CVIndependent

Sat12142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I’ve covered immigration as a journalist for almost 20 years, documenting the lives of families in different corners of the Western Hemisphere as they make the difficult decision to move to the U.S. to seek a better life. In the process, I’ve tried to help readers understand immigration policy, even as I personally relate to the challenge of making a new home in America, of learning a new language and cultural norms, of missing friends and family.

Yet over just the past two years, I’ve watched America—which welcomed me almost three decades ago—methodically close its doors to people from other cultures while dangerously scapegoating both new and longtime immigrants.

I know I’m not alone when I say how helpless it makes me feel, following the back-to-back news stories about migrant caravans, family separations and the inhumane conditions at immigrant camps and detention facilities. I sometimes feel ashamed to enjoy the freedoms I do, knowing that my government is refusing those same rights to others.

Yet many of us do our best to suppress those feelings, averting our gaze from people held in confinement; we are afraid to think about how debilitating it must feel to be cut off from your family, in a foreign place, without the prospect of freedom or a regular, productive life. Being held in detention must be particularly unsettling for recent asylum-seekers or border-crossing migrants who came to this country seeking refuge and instead found themselves behind walls.

I’ve recently found one way to deal with my feelings of shame and helplessness—by exchanging letters with a man named Miguel. I found him through Detainee Allies, an organization started in June 2018 by a group of friends and neighbors from San Diego who were disturbed by the disastrous Trump administration “zero tolerance” family separation policy, which is still in existence today despite a court order halting it and the growing public outcry against reports of mistreatment inside detention facilities.

By getting hundreds of people around the world to write letters to immigrant detainees in the U.S., Detainee Allies hopes to create a lifeline for people inside the detention centers, as well as for those, like me, on the outside who feel like helpless witnesses to the White House’s inhumane actions.

Miguel is being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for at least a month, though he doesn’t know exactly how long it will be. So far, I’ve sent him two short letters and received one reply. I wrote to him because I feel so impotent and frustrated, and I know that someone like him must feel great despair and loneliness, too. I don’t know whether our correspondence can change anything, other than assuaging my feelings while giving me the chance to connect with a stranger who might need to hear a friendly voice.

Miguel has shared a few details about his life: He’s from Guatemala; his parents came to California to work when he was a baby and left him at home with an aunt. He finished technical school in Guatemala and wants to become an auto mechanic. But that’s not easy to do in his home country today. “I faced violence, extortions and death threats back in Guatemala,” he writes, and ultimately, “that is why I felt I had no option but to leave and ask the U.S. for protection.”

Needless to say, the quest for protection has landed more migrants than ever in detention—and worse. At least 24 migrants have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since President Donald Trump took office. Children and teenagers in detention facilities have made allegations of deliberate mistreatment, including sexual assault, by border enforcement officials, and many have been held for weeks and even months in crowded cells with no access to soap or showers, sleeping on concrete floors in unwashed clothing. A recent report by the Office of the Inspector General describes 155 immigrant detainees occupying a room that was meant for only 35. ICE’s detention population is at an all-time high, with 54,000 people held in detention on any single day—up from 2016 averages by more than 50 percent.

Miguel has not told me about conditions at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. But last December, other detainees writing to people on the outside described medical neglect, racism and discrimination. In at least one instance, a detainee was forced to work extra shifts at the facility for $1 a day.

Even if he’s not facing those problems at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, Miguel must know he’s now part of an ever-growing population of poor migrants from throughout the world who are now stuck inside this country’s immigration detention dragnet without access to due process.

I don’t know how old Miguel is, but the fact that he’s so eager to be reunited with his parents and start a career makes me think he’s in his early to mid-20s. His handwriting is filled with youthful, bubble-shaped letters. I hope we can meet in person someday. Even after he finally gets out, Detainee Allies told me, Miguel could still use my guidance or support.

“Thank you for understanding,” read his first short letter to me. “May God bless you.”

When I replied, I asked him how he was doing. I questioned him about what he hopes to do once he’s out of detention and able to look for his parents. My heart was full, and I struggled to find the right words. In the end, all I could say was: “I wish you good health and strength.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. HCN contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Community Voices

Dear Mexican: My beloved mojado has crossed back over the border into his native Mexico. Family emergency.

He seems to think it’s going to be a cinch when he comes back. The desert, pumas, mountains, electric fences, people trying to rob and shoot you, being short on cash … where’s the difficulty, right? I know it seems like only a scared, privileged bolilla would have a problem with this, considering how many people come here that way every day, but I keep reading all this scary stuff about how many people die trying to come here.

