Coming Face to Face with Illegal Immigration

Published in the Springfield Republican/Westfield-Agawam edition, in March 2004

There was a coyote in my house today.

Coyote. Same spelling in English and Spanish. But, this was not a four-legged carnivore from the forest. Rather, a two legged one, here to shepherd nine young hombres to the United States. Illegally.

The basic definition of a coyote is someone who charges would-be illegal aliens a lot of money and makes a lot of promises about safe passage from Mexico into the United States.

Oh, Juan Carlos told me that the coyote was his “amigo,” but even a casual observer would notice that they weren’t in the same league.

Juan Carlos, old jeans, sneakers, white t-shirt, an open flannel shirt for a jacket. Carrying a very old and very empty backpack. And, for the first time since I met him, he was wearing a small turquoise earring in his left ear.

His friend. New stylish jeans, expensive shoes, brand new and very full backpack, and a perfect haircut. Tanner by far than Juan Carlos who had dropped out of school to wield a pickaxe and help support his family.

And that, after all, is why he wanted to leave Mexico. To help support his family. Juan Carlos doesn’t have much choice. Uneducated, unskilled, he is the oldest of nine children.

So he was chosen to try to get to the United States—the land of opportunity—where he, without even a rudimentary knowledge of English, not a hello or goodbye or thank you, is expected to get a job and start sending money home.

His father explained that is was only natural that he be chosen to go. The oldest child, the oldest son, just 17, and without obligations to a wife or children of his own.

I think he had a sweetheart. We had teased him about one a few weeks ago and he blushed. Growing up on a ranch not far from this city, Juan Carlos is shy, not worldly, thin and gangly, and I doubt that he knows where this journey could end.

He came to our house to say goodbye to his father, who was doing some work for us. I tried to warn him, out of earshot of the coyote, that this trip was “muy peligroso,” very dangerous.

But his family had somehow paid the exorbitant fees charged for a supposedly safe crossing and the coyote waited patiently while dad put away his tools and the three headed toward the bus station.

Along the way, nine other young Mexicans, all hoping for a better life, would join them.

The plan was to take a bus to a safe place in a city in northern Mexico. From there, they would be taken to the river to swim across the border. For this part of the trip, about 700 miles, each paid the U.S. equivalent of $2,000

Once across the river, they were to meet another coyote who would lead them across the desert. A three-day walk. For this? Another $1,000.

Did these nine know they might be caught by vigilantes or the border patrol and be returned to the Mexican side of the border? Perhaps the best thing that could happen.

Did they know that once they swam the river that the second coyote might not be waiting there? Were they aware of border bandits that might take everything they had left? Were they prepared for a three-day march through the desert?

And, how hard will they have to work, if they indeed do make and find jobs, to repay the money given to the coyotes?

For Juan Carlos’s father, $50 is an average weekly wage. About $200 a month to feed his large family, if he works six days a week?

The family lives simply. No phones, no cars, no extras. Example: I saw Juan Carlos and his father sharing lunch one day while they were working here. Each had two or three tortillas and they dipped black beans straight out of a can. The family eats a lot of beans and tortillas.

Taking all of this into account, how long did it take the family to amass—earn or borrow—the $3,000.

Nine young men times $3,000. Or, $27,000. That’s a lot of money paid to coyotes who cares nothing for the lives or safety of the travelers.

I have a feeling that I won’t see Juan Carlos again.

I can only hope that it is because he has found a job and is, indeed, sending his parents the money they so desperately need.

(Note: The former State Representative for Westfield, Cele Hahn has retired to Mexico.)

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