Women and children from Central America began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in unprecedented numbers during the summer of 2014. Referring to the “urgent humanitarian situation,” President Barack Obama called on Congress to build new detention centers, hire new immigration judges, and increase border surveillance as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children were detained by U.S. immigration officials. At the same time, the United States backed a Mexican government initiative to increase patrols, detentions, and deportations along Mexico’s southern border. The idea was to stop Central Americans from getting into Mexico, let alone the United States.
But the gang violence, kidnappings, and extortion sending families fleeing from the “Northern Triangle” comprising El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala hasn’t stopped. The area has the highest murder rate in the world outside a war zone, and people are still coming to Mexico. Only now, as photographer Alice Proujansky documents, they are taking new routes and facing new dangers.
“Entire families arrive with little more than backpacks,” Proujansky said. “Women and children are particularly vulnerable: Increased enforcement on freight trains has driven migrants to ride buses and walk on isolated routes where they face robbery, assault, and sexual violence.”
Proujansky spent time with families who were hoping to receive asylum from Mexico. There are no reliable figures on how many people cross the border with Guatemala each year, which is still porous despite increased patrols. But between 2014 and the summer of 2016, Mexico detained 425,000 migrants, according to an analysis of government statistics by the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, a human rights advocacy group. In that same time, only 2,900 people received asylum. Last year, there were some 8,700 applicants, of whom 2,800 have so far received protection. (In 2014, Mexico’s refugee agency had just 15 people to screen thousands of applications.)
The wait for asylum is hard. Without documents, and unable to move around while they wait for their applications to process, many of the women can’t work. Their children can’t go to school. They are largely dependent on privately run shelters for safety and food. Many of them are traumatized. And in the border cities, gangs have eyes on the street.
“The families I met were afraid of being seen,” said Proujansky. “They knew these networks existed and it would be really easy to find them and for somebody to come after them.”
Advocacy groups say that U.S. support for Central American refugees has been inadequate. Programs established in 2014 to facilitate asylum claims from children have been roundly criticized for not working quickly enough to get kids out of danger. And support to Mexico has largely focused on immigration enforcement, not humanitarian assistance.
With the Trump administration on frosty terms with Mexico, it’s unclear what will happen to U.S. support for the southern border initiative, but Maureen Meyer, an expert with WOLA, said she “would expect the focus to be on controlling the flow of goods and people and not on how to strengthen the country’s institutions so that they are protecting the rights of people trying to migrate to Mexico.”
Proujansky, whose work has long focused on families, said that for the women she interviewed, the motivation for leaving was immediate and dire: “The women didn’t look into where they were going, they didn’t make a big plan,” she said. “They described leaving as though they were going out for a walk, because they didn’t want anyone to know. They just had to leave.”
“It was just clear to me that any attempt to dissuade people from trying to get to Mexico wasn’t going to work. Because what they were facing was people saying that they are going to kill their children. The question was, ‘What would you do to keep your children alive?’ And the answer was, ‘Anything.’”
People illegally cross the Suchiate River that marks the Mexico-Guatemala border within sight of an official crossing. There is little immigration enforcement here, and people cross openly to migrate and to buy and sell goods.
Backpacks hold migrants’ possessions at a shelter in Chahuites, Oaxaca.
A 7-year-old boy watches television at a shelter for families seeking asylum in Tapachula, Chiapas. The television has only two channels, there are few toys at the shelter, and he has not attended school for six months. His family fled El Salvador after gang members threatened to kill his eldest brother for witnessing another teenager’s murder.
A Honduran mother looks out from a shelter for families seeking asylum in Tapachula, Chiapas. Gang members killed her husband, who was a police officer, six years ago. The family fled after the gang demanded half of the money she earned selling food on the street, then insisted that her 13-year-old son join the gang, or that his 15-year-old sister become a girlfriend of a member.
Border Police on patrol. The unit’s stated aim is to prevent crimes against migrants, but many are skeptical of what effect they are having. “Immigration officials, police, and local authorities have also been implicated in abuse, and shelters complain about excessive use of force,” said Meyer, of WOLA. “But Mexico doesn’t yet have the capacity to actually investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants.”
People illegally cross the Suchiate River that marks the Mexico-Guatemala border below a bridge that serves as the official crossing.
A statue of Jesus in front of a trail used by migrants by the side of a highway. Taking remote routes to evade Mexican border checkpoints leaves migrants vulnerable to robbery, assault, and sexual violence by local criminals.
A woman adjusts decorations in the storefront inside her home where she sells food to migrants near the tracks for “La Bestia,” the freight train many migrants used to ride north. Now, she still sees some traffic, but mostly people on foot.
A 13-year-old Honduran boy reclines in a sink for washing clothes at the shelter. “These kids were at ages where they need to be in school, and they were bored out of their mind in this tiny little refugee shelter,” Projouansky said. “They’d made a slingshot out of a bottle, when their mom had money to put minutes on their phones they could text their friends, but it was a such a tragic waste of young people. That’s another dark side of this story.”
People who have just illegally crossed the Suchiate River, which marks the border with Guatemala, stand below the official port of entry in Talismán, Mexico.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported this project as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.