The girl’s dark eyes continued to haunt Lisa Stallings on her way back to the U.S. side of the Texas-Mexico border. Filled with fear and distrust, the toddler in the hot pink shirt was midway through a perilous journey, and had stopped at a haven in Mexico.
As a volunteer and co-director of People Caring for People, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit, Stallings has seen firsthand the people — mostly women and children — at the center of what is being called a humanitarian crisis. A flood of tens of thousands of children, many traveling alone, fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and seeking asylum at the border.
The stories she tells will break your heart.
No longer are they just statistics for politicians to cite in immigration policy debates. They are people — frightened, brave, hungry, thirsty and vulnerable. They are mothers who want something so simple: to protect their child and give them a chance to grow up.
With the help of a translator, Stallings interviewed three Honduran women at a shelter just south of the Rio Grande. One spent eight days traveling by bus with her three children, who are 2, 14 and 16 years old. She said immigration authorities robbed her of food and what little money she had at every stop.
When the woman fled Honduras, she wasn’t sure where she was headed. Her husband and father had been murdered by violent gang members. Then, “la mafia” came to her door and said they were going to kidnap her sons to work for them. She ran, seeking safety in another country.
“They say, ‘If we go back, we’re killed.’ So it’s better to take a chance and die on the river. Because they escaped, they will be killed by the cartel,” Stallings said.
Essentially: An uncertain chance at life outweighs certain death.
Charity provides donations, medical care
People Caring for People takes volunteers to Mexico about four times a year to provide medical care and donations to the poor. Stallings said this mission has been different from previous trips because the people in need are from Central America.
The organization took a dozen volunteers, a pickup and a sport utility vehicle loaded with 250 pounds of beans and rice, clothing, shoes, toys, medications and first-aid supplies. Volunteers provided medical care to 300 migrants and handed out toys, baby formula and blankets.
“We were overwhelmed with need and moved beyond words by what we witnessed,” Stallings said. “Very few Americans are given entrance into any holding center for the refugees, much less one in Mexico.” She described U.S. Border Patrol helicopters circling above the facility, which is located on the river bank of the Rio Grande.
The number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. illegally has jumped in recent years. More than 57,000 have crossed the border since October, overwhelming Border Patrol shelters.
Last month, three additional facilities at military bases were designated to house children while authorities search for a relative or sponsor, including one at Fort Sill, where 1,000 children are now being held. The Oklahoman and other members of the media were given a tour of the facility on Thursday.
This week, the U.N. General Assembly made a push to have the fleeing Central Americans treated as refugees, which could give them international protection. Most of those now considered refugees come from more traditional political or ethnic conflicts, whereas in Central America, the violence is carried out by criminal gangs.
The Central American area that includes Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has become one of the most violent in the world in recent years. Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate, and gang violence has risen to a new level with attacks on churches, schools and buses.
A perilous journey
To travel through Mexico, some migrants are riding on top of freight trains called The Beast, or the Death Train. Stallings talked to a woman who made the journey to the border shelter this way, and the woman was so emotionally broken by the experience that she wouldn’t look at people.
“My heart breaks if she is deported,” Stallings said of the woman, whose story touched her emotionally.
Beast riders have been hurt or killed falling off the train or getting caught in the wheels while trying to board it in motion. There’s little water to drink and no shade from the blazing sun.
Those who make it to the border then face crossing the Rio Grande. Stallings said she heard during the trip that authorities found a mass grave of more than 40 children who tried to cross the river and didn’t survive.
Stuart Malloy, executive director of People Caring for People, talked about the impact of the mission trip in an interview with Telemundo, an American Spanish-language TV station.
“These are stories of people who have been hurt in their home country, have had their spouses and family members murdered; their kids are at risk for the same. These women are in immense poverty,” he said.
Any parent would go to great risk to alleviate that for their children, he continued, even if it meant riding a death train to find peace and someone willing to help.