This article was first published in Around the O on August 24, 2014.
Every day, hundreds if not thousands of undocumented migrants, many of them children, pour through Mazatlán in Mexico’s Sinaloa state on their way to chance a border crossing into the United States, a migration that drawn the interest of UO international studies professor Kristin Yarris.
Yarris has seen the trains migrants cling to rumbling through the middle of Mazatlán, a key transit point on the Pacific coastal route from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to the risky border zone around Tijuana and Mexicali. And she and colleagues have started to shift their research to look more closely at how this flood of pass-through migration is affecting Mexico.
Yarris arranged a research trip to Mazatlán this summer well before the waves of child immigrants started making headlines in the United States. Her research focuses, among other things, on Central American migration and its effects on families.
On her current trip, Yarris is working with professor Heide Castañeda of the University of South Florida and colleagues from the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa in Mazatlán. They had planned to study the phenomenon of migrants returning to Mexico from the United States, but the effect on Mexico of U.S.-bound migrants fleeing violence in Central America has caught their attention.
Yarris isn’t focusing her research on the recent upswing in unaccompanied children reaching the United States. On this trip she’s been looking at Central American migrants (adults, children and families) who pass through Mazatlán by train. Most of the unaccompanied children seem to be traveling with “coyotes” – human smugglers – on buses, in cars or in other ways.
But she has seen plenty of children traveling with adults – sometimes with parents but often as part of informal “families” they form for self-protection. And those children face the same risks as the adults they’re with.
Two things have stood out to Yarris about flood of migrants traveling through Mexico in hopes of entering America: the terrible dangers they face and the kindness of random strangers offering help along the way.
The dangers are well documented. Migrants are preyed upon by criminals and gangs that kidnap children and hold them for ransom, rape and beat migrants and steal whatever small amounts of money they have left. Yarris said one of the unintended consequences of the United States’ heightened border security is an increase in the demand for human smugglers who prey on poor migrants.
“The fact is that the heightened border patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border has created more of a demand for these human smugglers and thus contributed to the dangers of crossing,” Yarris said in an e-mail. “Migrants bring violence, not because they themselves are violent but because they are preyed upon by all sorts of bad actors – from Mexican federal police to local gang members – all of whom take advantage of migrants’ vulnerability in transit to rob them of the little cash they manage to carry and physically harm them.”