CALEXICO, Calif. and MEXICALI, Mexico — The crowd pressed against the 17-foot border fence to get closer to the man they’d come to see. Chanting “Solalinde! Solalinde! Solalinde!” and holding bunches of white balloons, they celebrated the Mexican priest known across his home country for decades of work offering protection to migrants at great risk to himself.
Kicking off a caravan of reformers that will travel across the United States and culminate in Washington, DC in late May, Father Alejandro Solalinde held the blue-and-white Honduran flag Tuesday morning and urged the protection of all immigrants regardless of their origins — Mexico, Central America, South America and otherwise.
Enrique Morones, executive director of the longstanding humanitarian organization Border Angels, wore a purple t-shirt reading “Who Would Jesus Deport?” and led the crowd in a chant: “Todos son inmigrantes!” — “We are all immigrants!” Several of the dozens of supporters on the Mexicali side wore neon green vests, the uniform of city trash collectors.
As the hundreds of white balloons were released, a stiff breeze carried them over the fence from Mexico into the United States.
“Just as no balloon is illegal, no person is illegal,” said the bespectacled Solalinde, who last year was forced to leave the shelter he founded in Ixtepec — a town in the southern state of Oaxaca through which the notorious freight train known as “La Bestia” and the “Train of Death” carries hundreds of migrants each day — due to death threats he believes came from the government.
As President Obama travels to Mexico and Central America this week, meeting with political and business leaders on immigration reform and economic issues, the caravan seeks to draw attention to the immigration crisis and how Americans understand it. Or perhaps more accurately, how they don’t understand it. The intention, organizers say, is to get Americans to see immigration as part of a larger relationship between the US and the rest of the world.
The caravan is scheduled to stop in Los Angeles on Wednesday to take part in the annual May Day immigration march and will be joined by at least 14 migrants who were victimized in Mexico and given temporary visas by the US Consulate to share their stories.
The Mexican Human Rights Commission estimates that more than 20,000 Central and South American migrants are kidnapped each year as they make their way through Mexico toward the US, victims of organized criminal groups that routinely rape, ransom and kill an increasing number of Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing drug-fueled violence and economic devastation in their home countries.
Solalinde and his allies, including the International Humanitarian Coalition for Immigration, call this phenomenon “forced immigration” and lay much of the blame for the violence across Mexico at the door of the United States.
They cited a combination of failed anti-drug policies, imbalanced international trade agreements, the unmitigated flow of weapons from the US into the hands of Mexican cartels and an overly punitive US immigration policy.
Fernando Solozamo, 35, wept as he spoke through the fence about the family he left behind in Los Angeles after 12 years there. Solozamo was deported back into Mexico five months ago and tried unsuccessfully to return three times.
“Look at me, I’m on this side,” implored Solozamo, who wore a New England Patriots t-shirt and spoke clear American English. “My family, my wife, my son. My wife is pregnant. I want to see my baby born.”
Asked about the immigrant reform that seems to have gathered momentum under the Obama administration, Solozamo was not optimistic, even as Father Solalinde’s flock shouted and clapped around him.
“They started talking about this years ago, but nothing happened,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”
Meanwhile at the back of the Terrace Park Cemetery, 15 miles north of the border, hundreds of migrants who didn’t survive the trek north are buried in simple, anonymous graves. Members of the caravan and their supporters gathered for an interfaith service to honor them.
Down the main pathway, past bouquet-decorated tombs etched with family names and sheltered by shade trees, rows of small clay bricks and painted crosses mark hundreds of unclaimed bodies in an otherwise barren dirt field.
Many are those of immigrants who attempted to walk into the US illegally, falling prey to devilish temperatures and impossible terrain. Without family present to identify them or make final arrangements, the dead travelers are buried by the county. The makeshift crosses that mark their graves are made by local students and read “No Olvides,” or “Do Not Forget.”
“This cemetery is the evidence,” said Father Solalinde, soft spoken but commanding in a simple white dress shirt, khaki pants, black leather shoes and a pair of Ray-Bans.
“Migration is not a territorial question. It’s not a question of just the US or Mexico or Honduras. In a global world, it’s a structural, systemic problem,” Solalinde added.
The Migration Policy Institute reported that between 2000 and 2010 in the US, “the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants increased by 42 percent, Salvadoran immigrants by 44 percent, Guatemalans by 79 percent and Hondurans by 106 percent."
The American government has deported an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants back into Mexico in the past six years, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, compounding the problem.
“We are trying to give a voice to people being left out of immigration reform,” said Irineo Mujica, co-founder of the International Humanitarian Coalition for Immigration, or CHIP, as it is known by its Spanish acronym.
“We are holding the Mexican government accountable, but we are also holding the US accountable,” he said.
Mujica said the immigration reform legislation currently under discussion in Congress fails to address many of the structural problems CHIP is emphasizing, but that his organization supports a solution that would offer undocumented immigrants a chance to stay in the US legally and make it easier for family members of US citizens to stay in the US while applying for green cards.
“This reform is probably far, far away from what we need,” Mujica said. “But if we’re going to get [a path to legalization], obviously we’ll take it. We couldn’t deny that to the families who would get to be together.”
This story was made possible by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life.