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While the U.S. debate over illegal immigration rages on, for many Mexicans, the border dispute represents a humanitarian crisis.
On a recent trip to Mexico, Fred de Sam Lazaro met a Catholic priest who has made it his mission to protect those who defy laws to make the journey to and across the U.S. border.
A version of this story aired on the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly."
FRED DE SAM LAZARO:
In the city of Saltillo, thousands of rail cars carry goods made in Mexico north to the U.S. They also carry migrants from Central America on their 1,100-mile journey from Mexico's southern border.
In Saltillo, most will hop off for the final leg of their journey north, trying to avoid detection not just by Mexican and U.S. authorities, but also criminal gangs. Many will take a brief respite at Casa del Migrante, started by 72-year-old Pedro Pantoja, a Jesuit priest.
The migrants may be violating the law, but Pantoja says his primary responsibility is to be an advocate for people in poverty and in danger.
REV. PEDRO PANTOJA, Catholic priest (through interpreter): Every migrant is a potential kidnapping victim, and the criminals extort up to $,5000 in order to set them free.
With pressure and aid from the U.S. government, Mexican authorities have been clamping down on Central American migration and the number of people making it as far north as the U.S. border has dropped significantly, but they haven't stopped coming.
REV. PEDRO PANTOJA (through interpreter):
These guys are really tired. They just got here early this morning.
The new arrivals eluded the Mexican dragnet which deported 25,000 Central Americans during the first two months of 2015, twice the number from a year earlier.
Unaccompanied children, thousands of whom were reaching the U.S. in 2014, are now intercepted long before they could get this far north.
I asked why they keep coming.
The answer is what one migrant said to me: "Yes, I fear organized crime, I fear the police, but I fear hunger even more, and violence."
Many of the mostly male migrants say they're fleeing forceable recruitment into criminal gangs that now dominate urban life in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, nations with the world's highest homicide rates.
They have young gang members on every street corner, and they know exactly who lives in every house, who goes in and out.
This 22-year-old, who wanted his identity concealed to protect family back home, escaped El Salvador, but not Mexican authorities, who intercepted him on a train ride with four fellow migrants. The group wasn't arrested, but they were instead stripped, forced into a nearby pond, and robbed, he told me.
MAN (through interpreter):
They took all of our money, our phones, shoes, and they threw our clothes in the water. They were laughing at us.
They found refuge in a church and were sent to a shelter.
We get the details of each person. This allows me to communicate with their families if they get kidnapped, if they die, if they end up in jail or get lost on the route.
Santos was being registered on this day.
WOMAN (through interpreter):
From which country?
And a telephone number that we can reach loved ones?
He's hoping to return to Texas, where he worked undocumented for years before a traffic stop led to his deportation. He said returning to the U.S. is much harder now because gangs are bigger, stronger, and more brutal.
SANTOS (through interpreter):
In the '90s, you could easily cross. Now they own the river. If they catch you, they'll beat you up, even kill you. The only way now is to find a good coyote.
Coyotes, or traffickers, usually tied to gangs, charge about $4,000, he says. Others put the price tag much higher. There's no guarantee, he says, and no choice.
The situation in Honduras is that for a 46-year-old, no one will give you a job in my line of work, construction. If you try to start your own business, no matter how small, the gangs who would extort any earnings.
MAVER, Migrant (through interpreter):
My life was threatened by the gangs because I couldn't afford to pay the extortion.
Thirty-Six-year-old Maver also fled Honduras, leaving behind her small shop and two older children. She brought her 3-year-old, Emily, on a journey that turned from tiring to terrifying. Emily was snatched from her by men posing as good samaritans who had offered them a ride.
MAVER (through interpreter):
It was about 3:30 in the morning. It was really dark. That's when they came and took my child. They shoved me to the ground, took the child, and said I had to pay $10,000 to get her back.
Sensing her anguish, Mexican authorities were sympathetic, she said, as were many strangers. In the end, Emily was found in the custody of child protection authorities, apparently turned over by her kidnappers.
The moment I lifted her up was the happiest moment of my life, to hug her, to know she was alive. Emily told me she was very scared, kept saying, "Why did you leave me to travel by myself? Why did you leave me alone?"
Now every time I hug her, I tell her she's not alone.
Other migrants say, the threat of crime aside, the journey is dangerous, getting a foot jammed between train cars, for example. That's what happened to 50-year-old Laura.
LAURA, Migrant (through interpreter):
I thought I was going to die, and all I kept thinking was, let me die in a town so they'll be able to identify me and take me back to my family. And then I saw a man and shouted for him, and he called the Red Cross.
After three days in the hospital, she was brought to the shelter. She will wait several months for a prosthesis and rehab. After that she plans to continue her journey north.
LAURA (through interpreter):
I know it will be more difficult, but what else can I do? I have to support a family, not just my daughter, but I have grandchildren. They don't even have a place to live.
She can stay here for as long as she needs. There are some 60 shelters along the migrant route in Mexico, most run by Catholic individuals and groups. Only this one has no time limit.
All people who come here injured or hurt, they do not leave here until they're completely recovered. They have to leave here as persons who are free and with dignity.
In Genesis Chapter 12, God called Abraham to be a migrant. In reality, we are all migrants.
For the migrants here, the shelter helps where it can for the onward journey. It helped Maver and Emily get humanitarian visas to legally be in Mexico. That will allow them to make a much safer bus journey to Texas, where they will seek asylum.
That's not an option for Santos, who is preparing for the perilous hike to the U.S. border. His main task, finding a trafficker with both a good track record getting people across and one willing to take most of the payment once he's safely in the U.S.
For the PBS NewsHour, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Saltillo, Mexico.
Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.
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