Her name was Margaret. The five-year-old girl’s body was found far from the place where she slipped from the hand of her mother on the Rio Bravo/Grande.
They were coming from Guatemala, and tried to cross from Mexico to Texas. The girl was dragged by the current “about five kilometers from point A to point B,” the chief of the fire department in Ciudad Juarez, where her body was found by the river bank, told Reuters. On television, I saw images of the mother after her daughter was identified. She was heartbroken. I can’t imagine a bigger hurt.
The river that separates Mexico and the United States honors its name: It is big, and fierce And tricky and deadly. There are times when it looks like a creek that can be crossed by jumping from stone to stone like in a child’s game. But other times it is a monster that devours everything under a surface that always seems peaceful and flat. It is a river where dreams drown.
Twice I have gone into that river to film a report. And I did it very carefully. A US Border Patrol boat was always by my side. The water is dark, greenish and cold, full of garbage. It is the drain for homes and businesses. In one of the two, I cut my foot among the ferns underwater. But the worst was the current. Despite its apparent calm, the river dragged me dozens of yards from the place where I entered to the place I came out. Impossible to do it without help or with a child.
More than 200 migrants have died since October along the Del Rio border sector in Texas. Not all drowned. But the numbers underscore how dangerous it is to try to cross into the United States illegally.
Despite the dangers of dying by drowning in the river, dehydrated in the desert, in an accident atop a train or as victims of criminals and rapists, record numbers of migrants are crossing the border. More than 162,000 migrants who entered illegally in July were detained. In the last 10 months, there’s been more than 2.2 million “encounters” between the Border Patrol and undocumented migrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
For a majority of the United States – 53 percent – what is happening along the southern border is an “invasion,” according to a recent NPR poll. That reflects the language used by extremist right-wing groups and the influence they have on social media. But they are wrong. It is not an invasion because it’s not about a government or a group intent on dominating another country or occupying its territory. The language of war does not reflect the fluidity and true causes of migration.
The facts are very simple. The United States continues to be the main refuge for the entire continent. When things are going badly in our southern countries, we scamper north. Something lures us to the United States. But something also pushes us to leave.
The pandemic left Latin America battered economically, the dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are driving out thousands of refugees like never before, and crime, hunger and the lack of opportunity have forced entire families to take the most difficult decision of their lives: to leave everything – home, relatives, friends, pets, neighborhoods, smells and tastes – and head to an unknown country.
You have to be very brave to become a migrant. No one wants to be a migrant, to leave his country. They are forced to do it. It is, for many of us, the decision that will mark us forever.
Jordán José, 24, a Nicaraguan I met in May in McAllen, Texas, knows that. It took him a month to go from Chinandega in Nicaragua to the Mexico-US border. And he had to pay $3,300 to people smugglers for the trip and the crossing into the United States. His salary in Nicaragua, the equivalent of $200 per month, was barely enough for his family and two-year old daughter to survive. When he crossed the Rio Bravo/Grande, he carried a nine year old boy he had never met on his shoulders, because his mother could not.
Were you scared to cross the river, I asked Jordán José. “Some, some,” he answered. “But for a better life you take risks.” Soon after that he got on a truck bound for Indianapolis, where had friends, and I lost track of him.
Many are taking the risks, and many are dying.
What to do? Two things.
The first is to legalize the 11 million already here. And the easiest way to do that is to change a date. Immigration law allow permanent residence for those who entered the country before January of 1972. Congress can change that date in the so-called Register Law – let’s say to 2015 or 2020, and the majority of the undocumented migrants would qualify.
The second thing urgently required is to increase the number of migrants who can legally enter the country. The United States currently admits about 1 million migrants each year. But that number is not enough, or realistic. It should be doubled, at least. The United States can easily absorb those migrants and refugees, who create jobs, pay taxes and take the jobs that no one else wants. Everyone wins.
I know there are few issues that divide the United States more than immigration. But I believe we can all agree there’s no reason for children like Margaret to die along the border. There are rivers that kill.