If a Mexican gets a passport to enter, can he start the process of becoming legitimate once he’s here? I’ve tried doing research, but my Spanish isn’t that good. What are his best options for getting back, illegally or legally. Car trunk? Swimming the Rio Grande? My main concern is getting him back safely. Just please don’t say marriage—aunque es guapísimo y tiene un corazón de oro—probably one day, just not yet.

Please help me, Mexican. Extraño mi novio gordo y sexi!

Lonely in Lancaster

Dear Gabacha: Yeah, at one time, a Mexican could just pay a penny at the border and cross over—that’s how my grandfather did it in 1918. Or pay a hippie chick from Huntington Beach $50 to stuff him in a trunk of a Chevy (pronounced “Chevy, not “Shevy”) as she crossed into San Ysidro, as my papi did it in 1968.

The days of easy crossings are long gone, and now usually a miserable mess. The easiest way to get your beloved fat boy back? Vote Democrat in 2016—you can look it up!

Dear Mexican: I’m a native Alabamian who has immigrated illegally to Georgia. I was wondering: Why there is such a large Mexican and Guatemalan population in both of these states? I thought there were a lot in Alabama until I crossed the border into Georgia!

Chica Guadalupe del Taxi

Dear Gabacha: The 2010 census showed that Alabama had the second-largest percentage growth of Latinos (read: Mexicans) of any state in the country, with the other Top 5 states also in the South. There are so many Mexicans in Alabama that I know young raza who argue about Alabama vs. Auburn the way Mexicans in Southern California babble about Chivas vs. América!

I can’t answer for the Guatemalans, but the Mexican angle is easy: jobs, and gabachos willing to hire Mexicans even if they’re undocumented. Interestingly enough, all these states are also expected to go for Donald Trump during the presidential election—so is the pendejo going to build a wall around the South, too?

P.S.: The South is also the place where many a farmer has openly stated that Americans will not pick crops, no matter how much they’re paid—you can look it up!

Dear Mexican: In the not-so-distant future when the Mexicans are running the entire show, what will they do with our lame-ass “public assistance” programs—where people get checks for sitting on their asses, having more kids in fatherless homes, expecting food stamps for watching TV, subsidized housing that they treat like shit, etc.?

I See It, I’m Sick of It, and I’m Really Sick of Paying for It

Dear Gabacho: Absolutely. We’re definitely going to target the número one abuser of the welfare system: gabachos living in red states, ’cause illegals aren’t eligible for welfare. You can look it up!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Dear Mexican: Many Mexicans die in the Sonoran Desert in the Tucson border sector as they try to get to el otro lado. This is because your buddies at la migra in the L.A. sector have pushed them over this way.

Instead of sneaking in with small groups, why don’t Mexicans just mass at the border at a chosen spot in an urban location, and come on in! Can’t catch them all. Migra will just send them back if they get caught; then they can try again without risking no water, a three-day hike through hell, and lunch with the coyotes and vultures—with Mexicans as the main course. If they change the entry spot every crossing, and organize it right, the Reonquista could happen by next month! Then again, Mexicans organizing anything without comida, cerveza, tequila and música would be impossible. Migra would smell the tacos, hear the música and figure out the entry point.

I know Mexicans have a dark, black humor streak in them, but seriously: People are dying over here. What do you think should be done? If Mexicans were an endangered species, the U.S. would build sanctuaries for them and force them to breed!

No More Border Deaths

Dear Gabacha: Border deaths will only end with open borders—and mass attacks won’t lead to that. The problem with such scrums is that it gets gabachos freaked out and wanting to build walls. Migration by drips and dribbles, on la otra hand, has led to the current mexcellente situation of Reconquista.

By the way, since when has anyone had to force a Mexican to have sex?

Dear Mexican: Soy un gabacho from way up north in the 530 area code. I was wondering if there was a cultural difference between Tapatío hot sauce and Cholula, other than the tremendous sombrero on top of the mustachioed dude on the Tapatío bottle, and the very sexy Cholula chica in her not-too-revealing peasant garb. (I think they should transform her into more of a Mexican St. Pauli Girl.) Is the restaurant or roach coach that serves one salsa over another more authentic? Personally, I prefer the taste of Tapatío, but really dig the wooden cap on the Cholula. Your thoughts?

