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They Survived the 'Train of Death,' Only to Face Detention by US Immigration

A group of maimed Honduran Migrant Activists, injured while riding the northbound Mexican freight train known as La Bestia, or "The Beast," hope to tell President Obama about the hardships facing migrants seeking entry to the US.
August 5, 2015, 5:25pm
Des migrants originaires d’Amérique centrale utilisent des sacs-poubelles et des cartons pour se protéger de la pluie. Ils patientent sur le toit du Train de la Mort au milieu du Mexique, le 20 juin 2014. (Photo Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)

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"It's been a long trip," said José Luis Hernández, gesturing as he described the 3,000-mile journey from Honduras to Washington, DC. His shirtsleeve fluttered where his right arm should be.

Hernández is the president of the Association of Migrants Returned with Disabilities (AMIREDIS), a community organization founded in his hometown of El Progreso, Honduras. All of AMIREDIS' more than 50 members were maimed while riding the northbound freight railway through Mexico, known as El Tren de la Muerte ("The Train of Death"), or La Bestia ("The Beast").

Many received extensive and often lifesaving treatment in Mexico before being deported back to Honduras. Now, the group provides support to others who were injured and returned to El Progreso, and engages in activism on issues affecting migrants and the disabled.

Despite the failure of their previous attempts to reach the United States — not to mention the obvious dangers of the journey — on February 26, Hernández and 16 other AMIREDIS activists set out from Honduras in a caravan to Washington, DC, with the intention of raising awareness about the circumstances that force people to make such a dangerous trip.

"We left undocumented, in the same way we left when we were still physically well," Hernandez explained. "We managed to get some of our friends' wheelchairs into the rafts to cross the rivers. We were saying as we were crossing the river how unjust this was and how human beings have made life unjust for some people."

Jose Nain Gutierrez shows off an AMIREDIS t-shirt with the group's contact information (Photo by Angelika Albaladejo).

AMIREDIS' ultimate — if unlikely — goal is to meet with US President Barack Obama to make their case for why the United States should stop providing military aid and training to Central America and Mexico. They say this "has only led to more violence and deaths." Instead of more police, AMIREDIS argues these countries need "more jobs with good wages and working conditions."

The activists are also asking the US to stop deportations of undocumented migrants. AMIREDIS says that deportations contribute to further migration cycles and harm migrants' home countries due to their heavy dependence on remittances from abroad.

AMIREDIS members also want to tell Obama about the 700 Hondurans they estimate have been maimed during the past four years while riding The Beast. However, it's likely the actual total could be much higher, given that an estimated half a million Central American migrants make use of this perilous mode of transportation each year.

The hulking, fast-moving trains are just one of the many dangers faced by the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence, economic hardship, and political persecution in their home countries. Many women and girls report being raped en route to the United States, and extortion and abuses by criminals, gangs, and corrupt security forces are disturbingly commonplace.

But more than a month after asking for a meeting, AMIREDIS members are still waiting for a call from the White House.

Related: More Than 50,000 Migrants Have Arrived in Italy This Year

After traveling through Guatemala and Mexico, 13 members of the AMIREDIS caravan arrived at the US border crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas on March 19. Instead of allowing AMIREDIS to continue to Washington, US authorities arrested the group and sent them to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Pearsall, Texas.

"We went to the border to ask for a permit to be allowed to come here to Washington," Hernández said. "But when we got to the other side, they told us that there was no such type of permit...The only thing we could do was apply for asylum."

Attorneys for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), an aid group that took on AMIREDIS's case, said that the detained activists were not provided with proper medical care for their prostheses while they were incarcerated and that some were subjected to "degrading, inhumane and dangerous" treatment.

José Nain Gutierrez (front) and Freddy Vega Ardon participate in a community forum at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) on June 18, the day after they arrived in Washington, DC (Photo by Angelika Albaladejo). 

Hernández — who lost his right arm, his right leg, and most of his left hand to The Beast in 2005 — said he was shackled and placed in isolation without explanation. He says the staff treated them "like criminals" and reminded them over and over that the detention facility "isn't a hotel."

ICE released a statement in response to a request for comment, saying in part that the agency "is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in [its] facilities receive timely and appropriate medical health care and that reasonable accommodations are considered for the disabled."

Members of AMIREDIS also said that rather than helping the organization, the Honduran government tried to discourage them. AMIREDIS says that some of its members were coerced to acquiesce to their own deportations during a visit in late March from officials from the Honduran Consulate in Houston.

RAICES spokesperson Mohammad Abdollahi confirmed this account, saying that officials from the Consulate were "essentially threatening the men" and "trying to circumvent due process" with the complicity of US immigration authorities. Multiple attempts to reach the Honduran Consulate for comment were unsuccessful. The Honduran Embassy in Washington said their office had "no record" of these allegations.

Related: Migrants Have Made 3,500 Attempts to Enter the Channel Tunnel Over Two Nights

After more than a month in the detention center, 11 of the activists were freed on their own recognizance as they began pursuing asylum claims in the United States. Eight members of the caravan continued on with the mission, arriving in Washington on June 17.

Since then, the eight disabled Hondurans have held community forums, press conferences and media interviews, and have met with several congressional staffers to voice their concerns about US immigration policies and foreign assistance to Central America.

But AMIREDIS says the White House hasn't yet responded to its request for a meeting with Obama. The White House didn't return several requests for comment from VICE News.

While anti-immigrant sentiment remains strong in the US and elsewhere, most members of the group are hopeful that policymakers in all countries will listen to their message and to the voices of other migrants.

"We aren't here to point fingers," Hernández said. "But, we are here in the most powerful country in the world and we think it could do a great deal for our country to prevent this kind of tragedy."

Related: Moroccan Migrant Suffocates in Suitcase While Trying to Reach Spain

In 2008, the year AMIREDIS was founded, the World Bank estimated that nearly one in seven Hondurans lived on less than $1.25 per day. The country's murder rate of 61 per 100,000 citizens placed it among the most dangerous countries in the world.

But it's gotten even worse ever since a coup in 2009 ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya. By 2012, Honduras, with a population of 8 million, had the highest murder rate in the world at an astronomical 90 murders per 100,000 citizens.

 Members of AMIREDIS pose for a picture with a CARECEN staff member in Washington. (Photo by Angelika Albaladejo).

Many experts have linked the deteriorating economic situation and rising violence to the steep increase in migrants, especially women and children, attempting to migrate to the United States from Honduras.

The US has provided over $1 billion in aid to Central America in recent years, and the Obama administration recently requested another $1 billion to help stem the increasing flow of migrants**.**

AMIREDIS members say increased investment from the United States in Central America could help, but some questioned how the money would be distributed, voicing similar concerns as Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America, who recently said that she worries congress "will only authorize the security part" of the proposed aid package.

"The only way you're going to stop migration is to stop it at its roots, by offering jobs, by creating opportunities, by making sure kids can go to school," said José Efrain Vasquez. "No one wants to migrate from their county, but it's the conditions of life there that force people to leave their land and to face the worst nightmare of their lives."

"Our struggle is not just for those who have been mutilated," Hernández added. "It is also for the thousands of migrants who are thinking about making the journey and also for the millions who live here now."

Related: Watch the trailer for the new VICE News documentary, "**Saving the Lives of Migrants at Sea." **

_Watch the VICE News documen_**_tary, "Immigrant America: Murder and Migration in Honduras." _**