Portraits From the Exodus

Portraits From the Exodus

Members of the migrant caravans, stranded in Tijuana, explain why they traveled thousands of miles from their homes.


After traveling untold, difficult miles through Central America and Mexico (and sometimes further afield), the men, women, and children who have joined the many migrant caravans are now at the border in Tijuana, Mexico. The majority of the people who make up this massive exodus are Honduran, but there are also Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Somalis, Cameroonians, Brazilians, and others.

After being met with a slammed door at the US border (the Trump administration lets only a few dozen asylum seekers present every day, and has tried to block asylum claims via other avenues as well), many migrants and asylum seekers who joined the multiple caravans are biding their time and still recovering from the exhausting journey and cold reception. This incredible multiethnic, multiracial group—people fleeing the gangs alongside those escaping domestic violence, students alongside mothers and fathers—are now figuring out their next steps.

While some are taking their chances and jumping the fences—often to turn themselves in and ask for asylum—the majority of those who haven’t voluntarily returned to their homes and still remain in the city of Tijuana (over 4,000) are making do in the Barretal camp about 45 minutes south of the border. A few hundred are also roughing it in the street outside of the old camp, Benito Juárez, from which they had to flee as rains turned a field into a sewage-infested puddle. Others are scattered across the city in migrant and youth shelters, churches, and donated hotel rooms.

People spend time in and around the camps drying out blankets, pads, clothes, and repairing their tents and lean-tos. During the day, children goof around, soccer games seem to spontaneously materialize, and adults chat, play cards, share food, and strategize. Volunteers dole out clothes, underwear, sandwiches, basic medical services, haircuts, and occasional legal advice. Many of the migrants and refugees have been seeking, and sometimes finding, local employment. Others are starting small businesses inside the camps—selling cigarettes, fried chicken, chicharrónes. Despite some sickness, increasing frustration with the slow “metering” of asylum seekers, and the squalid conditions—insufficient bathrooms or access to clean water—and though the tension and desperation is sometimes palpable, the general atmosphere in the camps is a buoyant resiliency. “I know I have to hope, so I do,” Aura, a 47-year-old Honduran woman, told us.

* * *

“We don’t want to be separated. The ones most psychologically affected [if we get separated] are going to be the kids. They’ve already lived through too much trauma. We don’t want anymore.”

Patricia, 28, from San Salvador, El Salvador, with Emi, 10, and Carlitos, 3. Her husband was out working as a day laborer when we photographed them.

The family is traveling with another Salvadoran family and made friends with a third family from Honduras while they were in Chiapas, Mexico; all 12 members have stuck together since late October. This summer Patricia’s husband got into trouble when a couple of gang members asked him to deliver a pistol to another village. At first he tried to say no, but no wasn’t an option. While he was completing the errand, police nabbed him and threw him in jail for eight days for possession of an unregistered firearm. Though he claimed he hadn’t snitched on the gang members—it would have been too dangerous—they suspected that he had, and started threatening him and his family. “We fled. They were threatening to do I don’t know what. It was too dangerous for the kids. And you can’t just move to another spot in El Salvador because they investigate you.” When I asked if they were planning on asking for asylum, Patricia said, “We decided to stay here in Tijuana. I decided.” Patricia worked in El Salvador as a pharmacist, and hopes to get a Mexican work permit soon.

* * *

“I joined the caravan because it was safer than coming alone. The trains, the checkpoints, it’s all so dangerous. You can’t skirt the checkpoints because there are thieves in the jungle. I want to be with my family, to help them.”

Melchi, 33, from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Melchi has always had a knack for business. When he was a kid he started selling candy on the street, which led, finally, to his own small store where he sold clothes along with fruits and vegetables. It went well enough that he expanded his business and, after working a couple of years without papers in the United States, he returned to Honduras and bought a mobile truck to sell veggies in the suburbs. He grew up with seven brothers and one sister. After five of his brothers were killed, he decided he couldn’t take the country any more, and joined the caravan. In the Barretal camp, he started buying packs of cigarettes and spends hours weaving among the tents selling singles for five pesos and five smokes for 20 pesos. He has strawberry, menthol, and regular: “Got to have what people want.” His wife and son are already in the United States, fighting their asylum claims.

* * *

“I didn’t want to cause my family problems. I want to help them instead of cause them problems. That’s why I came.”

Bryan, 23, from La Ceiba, Honduras (left), and Keneth, 20, from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

“I had some rich friends. Sorta rich,” Bryan says. “That was the problem. They had some problems with some other people. They all got killed.” He worked as a house painter, and sometimes in construction. He was scared that he would be associated with his murdered friends, and decided to leave for a while, work, and send money back to his family. “You earn barely anything there.” He has a wife and two children at home; the youngest was born after he left, only 23 days ago. He hasn’t met her yet, but he spends long hours staring at photos of his new baby girl. Nights in the Barretal shelter he works as a volunteer security guard, “because there are a lot of kids here, you know.” His shift is 11 pm to five in the morning, and then he spends most of the day dozing.

“I’m waiting for my number. I want to do it legally. I want to work, help my family.”

