, even young children seeking to reunite with parents who have gone north and left them behind.

The ultimate goal of the house, Barilli says, is to secure rights for a voiceless population, which he says is exploited at every turn.

Father Barilli says Central American governments are eager to accept the large remittances that their citizens abroad send home, but that they have done little to enhance security for those who attempt the journey that many never survive.

At the safe house, Barilla says he has taken matters into his own hands, employing a team of social workers and lawyers from nearby communities with the goal of assuring that the migrants know their rights as they move from country to country.  For instance, he says Mexican officials have no right to detain a migrant for not providing proper identification, a common practice in some parts of Mexico.

He advises migrants that turning back is another option.  At this stage of the journey, the migrants are still relatively close to their homes in Central America, and have yet to face the most dangerous parts of the trip.

But Barilli says that getting migrants to turn back always is a tough sell.  By the time they arrive in Tecun Uman, travelers are firm in their desire to move ahead.  Some, such as a middle aged man who identifies himself only as Jose, have already navigated the route several times and are well aware of the trip that awaits them.

"Before when it was my first time, I take the train on the other side,"  said Jose. "All the ways, you need to be intelligent, because this way, it is easy.  It depends how you take it."

Other cases are different.

As they wash dishes in the safety of the courtyard, Liseth and her friends are reconsidering their plans after the harrowing trip across Guatemala.  It is their first excursion so far from home, and she says her daughter is tired and hungry.

If they had the money to go back to Honduras, Liseth says, they would head home.  Poverty is not a major concern when compared to the insecurity and dangers that await them on the route north, she says.

Although estimates vary widely, perhaps some 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States.  Of that number, about half are thought to have entered the country illegally, with the rest overstaying their visas.  About 2 million of those who entered the country without permission are believed to have come overland from Central America.