When Joel Medina contemplated leaving Honduras for “el Norte” a year ago, he understood the risks. But no one tried to talk him out of it.
Thousands and thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have done the same: attempt the dangerous trip north through Mexico into the U.S. and, if they are extremely fortunate, find a better life than the one they left. Others are fleeing into neighboring Belize and Panama.
So Medina, who was then 17 years old, along with an older brother, ventured into the unknown.
I talked with Medina on Thursday at the Pico de Gallo restaurant on South Sixth Avenue in South Tucson, not far from where Medina lives in a small apartment. Dressed in plaid bermuda shorts, a cap and a sleeveless T-shirt sporting the political message “We Stand With Monica Jones,” he recounted his experience, explained his reasons for leaving home and family, and unfolded his dreams.
Central American youths have poured into the U.S. in the past year only to end up in detention centers which are sprouting in border communities including Nogales and Tucson. The federal government is scrambling to care for the youths, many of them unaccompanied. They have fled terror and poverty to chase dreams.
Medina, who has a ninth-grade education, was one of these youths. Living in rural Honduras, jobs were scarce. Violence, related to drug wars, was abundant. An older brother was killed, Medina said.
“I do not know why. I do not have an answer,” he said about his brother. Medina answered the question about his life and future by leaving his parents and sister.
He and another brother traveled on buses from Honduras to Chiapas, Mexico, which borders Guatemala. In Mexico, they hopped on freight trains traveling north. Unlike the majority of Central Americans who head toward the Texas border on the infamous train “La Bestia,” the Medina brothers took a longer route along Mexico’s Pacific coast with Nogales, Sonora, as their destination.
The monthlong trip was fraught with danger, threats and little food, he said.
Atop the freight cars rode hundreds of people, including children and women, Medina said. Some fell off the trains, others were pushed off in fights or were struck by rocks thrown at them by youths. But they also found compassion in Mexican towns where residents gave the migrants food and water, Medina added.
When the brothers arrived in Nogales, Sonora, they were accosted by local police who harangued them but nothing more, Medina said. Turning toward the border, they crossed and were promptly apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Before Medina left, he understood the possibility, at best, of being apprehended, or at worse, being injured or killed in his long journey. In Central America stories abound of those who lost limbs while riding the trains or who were assaulted by gangs. And there are countless families who have lost a family member.
“People know it,” he said of the dangers. “You do not have to say it.”
Medina was lucky during the trip and after he was detained. While his brother was deported, Medina was sent to a Phoenix detention center for unaccompanied youths. A month later he was sent to North Carolina where an aunt, a legal resident, resided.
U.S. law allows migrant children to join family members already in this country. But the youths are not given legal status. They are required to report to federal court and are subject to deportation. They are not given a free pass, a message the United States has been sending to Central America.
In February, Medina, now 18, came to Tucson. His brother also managed to illegally re-enter the country. Medina works as a landscaper, when there is work. The irony is not lost on him: He left Honduras, in part, because of the lack of jobs, only to find a lack of employment in Tucson.
However, here he feels safe. More importantly, he believes he has a future, although it is not secure because of his uncertain legal status.
But Medina will take uncertainty of a productive future over the certainty of relentless poverty and violence.
“I had no choice,” he said.