Keneth had his political awakening in his last year of high school, joining a nationwide protest movement against an increase in the cost of gasoline and the basic market basket. He said kids in his school were also protesting a lack of funding for education; some of his classmates were threatened by the police. He was scared he would be next after he appeared in a photograph in a local newspaper. He wants to be an architect, but doesn’t have enough money to pay for college, and couldn’t find a decent job. He’s known for a while that he wanted to head to the United States, and saw the caravan as the safest way to get there. He signed up for the asylum roll call that happens every morning—a notebook of thousands of names managed by a de facto refugee committee trying to organize the few migrants the United States allows to cross to make asylum claims—but thinks he’ll have to wait a few weeks, at least, before it’s his turn.

Keny and Bryan met in Mexico City, and have been traveling and living together for the past six weeks. They share a tent, and spend a lot of their time talking and goofing around.

* * *

“I came because of poverty. I didn’t have enough money to study. I want to be a nurse in the US. I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. I want to work.”

Ingris, 18, from La Ceiba, Honduras.

While in high school, Ingris worked in a daycare center, or sometimes as a nanny. After graduating earlier this year she wanted to continue her education, but didn’t have the money. She grew up with a single father, who couldn’t afford to pay for her school either. She joined the caravan with a group of three friends—some leaving because they wanted to continue their education, others fleeing “the violence.” She has wanted to be a nurse, “ever since I played doctor when I was a kid.”

* * *

“You just have to tell the truth” when you apply for asylum. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

Antonia, 48, from Santa Barbara, Honduras, with her partner, Jorge, 35, and their kids, Jazmín and Jorge, both 13. Their youngest son was on a playdate with another family.

“We were hungry sometimes,” Antonia said. The family is from a coffee-growing region in Honduras. Antonia cleaned houses, washed clothes by hand, did whatever work she could find. Her partner, Jorge, was a bricklayer, construction worker, coffee planter, and whatever could get him a paycheck at the end of two weeks. “We are just people,” Antonia said. “Why does your president say all these bad things about us?” They signed up to apply for asylum, but don’t know how long they’ll have to wait to be able to make their claim. When I asked what their asylum claim was based on, Antonia paused a second, and then said, “They tried to rape my daughter.” Jazmín, 13, was walking down to a river close by her house earlier this year when some gang members sequestered her, stripped off her clothes, and molested her. “We took her to the police afterwards for an examination, but we felt we couldn’t protect her anymore if we stayed there.”

* * *

“I came for safety, to ask for asylum…because of the genocide, it’s really bad.” He added: “I am a fighter for my rights.”

Tasha Edwin, 39 years old, from Cameroon.

“It was bad. It’s getting worse.” Tasha’s family was pushed into the forest along with his neighbors in a conflict in rural Cameroon between the Francophone ruling party and the Anglophone population; the UN is investigating the Francophone side’s actions as genocide. After being displaced internally, he traveled across nine countries—leaving Cameroon for Nigeria, flying to Ecuador, and then traveling overland through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, where he met the caravan, and all of Mexico—to get to within sight of the United States. He worked as a youth pastor in Cameroon, and now spends his mornings checking to see how many asylum seekers will be allowed to cross.

* * *

“If we pass, we pass, God willing,” she said of her asylum claim. “If they send us back, I’m dead. I have no place to go but my mom’s house, in Virginia.”

Sandra, 24, from El Salvador, along with her partner, Brandon, 21; son, Caleb, 7; and daughter, Alexandra, 4.

“The father of my children is a gangster,” Sandra said. “He beat me a lot, and after I left him, he tried to kill us all.” Her ex-partner is in prison now, but ordered his fellow gang members to try to force Sandra to visit him. When she refused, they threatened to kill her. She moved to another city, La Libertad, where she met her new partner, Brandon, a baker who worked for Sandra’s grandfather. Brandon had his own problems with the gangs. They had tried to recruit him, and when he refused, he was jumped by seven or eight members of Barrio 18. When they heard about the caravan, they knew they needed to go. Sandra left to escape the trauma after her son was psychologically damaged, as she explained, by watching his father beat her so often; Caleb suffers from tachycardia, asthma, and behavioral problems.

* * *

“I saw the caravan and thought, this is my opportunity. It’s not that we wanted to do this. We had to. I feel sad and hopeless here, but I know I have to hope, so I do.… If they force me home, I’ll turn right back around and try again. I can’t live in Honduras anymore.”

Aura, 47, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with her son, Kevin, 19.

Five years ago, gang members killed Aura’s eldest son. Three years ago, they killed her husband. Both times, after she buried one of her loved ones, she wanted to flee, but she knew the journey itself was a danger, and she didn’t have the money for a coyote. When she heard about the caravan, she told her son, Kevin, that he was coming with her. She walked through four pairs of shoes as they made their way north through Mexico, and often felt like she was going to faint, or even die.

* * *

“I imagined the worst. Even here, I’m still scared they’ll find us. We had to come, we did it for the kids.”

Mother, 24 years old, from El Progreso, Honduras, with her husband, two daughters, and son. For their safety, we are not using their names.

The mother came with her husband and their three children, including the youngest, seven months old. Her husband was a bus driver who couldn’t meet the gangs’ extortion demands. After receiving multiple death threats, he and the family fled to Tapachula, Mexico, in 2016. This October, she opened their front door and found a note written in large letters on a piece of cardboard. “Te encontré.” Found you. It was signed by the gang. They had been hearing about the caravan, and decided that same morning to join.

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