“La Bestia” victims call for immigration reform

WASHINGTON – “We are living evidence of the harm being done to people by the immigration policies of the U.S.,” José Hernández said in Spanish at a meeting here of Trabajadores Unidos (Workers United) of Washington, DC.

Hernández lost his left leg and arm and part of his right hand when he fell from the top of a moving freight train while trying to reach the U.S. He knew that riding on the top of the train would be dangerous but, like thousands of other migrants from Central America, he had no choice. He was desperate to escape poverty in Honduras.

Because of his injuries, he had to return home.

That was twelve years ago. Now he’s come to the U.S. to fight for immigration policy reform with other men from the Asociación de Migrantes Retornados con Discapacidad (AMIREDIS), the Association of Migrants Returned with Disabilities. They are also organizing a campaign to urge the U.S. government to help improve the economies of Central American countries so that people do not have to leave their homes in the first place.

“The U.S. must stop sending military aid to the governments of Honduras and other Central American countries,” Hernández said. “Instead, the U.S. should help create more jobs.”

The Trabajadores Unidos meeting was part of a six city tour by AMIREDIS from Dallas to DC.  Members of the group have met with faith based organizations, students, workers, migrant rights organizations, and media. They would like to meet with President Obama.

“‘We want President Barack Obama to see the truth of what happens to migrants, the consequences of his immigration policies,” said Hernández. “We want him to know that the more people he deports, there will only be more poverty, more violence in our countries. And all the money they’re spending to put weapons on the border, that’s only causing more death, more kidnappings.'”

Seventeen men from AMIREDIS set out from Honduras February 26 as part La Caravana de los Mutilados (the Caravan of the Mutilated). They crossed Guatemala and Mexico, meeting along the way with government officials and civic leaders. Four stayed in Mexico. The rest crossed the U.S. border March 19 and asked for humanitarian asylum. Border Patrol agents threw them all into a detention center in Pearsall, Texas.

“We were treated like dogs,” Hernández recalled. Despite his disabilities, he was put in chains when guards moved him from one place to another.

Thanks to a nationwide campaign, the men were freed after six weeks. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the Honduran Consulate coerced three of them to sign voluntary deportation agreements, but the remaining ten have asked for U.S. visas. Their request is under review.

Meanwhile, they can continue to describe to U.S. groups the realities faced by people wanting to come here to build better lives.

Some half million people from Central American countries try to reach the U.S. every year. Relatively few make it.

The migrants must go through Mexico, but borders are closed and guarded. For those who cannot afford smuggling fees as high as $10,000, a ride atop a freight train is the surest way to cross Mexico. These trains are known across Central America as “la bestia,” the beast. They carry a variety of products to the U.S., including food, automobiles, transportation equipment, cement, chemicals, and plastics. There are no passenger cars, so migrants must hitch a ride on top of the moving trains, facing physical dangers that range from amputation to death if they fall or are pushed.

“The main problem,” Hernández explained, “is fatigue and hunger. People must walk for many days, most with very little to eat, before they get to la bestia. Their senses and reflexes are weak at the very time they must be very alert and strong to hang on to the train.”

Hernández said he lost his limbs as a result of trying to stretch out and relax on top of a train. He fell off and the train ran over him. He was very lucky, he said, that his accident happened in a heavily populated area. Someone saw him fall and called for help. “If you fall where there is no people, you die,” he said.

Aside from being injured, there are many other dangers, Hernández said. Robbers prey upon migrants, gangs kidnap them and rapists attack women.

There were nine men from AMIREDIS at the Trabajadores Unidos meeting.

Trabajadores Unidos Executive Director Arturo Griffiths said, “Two years ago we got organized to address the problems of Latino day laborers in DC; but those problems cannot be solved completely without addressing the issues of immigration in general.”

The group voted to give full support to AMIREDIS.

To learn more, and to make a donation to AMIREDIS, go here.

Photo: Asociación de Migrantes Retornados con Discapacidad, Facebook



Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.