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From mass graves to Martha's Vineyard, the American dream is fraught for migrants

Outside the Embajadores de Jesús migrant shelter in Tijuana, people plan and hope for a new life ahead.

TIJUANA, Mexico — My parents had never heard of the American dream when they came to the United States from Mexico in the early '80s, but they wanted what it supposedly offered. They were after a better life with more work opportunities.

Four decades later, they are intimately familiar with the concept and say they attained their version of the dream. My dad says he has a family, a home and a better life than he could have had in Mexico.

My sisters and I benefited from our parents' aspirations, too. In Spanglish, my mom says, "Ustedes vinieron a succeed, no para sobrevivir." In other words, we are here to succeed, not to survive.

There are migrants today seeking a similar dream, but with less say in how that happens. Last week, migrants were flown from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, saying they were promised jobs that never existed and that they were lied to about their destination.

The so-called American dream remains a compelling tale among migrants south of the border, but the objective has shifted. For many, simply trying to stay alive is what's driving them towards the United States.

Migrants are waiting longer and face instant rejection by the U.S.

In a cramped shelter with a tin roof and rows of tents lined up side-to-side, Jesús Ariel puts on his shoes to start the day while his seven-year-old son blows bubbles and tries to keep them afloat.

"We left our home to try to realize that dream," he says.

The pair is staying at Movimiento Juventud 2000 — one of about 20 migrant shelters in Tijuana — while they wait for their chance to enter the U.S. to ask for asylum. They fled here from Honduras after Jesús Ariel was attacked by gang members.

"Honestly, things are very dangerous there. But thank God, I am here," he says. "We came with the dream to accomplish something, at least have a little house."

The shelter they currently call home is in Tijuana's Zona Norte red light district — a section of the city where prostitution is legal and cartels are known to operate. Still, Jesús Ariel says he feels comfortable here because he and his son sleep together in their own tent. While they've only been at this shelter for a few days, they have been in Mexico for more than a year.

This is not unusual, says Rafael Fernández de Castro, the director at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

"In the past, shelters were for migrants to stay three or four or five days and then come across to the U.S.," he says. "Now it's different. In the shelters, migrants are staying months, even years."

The reasons are varied. Some people are waiting on legal appointments, while others have applied for asylum in the U.S. and that process can now drag out for months. Tijuana has become one of the main hubs for migrants to wait.

Many have already tried to cross the border but have been turned back because of Title 42. The pandemic public health order invoked under President Trump — and still in place under President Biden — prevents migrants from asking for asylum at the border, and instead allows border agents to swiftly expel them from the U.S. without hearing their claim.

There were nearly 1.8 million expulsions of migrants during the first two years of the policy. The recidivism rate of those trying to cross increased from 7% in 2019 to 27% in 2021.

Jesús Ariel and his son are among those recidivists who have tried to cross more than once. For them, there's too much on the line to give up now.

Migrants across Tijuana often speak of gang violence, death threats or extortion as their reason for leaving their homes, and why they fear going back. It's hard to calculate how many migrants are currently living in Tijuana, since they are constantly moving, but Fernández de Castro estimates there are about 35,000 migrants here hoping to be granted asylum in the U.S.

"It's very difficult to separate the fear from the economic need," he says of their motivation. "I will say both of them come together."

But the American dream won't become a reality for everyone.

There were more than 280,000 applications for asylum filed in the U.S. in 2020, the latest year with data. Fewer than 32,000 individuals were granted it.

It's a perilous journey that can end in a mass grave

Not everyone buys into the American dream. Lourdes Lizardi believes it is a lie. The migrant activist has spent the past 28 years helping people find refuge in Tijuana, and she has seen hopes fade when confronted with a sometimes cruel reality.

"They come looking for that famous American dream that sometimes turns into a hellish dream," she says.

Lizardi says the situation has become increasingly dangerous for migrants over the past 15 years, particularly as the cartels have grown in power and influence.

Before, she says, migrants would occasionally fall victim to crime in Tijuana. Now, they are the target, as cartels see them as easy prey for drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. Four shelters in Tijuana have recently installed panic buttons that migrants can press to warn of danger nearby.

Lizardi has seen people die on their journey to the U.S. and doesn't believe the pursuit is worth the risk. Just this month, eight migrants were found dead as they attempted to cross near Eagle Pass, TX.