Yakkin’ It in Yuba City

Dear Gabacho: The Mexican enjoys both brands but prefers Tapatío, if only for its story: It was created in 1971 in Maywood, Calif., by Mexican immigrant José-Luís Saavedra, who saw a need for a hot sauce in an era when Pace Picante ruled. (The full story, of course, is in my Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America—and I promise this will be the only plug for it for at least a month.) Cholula comes from Jalisco and is also good, but I’ve found that gabachos seem to prefer it over Mexicans because they somehow think it’s more “authentic.” Real paisas, meanwhile, prefer Valentina, because it has a more vinegary flavor.

But the best hot sauce on Earth? Poblano Hot Sauce out of Tucson, celebrating its 89th birthday this year. Now that the pendeja Jan Brewer is no longer governor of the Copper State, get thee down there; buy some cases; and spike the coffee of those politicians waging total war against ethnic studies—then put it on your quesadillas. Versatile, it is!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Cochise Stronghold rises abruptly from the desert outside Tombstone, Ariz., a craggy nest of pink granite spires and domes. Rock-climbers like me flock to the area for its tall, coarse slabs, weird rock formations, epic sunsets and remote backcountry feel.

Although it’s never happened to me, many climbers I know have encountered tattered backpacks, energy bars with Spanish wrappers, clothing or migrants themselves, a group drawn similarly drawn to Cochise’s inaccessibility—but for obviously different reasons.

Increasingly, immigrants aren’t making it beyond secluded border areas like Cochise: New statistics released by the U.S. Border Patrol show that while fewer people are sneaking over the border than a decade ago, more are dying in the process. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, someone attempting to enter the U.S. illegally today is eight times more likely to die than approximately 10 years ago.

In the 1990s, stepped-up enforcement in border cities like San Diego and El Paso pushed immigration highways into remote parts of the desert, where, unprepared for the harsh environment or abandoned by their guides, many migrants died. (I highly recommend Luis Alberto Urrea’s fantastic book on this topic,The Devil’s Highway.) The problem has worsened as the Border Patrol has hired more officers and built more highway checkpoints between major cities, according to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, who analyzed the new data. In addition to staying out of cities, migrants are increasingly forced to walk further north of the border before being picked up to avoid roadside checkpoints.

For many years, Southern Arizona was the deadliest place to cross: In fiscal year 2005, nearly half of all migrant deaths occurred in Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. But the danger zone appears to have shifted to south Texas, where between October 2012 and February 2013 alone, 70 human bodies were found. (Here in California, the number of dead is actually decreasing—six known migrant deaths, total, occurred in fiscal year 2012 in the San Diego and El Centro sectors.)

Changing immigration demographics may partially explain the shift to south Texas. According to the Border Patrol, more non-Mexicans, mostly from Central America, are crossing, and because many hitch rides on freight trains that travel up the gulf coast, the Texas-Mexico border is most logical place to cross.

The crossing is becoming more violent, too, as increasingly remote human trafficking routes overlap with those of drug-smugglers. Sometimes, they’re one and the same: Meyer says human trafficking operations “are rarely mom-and-pop like before” because of how expensive and difficult the crossing has become, and are increasingly intertwined with drug operations. “Migrants are viewed much more as just merchandise,” she said, and smugglers, paid by the person and in a rush to avoid Border Patrol, frequently leave slow walkers behind.

In a March brief, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy offers a solution: Create more legal avenues for foreigners to work in the U.S. on a permanent basis.

“The current visa categories for agriculture and nonagricultural work are considered cumbersome and are only for seasonal work, not the type of year-round jobs filled by most illegal immigrants in the United States,” he writes. Anderson points to the Bracero Program, which helped Mexican farm laborers work legally in the U.S. during the 1950s. “When in 1954 enforcement actions were combined with an increase in the use of the Bracero program, illegal entry, as measured by INS apprehensions at the border, fell by an astonishing 95 percent between 1953 and 1959,” he notes.

Yet talk of immigration reform, to date, has focused more on getting high-skilled, high-tech workers into the country. And the immigration bill in its current form leaves out any discussion of how to make crossing safer, Meyer said, although previous reform proposals included a provision on studying migrant deaths. She'd like to see not just study, but more water caches and funding for the Border Patrol’s search and rescue team.

“You have all these people with no idea about what (crossing the border) really means,” she said. “They’re all exposing themselves so innocently to something that can be so harsh.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News. This is cross-posted from High Country News, and the author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices