GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Like most migrants stopping in Guadalajara on their way to the United States, Ricardo made it here by riding on top of the trans-Mexico freight train commonly known as “The Beast.”
The 22-year-old Honduran arrived at the city’s migrant shelter in a desperate state; still shaken after seeing a travel companion fall from the railroad car to his death and dismayed by the news trickling through of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the border.
Video footage of children in cages and stories of parents unable to locate their children have circulated widely, casting a new dimension of dread and uncertainty among Central American migrants passing through Mexico.
But fear of returning home — where many face the threat of gang violence — remains more potent.
Ricardo, who asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of retaliation, is undecided on whether to cross the border illegally or formally apply for asylum, but one thing is certain: He’s dead set on making it to America.
“The violence is terrible. Honduras is full of gangs,” he said. “You work all week, and by Saturday they are threatening you to extort the little money you have.”
Ricardo still hopes to eventually make it to New York.
“It is still worth trying,” he said.
Ricardo’s outlook is common, said Janet Valverde, a spokesperson for FM4, the nongovernmental organization that runs the migrant shelter in Guadalajara.
“The migrants see [Trump’s policies] as yet another barrier,” said Valverde. “But not a permanent one. They know the conditions in their countries of origin are inadequate.”
In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the crackdown calling for the criminal prosecution of all undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border. The policy, known as “zero tolerance,” resulted in the U.S. government forcibly separating more than 2,300 children from their families detained at the border in a span of six weeks.
Facing criticism from all sides, Trump begrudgingly walked back the controversial practice earlier this week.
But in Guadalajara’s migrant shelter, confusion and fear linger.
“I hope Mexico takes pity on me.”
Jorge, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity, fled Honduras after a gangster threatened his life. He left his young daughter in the care of his mother and has no idea if and when they will see each other again.
Jorge recently abandoned his plan to head to the border after migrant support workers advised him that the Trump administration no longer plans to grant asylum to most victims of gang violence and domestic abuse.
“It’s really hard for migrants right now, the law over there is so harsh,” he said. “I can’t run the risk that U.S. Immigration deports me back to Honduras.”
The majority of those passing through the Guadalajara shelter are escaping from Honduras, a country where violence is the second-leading cause of death after heart disease, according to 2016 data collected by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Paralyzed by the recent policies on the border, Jorge now plans to apply for asylum in Guadalajara.
“I hope Mexico takes pity on me,” he said.
But migrants like Jorge who decide to stay in Mexico face an equally grim reality, human rights experts warned.
“Mexico cannot define itself as a champion of human rights,” said Alessio Mirra, the advocacy director at Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter in the northern state of Coahuila. “Mexico is not a safe place for Mexicans. So it is certainly not a safe place for migrants.”
Rights advocates worry that the country’s tightened security along traditional routes has scattered migrants, making them more vulnerable to robbery, rape and extortion.
It’s a trend they expect to get worse as a consequence of Trump’s crackdown on the border.
Mirra warned that Trump’s crackdown would not stop people fleeing violence in Central America but would simply strengthen criminal gangs along the border, as desperate migrants turn to human traffickers as their last resort.
“Traffickers are already asking for higher prices from migrants looking to cross,” he said. “Trump’s strategy just increases the number of people who need them.”
Cover image: In this April 26, 2018, file photo, migrants in a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers board a bus in Mexicali, Mexico for a two-hour drive to Tijuana to join up with about 175 others who already arrived. (AP Photo/Hans-Maximo Musielik, File)