PHOENIX.- «If I’d known I’d experience this, I’d never have come here,» Norberto Marcos of Guatemala told EFE, asking for some drops for his eyes, red from lack of sleep over the past three days during which he had to remain standing in the cell jammed with other migrants where US immigration personnel stuck him.
Marcos, 38, is at the «Helping with All My Heart» shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, where US authorities took him from a detention center when they could not continue housing him there due to the arrival of another huge contingent of Central Americans who crossed the southern border.
He’s been wearing the same clothes for days – formal gray trousers, a black buttoned shirt and patent leather boots. When you ask him about his outfit, he answers with a certain sadness and seems very tired: «They never told me what I was going to go through, just that I was going to cross (the border) and then be able to stay in the United States.»
The same negative impression is shared by Lady Carina, 28, who took 12 days to cross Mexico from south to north.
She left Guatemala with a group of 60 people on a bus coordinated by a «guide» to whom they paid $5,000 for transporting them and then leaving them near the US border.
«When we went through Mexico, the bus stopped so we could give money to uniformed people who got on board and who coordinated with the guide. We had to pay from 200 to 500 Mexican pesos. If we didn’t (pay), they told us that they were going to deport us,» she said.
After this, she said, she had to cross a waterway and then the desert in her wet clothing along with her 7-year-old son Ferdi, and she was finally detained by the US Border Patrol after being pursued by a helicopter.
«If I would have known I’d experience this, I would not have come,» she also said.
A similar feeling is expressed by Victoriano Pop, 42, and his 16-year-old daughter Virginia, who admitted that there was a point – when they were confined in a small US immigration cell – when they wanted to return to Guatemala.
«We were locked up for four days. They didn’t consider us to be human, that was the worst of all,» Virginia said.
The majority of migrants agreed that, despite the problems they had in passing through Mexico to get to the southern US border, the worst was the «demeaning» treatment they received in the Border Patrol installations.
«They treated us like animals,» said Micaela Roxana, 21, who arrived with her 6-year-old son, complaining because for three days the US officials only gave them two bowls of soup with cold water each day.
All these people are among the thousands of Central American migrants who continue crossing the border from Mexico each day – authorities estimate that 100,000 crossed in March – many of them having been deceived by the people smugglers.
These traffickers in human beings, they said, told them that they would only be detained by the Border Patrol for a few hours and then they would be released in the US, and the migrants were unaware that the only way to obtain legal migrant status is by receiving asylum.
«What is political asylum?» asked Guatemala’s Jose Leones, 25, who paid 35,000 quetzales ($4,550) to a «pollero» (people smuggler, literally «chicken farmer») to take him to the border between San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico’s Sonora state, and Arizona.
«I came from my country because I crashed the taxi I was driving and could not pay for it. They were extorting me,» Leones told EFE, adding that he arrived in Phoenix after an 11-day journey through Mexico along with his 4-year-old daughter Cecilia.
Cristobal Perez, who heads the Helping with All My Heart shelter, said that the majority of the migrants are fleeing from violence in their countries and that along the way they are «swindled and deceived» by the people traffickers.
«There are overwhelming numbers of migrants who they deceive by telling them that by crossing they can remain in (the US),» he said.
He added that his shelter «can’t cope» with the waves of Central Americans who are being released by US immigration authorities, who don’t have the space to keep them detained and find themselves forced to set them free and take them to shelters like the one run by Perez.
The migrants are all issued an order to appear before an immigration judge but the «majority don’t know these laws, they arrive here swindled and without money,» said Perez, who also heads shelters for migrants in Los Algodones and Mexicali, Mexico.
«When they get off the (buses) they don’t know where they are, who we are or what’s going to happen to them,» said Perez, as he attends to dozens of people just disembarking from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bus.
Once the migrants are informed that they are no longer in the custody of US authorities and that they will be helped to contact their relatives, many of them begin to weep with relief.