The Journey to Safety Part 2: How do you travel 1,500* miles?

This is part two of “The Journey to Safety” blog series which aims to tell the stories of Central American women asylum seekers and are now in detention in the U.S.; Read Part 1 here.

By Monica Faulkner

John Moore via Ghetty Images

For women who make it to the United States border with a child, there is intense pain and guilt for having allowed their child to suffer through a grueling journey because nothing is easy about traversing over 1,500 miles. Sometimes, they even have to leave a child or children behind to make the journey. As a social worker and a mother, it is one of the most soul-crushing experiences to look into another mother’s eyes and bear witness to the sorrow she carries due to the choice she made to leave one or more of her children.

Even the calmest and collected parents stress about traveling with a young child. Given that I can generally afford to fly, I plan all my trips with my kids around sleep schedules, over-pack what I need for a direct flight and frankly, pray for some good luck. The experience of Central American women traveling to the United States is so far removed from my reality that I have a hard time grasping how it logistically works.

The Central American women asylum seekers that I have worked with have made a horribly constrained choice to leave their home and risk death in search of safety or stay in their home and eventually be murdered. Despite this grim reality, the hardest decision they talk about is their children: which, if any, of their children can make the journey with them? As a mother, I have to hold back tears at even the hypothetical chance that I would have to be separated from my children or be forced just to choose one.

As I have talked about previously, the decision to leave is often made hastily. Some women approach relatives such as their sisters, mother or aunts and ask for them to keep their children. The idea is not that they would leave their children forever, but that is a highly likely scenario and everyone knows it. If there are enough funds gathered by a family to pay the necessary coyotes, one of the children might be able to travel with their mother. For example, I have met moms whose pre-adolescent daughters were being targeted for sex by gang members. These mothers chose to leave their younger children to save their daughters. They believed that once they made it to the United States, they could work and send money home knowing their daughter was safe from inevitable sexual violence.

Many women who are traveling with young children try to piece together routes on buses or pay for rides in small buses or cars to get to the Mexican border. Depending on where they cross into Mexico, they might have to pay someone to take them across the river border in a rickety boat.  Once in Mexico, they cannot travel by bus if they have dark skin because they will likely be asked for identification by Mexican authorities.  Being deported from Mexico generally, means a bus ride to the border where migrants are simply left in the middle of the jungle. Most women, like men and children traveling on their own, end up on “La Bestia,” the Beast. La Bestia refers to trains that migrants risk their lives to ride on. They literally run and jump on moving trains to find a spot on the roof. Even though the Mexican government does not permit this, there is little anyone can do to stop the massive amounts of migrants riding La Bestia. Once near the U.S. border, they enlist the help of a coyote to get them across the border. In Texas, this means crossing a river in the middle of the night with a group of people who, like you, probably don’t swim well. Coyotes are not saints. They frequently exploit migrants, but that is another blog.

Everyone is vulnerable on the route to the United States, but women and unaccompanied children are at great risk for violence and exploitation. Often women traveling alone end up being sexually assaulted, or they end up having sex in exchange for a male to protect them along the journey. The women I have talked to block these experiences. They hold the anxiety and fear, but by the time they are talking to me, they see hope that these experiences might finally be over and that they might finally be free.

But what is the process for getting to the United States and being “free”? I’ll write about that next.

* This is a rough estimate based on miles from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to McAllen, TX.  Exact miles will differ based on where a person starts.

To read first-hand accounts of this journey:

 Continue Reading The Journey to Safety blog series, Read part 3 here.