What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Running for their lives was the only option for these migrants

For many of the immigrant families now separated in the U.S. by Trump administration policy, their stories began with terror and persecution in their home countries. In Mexico City, Nick Schifrin meets two Central American families making the arduous journey north.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, for many of the immigrant families who are now separated here in the United States by the Trump administration policies, their stories begin amid terror and persecution in their home countries.

    In many cases, the decision to flee is one of survival.

    Nick Schifrin is in Mexico City, preparing to cover the country's presidential election this weekend.

    But, first, he sought out families who are making the arduous journey north.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Two-month-old Leti isn't old enough to know what her father, Pedro, sacrificed to get her here. Seven-year-old Paulina is old enough to know, and hangs onto her mother, Lupita, after they have been through so much to get here, and survived together.

    They are children who play just like other children, and like to put on their parents' shoes. But they have all been forced to grow up too fast, forced to leave their homes and run for their lives, until they found this sanctuary.

    This is a Mexico City shelter for refugees run by nuns, including Sister Soledad. About 20 Central American families live here for free. The shelter requested we not show their faces, and change each of their names, to help protect them.

    They get a safe place to live with their families and three meals a day. Breakfast is eggs and black beans.

    Twenty-four-year-old Pedro says he needs to stay anonymous, because it could save his life.

    Is it safe for you to go home?

  • Pedro (through translator):

    I had several properties in Guatemala, and here I am penniless. But to sell the things that I have there, I would have to go back to Guatemala. And once I crossed the border, they would kill me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He and his 24-year-old wife, Gabby, are Guatemalan. She breast-feeds Leti. That's 2-year-old Heidi on the right.

    Pedro says he's wanted by Guatemalan gangs because he helped law enforcement accuse gang members of kidnapping. They threatened Gabby too.

  • Gabby (through translator):

    My husband arrived in Mexico before me, and the threats against me began. They told me that if my husband didn't return, then they would kill my daughter, and if not her, then me. They said they were going to kill the two girls, or kidnap them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Would you prefer to stay in Mexico, or do you want to go to the United States?

  • Gabby (through translator):

    If we're going to be here, they will still find us. I do not want to lose one of my daughters or my husband.

  • Pedro (through translator):

    If I get asylum, that would be fine, but not here in Mexico City. It needs to a little more north. If they reject my application, then I will have to emigrate to another country, maybe the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Twenty-three-year-old Lupita, on the left, is Honduran. She too fled violence from within her own home.

  • Lupita (through translator):

    I was getting death threats from the father of my children, because I had separated from him, and I had a new relationship. Then I was threatened by both men. I had no option. I had to leave with my children.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Her daughter, 7-year-old Paulina, is safe here. But she's been out of school for a year. The only lessons she's learned were on the migrant trail.

  • Lupita (through translator):

    I risked our lives, knowing that anything could happen along the way. It took us four months to get here. The journey was traumatic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the trauma that you have experienced and your children have experienced?

  • Lupita (through translator):

    They cry for no reason, and sometimes they can't explain why they feel sad. But I understand.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Still, she and so many here believe the journey was worth it. Lupita wants to get to the U.S. to give birth. She's six months pregnant.

    Do you want to go to the United States?

  • Lupita (through translator):

    That's where I have family, and where I would feel supported and secure. But then I heard about the separation of families and children. And my baby, who's about to be born, to be locked in a cage, we don't deserve that.

    If I were separated from my child, that would terrorize me. Children are the lives of their parents.

  • Gretchen Kuhner:

    The violence is real. The situation with the lack of ability of the country, of the state to protect people in Central America is real.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gretchen Kuhner works with refugees in Mexico as the director of the Institute for Women in Migration. She says, while refugees have closely watched the Trump administration's policies, long-term, no U.S. border policy can prevent people's interest in the U.S.

  • Gretchen Kuhner:

    Maybe they're moving around in different ways, or they're waiting, because they are terrified to be detained and they're terrified to be separated from their families. But, then after that, people start going toward the border again, because they're looking for the best situation for their families.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On this Sunday, Pedro, Gabby, and Leti get ready and put Leti in her nicest dress. They get in a local taxi, and head toward a nearby neighborhood.

    In another car, Paulina and her brother Diego are also heading downtown, mesmerized by the largest city they have ever seen. They walk through the business district, Paulina and Lupita never letting go of each other. And they walk toward a place they also consider a sanctuary.

    The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of Catholicism's holiest pilgrimage sites. In here, both refugee families seek a respite from their fears of the future and memories of the past. They don't know what's next. And so they pray for their children and themselves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick joins me now from Mexico City.

    Nick, we have heard so much about people from Central America coming through Mexico to get to the U.S. President Trump makes it sound as if Mexico is doing nothing to stop them. How is Mexico handling it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, I think President Trump said it was almost like walking through Central Park to get through Mexico to the United States.

    And a lot of people here would disagree with that. With U.S. help, Mexico has increased attempts to try and stop Central Americans from getting to the U.S. border. That means increased security, patrols and crackdowns along Mexico's southern border, also crackdowns and arrests along the migrant or refugee trail that these people use to get to the U.S.

    And, at the same time, a lot of these people, Central Americans, are choosing to stay in Mexico. Asylum cases are actually up seven times in the last few years. And, on paper, the asylum laws are much more generous than they are in the U.S. You can apply for asylum based on generalized violence and internal conflict.

    But, at the same time, I have talked to a lot of these migrants, a lot of these refugees describing this route as perilous. They have told me that they have been abused by Mexican police. They have also told me that they have been attacked by gangs inside Mexico or even from their own country.

    And so, in some ways, Judy, the refugees that we heard from in that piece or in those shelters are actually the lucky ones.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, we heard the woman you interviewed in the piece talk about she's concerned about U.S. policy about family separation.

    How much do many — do these migrants follow what is going on in the U.S., what is said and done here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Very closely.

    And then after the Trump — after President Trump was inaugurated, there was actually a slight decline in people trying to get to the States. And Border Patrol officials at the time said that was a Trump effect. But, quickly thereafter, that decline reversed and the numbers went back up.

    And so the experts I talk to say that, at the end of the day, it is not a U.S. president or U.S. policy that will determine whether these Central Americans leave their homes and try and get to the States. It is the conditions in the places that they live.

    And the people will risk this perilous journey to the north only if it safer than staying at home, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin in Mexico City for us now and all this week, thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest