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The Long Road to America

Nguoi Viet, News feature, Dzung Do Posted: Sep 10, 2008

In March 1981, at the age of 16, Truc Ho was one of many foot people who crossed the borders of Vịetnam and Cambodia for Thailand.

On his way, from Saigont to Hatien, Phnom Penh, Xiem Riep and Battambang, near the border of Thailand, the young man crossed jungles, dangerous roads, not knowing when the death came sometimes by motorcycles, at times by trains and many times on his feet. It was a chaotic time in Cambodia because the civil war had just ended.

''When we were near the border, we got into an area that no one really controlled. There were a lot of bandits. Children at 13 years old held guns. We had to bribe whenever we crossed an area. Then we were cheated by the guide, didnt know what to do but cried. No one was there to rescue us,'' said Ho, a composer.

Finally, Ho successfully crossed the Thai border after giving a guide the last ring of gold he had saved.
After two months in a refugee camp, he resettled permanently in the U.S.

''I escaped Vietnam because I was not treated fairly. My father was an official of the previous regime. I saw a lot of unjust, no future for me,'' he said.

Thats the same type of feeling the people of Mexico and parts of Latin America have today: No future. Crossing into the U.S. for them, is their hope, but it isnt without risks.

Vietnamese Americans understand.

Elly Nguyen, a Boeing Co. engineer, escaped Vietnam on foot via Cambodia in 1980 at the age of 20.
''To me, the way Hispanic people cross the border is not as dangerous as mine,'' she said. ''They are not as hopeless for future as I am. They know they might get caught, but they know its hard for them to die.''

But she acknowledged the way Hispanic people cross the U.S. border is the same with the way she did 28 years ago. Both are illegal.

''We came to Cambodia illegally then. We were chased by both Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers there,'' she said.

The status of Vietnamese when they first come to another country, either by boat or on foot, is not different from the residents of Latin America who cross the U.S. border illegally.

Nam Loc Nguyen, immigration director of Catholic Charities in Los Angeles, said: ''According to immigration law, when (refugees) first come to another country, called a temporary country, by boat or on foot, those Vietnamese are undocumented. Only after being screened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they might get refugee status and introduced to a third country. If not, they are automatically deported.''

''After a meeting with temporary and third countries in Geneva, Switzerland, UNHCR decided to close all refugee camps in Southeast Asia in 1996. Whoever came to those camps after that were not welcomed. They were asked to self repatriate, which is self-deported in reality, or forced to be deported.''

''Those who came to the Philippines are the exception. They still live here, thanks to the intervention of the Catholic Church. However, the Philippines government never gave them any status. In fact, they are now legally undocumented,'' he said.

Elly Nguyen aid: ''I never oppose any Hispanic migrant crossing the U.S. borders. They have to abandon their country and work hard to make a living and have money to send home, just like other immigrants. If I were the border patrol, I would let them in.''

Ho, who now is a general manager of SBTN Television and art director of Asia Entertainment, shares the same thought with Elly.

He said: ''I understand why the Hispanic cross the U.S. borders. All human beings have the right to pursue happiness, welfare, peaceful life for himself or herself and family. This right is blessed by God.''
Not as dangerous as the two cases mentioned above, migrants who cross U.S. borders face unpredictable dangers and death on their way to a better life.

Why they choose the United States is understandable. They look for jobs and a better future that their countries dont offer. Therefore, they risk their lives and danger.

In the meantime, the U.S. public opinion, despite this being a country of immigrants, is divided. One group is totally against all of kinds of illegal immigrants because this is against the law. Another group seems to sympathize with immigrants since they think people have the right to look for jobs to survive.
The economists tell us that wherever the jobs exist, there is no way to stop migrants, just like an embargo cant stop goods from coming into a country.

A phenomenon

''Immigration is a phenomenon, not a problem,'' said Professor Celestino Fenandez of the University of Arizona. ''Most immigrants come to another country because of economic reason, opportunities and jobs.''

The same is true for Mexicans who come to the U.S.

Professor Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego, said ''immigrants come to the U.S. because of a push and pull factor.''
''Push'' because Mexicos economy doesnt offer enough jobs, especially in the poor areas. ''Pull'' because there are so many jobs in the U.S. that dont have enough people to fill them.

Dawn McLaren, an economist at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said she thinks the wage difference between the U.S. and Mexico is another reason that 'pulls' migrants to Arizona.

''While the minimum wage in Mexico is $5 an hour, an immigrant construction worker in Arizona can earn $15 an hour,'' she said. ''Therefore, they are ready to risk danger, cross the borders, work, and send money back home to help family.''

Sonora Desert

Sonora Desert is also called the Gila Desert because the Gila River runs through it, or the Low Desert because the elevation is lower compared to the Mojave Desert. It encompasses a large area of the southern part of the U.S. and the northern part of Mexico. It covers a large part of southwest Arizona, southeast of California, and the two states Sonora and Baja California of Mexico.

This is one of the largest and hottest deserts in North America with the area of 116,000 square miles, including many kinds of cacti.

Normally, deserts are flat and are full of sand. Sonora Desert is full of terrains and hilly, and covers about many parts of Arizona and Sonora with the border about 390 miles long.
This is where most of Mexican foot people cross to come to the U.S.
''The border between the U.S. and Mexico is the most crossed border of the world. And Arizona is the gateway most migrants aim at. From here, they can go to other places in the U.S. or Canada,'' Fernandez said.
In addition, Tucsonthe second-largest citie in Arizona with 1 million residentsis only 60 miles away from the border and the destination of many migrants.

Difficulties and dangers

On March 19, 2008, we were bused to Altar, Sonora, Mexico, to visit a migrant shelter, named ''Community Center of Attention for Migrant and Necessities.''

This shelter provides room and board for migrants who cant afford to pay for a guest house. Each person can stay only three days.

''No one wants to stay here long. Everyone just wants to cross the borders as soon as he or she can,'' said Enrique Celaya, co director of the center.

We met a Guatemalan man, Nery Huaty. He came one day before and waited for a ''coyote'' to cross the borders.

One of the main tasks of this center, especially in summer, is to go to the trails in Sonora Desert and leave blue water tanks. Each has about 50 gallons of water so migrants can drink and avoid dying from dehydration.

At these tanks, the center staff puts a pole with a blue rectangular flag so migrants can recognize it.
Despite all of this, the center cant help migrants avoid difficulties on the trails. The staff can only warn migrants of danger and provide some essential food.

''We give them food and medicine and advise them about legal issues and dangers in the desert. Since opening, we have helped about 15,000 people.'' Celaya said.

''Migrants almost dont know about difficulties in the desert. Most of them didnt go to school much so they dont know the weather in Sonora is just like in Arizona. In the summer, it could be 125 degrees. They dont bring enough water. They dont even know its very cold in winter, sometimes under zero degrees.

''Cactus thorns are another issue. Most of them (refugees) walk at night to save energy so its very easy to tangle into thorns. Snakes could be seen everywhere. When they are tired, they lay down right on a snake hole. Trails are hilly, very dangerous,'' Celaya said.

Celaya also said one of the reason causes migrants die of thirst is getting lost.

''Without knowledge, they just follow the sun till they get lost. Sometimes, they are in an area for many days without figuring out which direction is correct. Since 1994, about 5,000 people have died in the desert.''

On the way, migrants are guided by a ''coyote.'' If they worn out and cant walk anymore, migrants are abandoned in the desert. When officials come to round them up, the ''coyote'' often runs away, leaving alone the migrants to get caught.

''Besides those, migrants have to face drug smugglers, criminals and kidnappers,'' Celaya said. ''We dont encourage them to cross the borders. We warn them of difficulties and dangers. Its up to them. Our mission is helping them survive. We want to do more, but we have only 40 volunteers. Our budget is provided by philanthropists.''

Debbi McCullough, a member of ''Los Samaritanos'' a group that save and helps migrants in the American side of the Sonora Desert, said: ''On their way, migrants may be robbed, beaten. If you are a woman, its worse. We used to see womens clothes and underwear all over under some trees. This proves something disgusting.''

''Before crossing the borders, all of the women are reminded to take contraceptives in case they are raped,'' she said.

On March 22, we went with the group to the trails in the Sonora Desert, near Sasabe and Arivaca, which migrants often use.

We saw clothes, sandals, back bags, medicine, toothbrushes, all kinds of water bottles, phone cards along the way, mostly in the bushes.

Ed McCullough, Debbis husband and a group member, said: ''Bushes are where migrants often rest and to avoid the sun. When the night comes, they will continue to walk.''

There are a lot of holes and big rocks on the way. If one walks at night, its easy for him or her to fall down.

''Ankle twists are normal, because migrants try to walk as much as possible before the sun rises. In addition, they cant use flash lights, since it would make (officials) pay attention. Even their white water plastic bottles have to be covered with a piece of cloth,'' Debbi McCullough said.

At one point, we stopped at an abandoned, empty water tank with lots of bullet holes. Someone painted three arrows on the tank that show directions to Mexico, Los Angeles and New York. All of the directions are incorrect.

''I think someone did play a nasty trick on migrants. After days in the deserts, some of migrants are so tired, they cant figure out the direction and see this tank and get confused,'' McCullough said.

''Once, we put a tank of water for migrants. On the way back, we found that someone used a knife to make a big hole at the tank. All of the water was gone.''

Being arrested

On March 22, we went to the U.S. side of the Sonora Desert. This kind of desert has some bushes, enough for migrants to sneak underneath to rest or to avoid the sun.

On Highway 286 to the Sasabe border entry, we saw border patrol personnel on pickup trucks used to transport captured migrants.

Often, they would bring captured migrants to a place where buses wait to transport them to a detention center nearby.

We also saw mobile observation decks, about 20 feet high, on Highway 286 so border officials can see anything that moves in the desert. Then they would radio the information to other personnel so they can come to get these migrants.

On the trails that migrants walk, we saw all kinds of personal items abandoned, mostly in the bushes.
''After walking the desert and getting near to the picking up point, migrants are asked to leave everything, except clean clothes on them and prepare to hop on some vehicle and depart,'' Debbi Mc-Cullough said. ''Most of time, the place where migrants leave these stuffs is about 1.5 miles away from the picking up point.''

''There are only a few trails. Border patrol personnel often patrol and set up checkpoints. Therefore, even after migrants are on the cars, for example, they might be caught. But there is no choice because its dangerous to continue walking,'' Debbi continued.

Its normal to cross

Although Congress has passed several immigration-control acts, the number of undocumented immigrants in America is not dwindling. Many have been arrested and deported but come back successfully.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church square in Altar, we met Oscar del Rosario, 35, waiting for shuttle to take him to the Sonora Desert.

Rosario, who comes from the state of Veracruz, Mexico, told us that he has crossed the U.S. border five times and was arrested once. He works as a construction contractor for about six months, saves about $7,000, and then returns home. When he runs out of money, he crosses the border again. He goes alone, eats canned food and walks about three days to reach his destination. His wife and three children still live in Mexico.

While talking, we saw hundreds of other migrants, standing and sitting around with their belongings and bottled water, ready to go that night.

Around us, dozen of vans were ready. Those vans are rebuilt, both inside and outside. The back of the van is extended. Inside the van are three long, flat benches. According to one driver, each van can carry from 20 to 30 people.

According to Marc Cooper, a journalist who has visited Altar many times, ''at peak time, there are about 300 vans per day driving around Altar to pick up migrants.''

Then, we came to the guest house Hospedaje Lupita. This is one of the many guest houses in Altar to serve migrants while they are waiting for the money sent by relatives or wait for a coyote to cross the border. On average, each migrant pays $4 a night, not including meals.

Hospedaje Lupita has many rooms, upstairs and downstairs. There are bunk beds made of steel that cover most of the empty space. Under these beds are pieces of plywood, covered with rugs. Migrants are cramped; one bed is about two feet above the other bed. The space is too short to sit up.

The guest house has only two bathroomsone for men, one for women. In the middle of the guest houses yard is a vast of water for public use.

We met four young migrants who were killing time by playing cards at a table. They didnt tell their names, but they said they were waiting for the money sent by their relatives.

In anther room upstairs, we met four young people, two men and two women, from Guatemala who had been at the guest house for three days. Each of them was expecting to receive $1,000 from their relatives.

One of the two young men was Lorenzo Ramos, of El Quiche, Guatemala, and had three daughters living at home. He said he was too poor to have enough money to buy medicine for his children. Therefore, he wanted to come to the U.S., make money and send it home.

As we walked through the dining room, we met three migrants having lunch, including one couple; the wife was pregnant. They all were waiting for money to cross the border.

Before leaving, we met 22-year-old Efrain Gonzalez of Veracruz, Mexico. He had come to Altar four days earlier and was waiting for a ''coyote'' and ready to pay $1,000. This would be the first time he crossed the border. He planned to go to Los Angeles where his aunt lives.

''My parents and my two younger brothers are waiting for the news,'' he said.


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