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Tales from the Border: USF Professor Visits Texas & Mexico

Aug 6, 2014

Migrants ride trains known as "La Bestia," or "the Beast," through Mexico to reach the U.S. border.
Credit John Moore / Getty Images/courtesy NPR

If things had gone as planned, USF Department of Anthropology Associate Professor Heide Castañeda would have spent the last two months in Texas and Mexico on a pair of research projects. She was going to talk to "mixed status" families on both sides of the border - families who have both legal and undocumented immigrants living in the United States - as well as meet with immigrants returning to Mexico.

Instead, she arrived just as the world's attention turned to the increasing number of Central American migrants fleeing their homes for what they thought was the promised land of the U.S.

Castañeda talked to University Beat on WUSF 89.7 about her visits to Sinaloa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas, and what she saw there.

Here are some highlights from that interview:

The engine for "La Bestia," or "the Beast," one of the trains migrants use to flee Central America for Mexico.
Credit Heide Castañeda / USF Dept. of Anthropology

The migrants: Many of the people fleeing Central America are so poor that they can't afford to hire smugglers to take them across the border. Instead, they ride on the outside of trains known as "La Bestia" or "the Beast."

"It's actually a freight train that people will hop onto in Southern Mexico and they hang on, essentially the side or the top of it, and they risk life and limb," Castañeda said.

And while some of the migrants leaving countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are doing so because of violence and poverty, others are coming because they already have family in the States.

"I met families in Sinaloa who said that they had a legal opportunity to join their father in the U.S., but they couldn't afford the lawyers' fees," Castañeda said.

"I think that the larger issue is that everybody seems to have somebody in the U.S. already with no opportunities for reunification," she added. "It goes back to the way our immigration policy is structured because, for Central Americans...about 60 percent are in (the U.S.) on an unauthorized basis and many of the others have what's called 'Temporary Protective Status,' which there are no mechanisms for family reunification."

The stopovers: Though they're separated by more than 800 miles, both the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa and the U.S. border city of McAllen, Texas, serve as "transit sites" - not an endpoint for the travelers' journey, but just a temporary stopover.  And the two sites, along with other similar stopovers along the route, have something else in common: the conflicting opinions residents have about the "visitors."

A migrant girl wears a strip torn from a mylar sleeping blanket as a hair braid.
Credit Heide Castañeda / USF Dept. of Anthropology

"I think you see a range in both countries, as far as understanding what the causes and the processes of this migration is and what to do about it ultimately," Castañeda said. "In Mexico, we saw people who were very much willing to provide food and showers and some basic support to migrants who were coming off of these trains."

"So you saw a lot of small encounters of solidarity and support along the route in Mexico, in addition to encounters of violence that people were having, so (they were) experiencing both," she added. "When they're come to the United States, I think you see very much the same thing happen in the communities - you have some instances of solidarity and support."

"But in other communities you're seeing these protests where people are being welcomed with signs of hatred, essentially, at the border," Castañeda said.

However, she concedes that some standing against the migrants aren't acting in hatred, but simply may not understand that there are no mechanism for them to enter legally, let alone apply for citizenship.

"In previous decades, I think the issue of children fleeing violent situations would have not been as controversial. However we're looking at a time in our history where one year after stalled comprehensive immigration reform was under debate, we see no movement in Congress at the moment to do anything about the immigration issue, so I think tensions have boiled over into new directions with this particular issue."

The policy, both in the U.S. and in Central America: "I think we do have to take a step back and not make rash decisions about what we could do to have a quick fix - this is an issue that has been in the making for two or three decades now," Castañeda said. She suggests what should be looked at, first and foremost, is American foreign policy toward some of these Central American countries.

USF Assoc. Professor of Anthropology Heide Castañeda
Credit USF Dept. of Anthropology

"Increased militarization of our borders is going to just provide more opportunities for organized crime in Mexico. We've seen that over the past roughly ten years, we've seen that every time we  strengthen our borders...it creates more opportunities for people to make money off of this, and so you see increase in organized crime in places like Northern Mexico because there's money to be made."

And, Castañeda added, attention should also be paid to the conditions migrants are fleeing from in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"There's a reason why we're not seeing a lot of children coming, for example, from Nicaragua, which is right next door. And a lot of that reason has to do with U.S. foreign policy in that region for the past 20, 30 years, and conditions of instability that I think would be better served with real social and economic development rather than further (security) measures, which is what a lot of people are pushing for at the moment."

You can hear further thoughts from Castañeda, including her response to rumors about the health of the migrants, by clicking on the audio link above.