Those who die in the state of Baja California end up in Dr. Cesar Raúl González Vaca's medical lab. He is the director of the forensic service in the state, which receives about 1,600 bodies each year found in Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate.

"These are border cities where we frequently find bodies that have a link to migration, and who die trying to cross or due to other violent causes," Vaca says.

Most often the bodies belong to people from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and central Mexico. When they aren't claimed by family and friends, they end up in mass graves. In Tijuana, 10 bodies are buried together in a single grave, and about 120 graves are added every year.

In recent years, Vaca's lab has begun keeping better records of where bodies are buried in the event that someone does come looking for their loved one's remains.

But for those who can't be identified, their journey from faraway places across Central and South America ends with their anonymous bodies dropped into mass graves in a dusty field on the outskirts of Tijuana, with no trace for their families to ever find.

Parents are making impossible decisions

Inside the Embajadores de Jesús shelter at the end of a bumpy dirt road in Tijuana, kids are playing loudly. On top of sleeping cots, they smile and dance to rhythmic beats blasting out of loudspeakers. Outside, others shoot marbles on the dirt road, game faces on.

They're all in their own world. That is, until they have to decide what shoes they're going to take with them on the journey to the U.S.

That's what Daniel Gutierrez's seven-year-old daughter had to consider one morning: Would her shoes, which fit a little loose, be comfortable enough to continue walking up and down hills?

"And it hit us really hard that morning, because we didn't imagine she would be thinking about that, feeling that anxiety that we would be trying to cross again," he says.

The family is preparing for their third attempt asking for asylum, but Gutierrez says he and his wife never anticipated the psychological trauma their children would take on.

Gutierrez and his family are also escaping gang violence. Their business was being extorted back home in Guatemala, and after a gang didn't get their way, they received death threats. They are seeking safety but no longer want to compromise their children's mental health. Gutierrez and his wife have promised their kids this will be their final attempt to get into the United States.

"We're not looking for anything luxurious," Gutierrez says. "All we really want is to give our kids a better education."

While they would like to make this reality come true in the U.S., they will settle for Tijuana as their new home.

Back at the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter, Sarai Raudales is also concerned about her children.

She escaped Honduras with her husband and two small children after facing threats on two fronts: her husband's mechanic shop was facing extortion by a local gang, and her children received death threats after her ex-husband killed a police officer.

Raudales had less than four hours to leave her home after they received the death threats. They grabbed what they could and took the first bus headed towards Mexico. On such little notice, Raudales says she couldn't afford bus tickets for the whole family, and she feared her 12-year-old daughter would be kidnapped or forced into sex trafficking along the way — so the decision was made to leave her behind with family. "I'm afraid I won't get the chance to see her again," Raudales says. "I'm afraid they'll also retaliate against her because I left with the little ones."

Raudales is determined to do whatever it takes to keep her children safe, even if that means giving them up.

"If I wasn't able to cross, I'd let the [United States] government keep my kids so it could take care of them," she says. "Because in Honduras [the gangs] are going to kill them. So, as a mother, I just want them to be safe."

"Most of us come because we're fleeing. Because we're all in difficult situations. In other words, nobody wants to leave their home."

Raudales wishes Americans understood that it's not an easy choice.

"Many of you feel safe at home where you grew up, where you were born," she says. "When we left, I left my mother, my brothers, everyone. And I don't know if I can see them again."

There are some offering a Mexican dream

American life has been imperfect, but my parents say they chose the right dream for themselves. Others, like Daniel Gutierrez's family, might have that decision made for them, and instead have to create a new life south of the border.

Lourdes Lizardi, the migrant activist, says this might not be the worst thing.

"The whole world is still chasing the American dream," she says, "When there are Mexican dreams, Canadian dreams, Chinese dreams, all these other dreams."

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez also encourages migrants to choose her city as the place to call home, and tries to assure them that she can maintain peace and safety.

"[The American dream] has been romanticized a lot," she says. "We need to tell the citizens of the world that these dreams can be built wherever you are."

"I think Tijuana is a safe city. We do not have the peace that we would like in the whole country, I would be lying to you if I said that, but we are going for stability."

For some, Tijuana may offer enough safety and stability to build a content life. But others will keep trying, no matter what, to reach that famous American dream.

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