His name is Miguel Riera. He comes from Las Flores, a small village in Guatemala that lies only mere miles from the border with El Salvador. Miguel is traveling to meet his family in the United States and hopefully find a better life for his wife and three children. He is a former military soldier who turned in 6 of his former officers for working with the Los Zeta cartel in Mexico.
“I had no choice but to leave or they would kill me”, says Riera. “I figured that if we left now, there would be safety in numbers.”
That is how many of the migrants in this first wave feel. They feel that if they traveled in numbers then they would be safer as they made the long and difficult trek across at least 2 countries.
“I am not a criminal like Mr. Trump says,” Riera says as he hands his 7 year old daughter a ration of water from a metal canteen. “I fought those bad people.”
Miguel is in American lingo a “snitch” and to American law enforcement, he would be an asset. But when he gets to the American border, this asylum seeker will be nothing more than a common enemy of the state. Miguel is unsure of exactly what the future holds for him and his family. He doesn’t even know if they will survive without being killed as they travel through the heart of Zeta territory.
“If they know that this is me then they will torture my family to death and then kill me very slowly,” Miguel says with tears. “Right now, all we are is just more migratorios.”
And Miguel hopes that it will stay that way, at least until he reaches the border of the United States where he hopes to meet his brother and uncle who have already made this same journey in 2006 and actually found legal refuge in America. But a lot has changed since then.
Miguel’s brother, Paulo lives in South Texas and now works doing odd and end construction jobs in a large metropolitan area. When he made his journey, it was much the same, except the political climate was different and migrant refugees were still being somewhat welcomed with open arms.
“Yes, it was different. I mean it was the same, but different,” Paulo tells me. “I did not know anybody but a lot of people helped me get legal.”
Paulo admits that when he came across in 2006 that he was illegal. There were military forces at the border to help with enforcement and political leaders in Washington were not making snide comments to their base about the dangers of undocumented migrants coming in from Central America.
People like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was running for the Texas Senate back then, were spouting off at the lip about immigrants bringing in “third world type diseases” to America, but that was about it.
Organizations that helped migrants were not under constant verbal attack from everybody from the president on down. Fear of the immigrant had not been fully instilled in the American people. There was a little chatter among small groups who were concerned only with the economic impacts of illegal migration, but outright fear and even racial biased against Hispanics had not yet fully set in.
“We set out water, food and blankets and they just move right along like they always have,” says Marge Hall who lives just outside of the South Texas community of Freer, about 70 miles away from Laredo. “I’ve always voted republican and I still will…but this fear tactic really needs to stop.”
Hall, who has been dealing with migrants her entire life is no stranger to them. She tells stories of how her family used to give them refuge on their ranch and how they still offer what they can.
“My family came from Germany back in the 1800s into Indianola and I’m sure they came here to Texas looking for a better life,” she says sipping coffee. “I just figure that we all got here somehow and that they were not much different than these folks.”
But not everybody feels that way.
Jessica Veech worries that migrants will place a burden on society.
“If you let them all come in, then they just become a burden on all of us,” she says as she unloads groceries from her car. “I had to fight and fight to get on food stamps because all of them are abusing the system.”
Veech argues that every time that she goes into a Texas Department of Health and Human Services office she has to wait while people without proper documentation get processed for food stamps and social services.
“They are a drain on all of us,” Veech says in disgust. Though drastic, Jessica’s view is not uncommon.
As for Miguel and his family, they are continuing their journey despite the danger and the risk. They will continue to walk because Guatemala nor Mexico is safe for them because of the dangerous drug gangs. “I just want to find safety in America and I hope that we will be safe,” he says making the sign of the cross. “Tell them we are not bad people, we just want to be safe.”
Elizabeth Cabrerra contributed to this report from Mexico.