Caitlin Shampine

Road to refuge: Grand Haven student relives journey from Guatemala to the U.S.

Sophomore Kimberly Avalos-Chavez faced dangers when migrating from Guatemala to the US

March 13, 2017

 Crocodiles slithered towards the family paddling through the murky river on a worn-out inflatable motor boat. Their eyes glinted as they watched the boat float away, ready to attack.          

Each crocodile possessed 24 sharp, yellowed teeth meant to grasp and crush its victim. Each wielded the power to apply 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Each was hungry. Staring into the jaws of the reptiles, the frightened family saw two options; kill or be killed.

After hiding from Border Patrol in the mud for 10 hours, muddy sophomore Kimberly Avalos-Chavez watched from the shore as the family tossed their baby off of the green boat and into the mouth of the shadow-soaked Rio Grande.

The crocs swallowed the child.

Bathed in the light from a white helicopter above her head, Avalos-Chavez, her brother, sophomore Edvin Carreto Bamaca, their mother and three year old sister Carrina waited for their turn to float from Mexico to the U.S.

Their journey began in November, 2015 when they left Guatemala and embarked on a trek similar to those taken by at least 59,692 other unaccompanied alien children (UAC) would take in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.

Over the last 15 years, an increasing amount of families and UAC are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. In 2014, Central Americans apprehended on the southern border outnumbered Mexicans attempting to cross for the first time and in 2016, it happened again.

Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. In 2015, more than 17,000 homicides were recorded across the Northern Triangle, an 11 percent jump from a year earlier.

“I left because there were problems at home,” Avalos-Chavez said with caution. She tugged at the sleeve of her bubblegum-colored hoodie.

Avalos-Chavez met her mother in a tortilla shop. At the time, she wasn’t her “mother”- she was a stranger, buying food for a family Avalos-Chavez had never met.

“I had so many problems going on with my parents not wanting me and giving me to my grandma and Edvin’s mom would talk to me about it and about all of my problems and one day I was talking about how I didn’t want to stay with my parents anymore and Edvin’s mom made the decision to take me in.”

But despite Avalos-Chavez’s new home, their problems persisted.

It took two weeks of debating whether or not to leave when Avalos-Chavez and her family ambled out of their home in Guatemala on Nov. 24, 2015 and hopped in a car that would take them to the border of Mexico. It was the dry season and she couldn’t help but notice the sunshine and the warm breeze ruffling her dark hair. For some reason, it gave her hope.

“Things were not going so well and there was no hope for the future and then we got on the road, and it was more hopeful and I was thinking about all the good things that could happen,” Avalos-Chavez said through a translator. “But I was also scared- scared of the unknown and leaving my home.”

According to Ana Devereaux, Staff Attorney at the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center, one of the biggest factors that push children into migration from Central America are gangs. For young people, specifically young men, trans-national gangs that occupy their territory try to recruit them to join and if they don’t, they’re threatened or beaten. Girls also suffer violence in the home. Without a foster care system or organizations dedicated to preventing domestic abuse, children are prone to familial violence. Many also suffer from a lack of basic resources.  

After reaching the border of Mexico, they climbed into the back of a small truck that took them to a house where people attempting to travel to the United States without proper documentation stay. They waited there for two days until their mom could borrow more money from their uncle. After that, the kids climbed into the back of another vehicle.

“The trip to the Guatemalan-Mexican border was surprisingly easy,” Avalos-Chavez said. “There wasn’t really any fear until I got in Mexico and began the journey through Mexico to get to the U.S. border. That’s when the fear really kicked in.”

UAC either travel to the U.S. alone or with the help of paid human smuggler or “coyote.”. If they’re traveling by themselves, they risk the physical danger of riding on top of trains and they also face being targeted by gangs and police forces due to their vulnerability. UAC are susceptible to being robbed and raped.

Migrants traveling with a coyote typically have more protection. The coyote provides places for them to stay and a vehicle for them to travel in, but they can be a swindlers of human traffickers. When UAC cross the river and the Southwest desert, they face the danger of the elements and the physical hazards of walking without proper supplies and the resulting illnesses.

Avalos-Chavez and her mother decided to take their chances with a coyote.  

“The coyote was supposed to be taking care of us and making sure we had food and that we were safe, but he wasn’t,” Avalos-Chavez said. “I had my little sister with me and we kept asking for a little bit of this or a little bit of something else and he just kept saying, ‘I don’t have it, you need to pay me, give me money otherwise I can’t.’ He just didn’t give us what we needed.”

Avalos-Chavez’s trip was a series of hopping from a truck to a house, where they would wait for a few days for another car or bus to arrive and bring them closer to their destination.

Cold, hunger and thirst were on her mind as they bumped along the mountainous terrain in the bed of the truck. The sun had set hours ago, but she didn’t need the daylight to feel rain splattering from the sky. The headlights flickered on and off and the driver was forced to pull over and wait. Each time after this happened and the engine began to rumble again, the soaked kids shook with the vehicle as they hit holes in the road.

“It sounds like underground railroad, so essentially they’re hopping from house to house and waiting for someone to pick them up to take them to the next spot, and it’s kind of just treacherous along the way,” student teacher Alayna Johnson said.

They arrived at the center of the city in Puebla, Mexico after spending two and a half days without food.

The life of the truck sputtered out and once again, all they could do was wait. When they arrived at the house they would be staying in, their clothes still sopping with rain water, they were crammed into a crowded space the size of a classroom. They slept here for four days. Each time they tried to leave, something else happened; the car didn’t work or the coyote didn’t deposit the money, so they couldn’t go.

“The houses we stayed in were very bad,” Avalos-Chavez said. “Sometimes they wouldn’t feed us or give us water to brush our teeth or anything and some of them wouldn’t give us beds, they just gave us cardboard. Sometimes the coyote would buy us food, but sometimes he would get drunk with the money. One day, we waited in a restaurant, had some food, not much, but a little bit, and then when the coyote showed up, he was drunk and had been drinking too much. And so even though we paid him to take us across the border, he was too drunk to do it. So he went home to sleep and we had to wait a whole other day because he spent our money on beer instead of getting us across the border.”

The group she was traveling with split into two; one that wanted to be detained by Border Patrol and ones attempting to make it through the southwest desert. Avalos-Chavez needed to make it through the desert. The words of the coyote echoed through her head.

“Making to the desert was one thing but getting there, they’d find people-”

“There’s a gang and if they see you crossing over, they’ll get mad and they’ll kill you there on the spot.”

She began to walk. Unsure of where they were heading, Avalos-Chavez trudged through the desert for at least two hours until they reached the bus that was going to take them to the southwest border.

They arrived near the Southwest border at 4 p.m. and hid in the mud near the Rio Grande River until 1 a.m. Avalos-Chavez watched as the crocodiles swam away from the family in the raft.

After reaching the shore, they were alone. She couldn’t see much, so after a failed attempt at searching for

the man they were told to find, they decided to wait at a bridge. He never came. Stranded in a foreign country, Avalos-Chavez began to hope that the U.S. Border Patrol would find them and take them in.

A few hours later, a white car pulled up next to Avalos-Chavez.

“Immigration asked where we were from why we came here and they asked her mom specifically if she knew what she was doing,” Avalos-Chavez said. “That’s when they just took us.”

The detention center in Texas was, Avalos-Chavez says, in the middle of nowhere. She didn’t know how many days passed.

“It was like jail where you don’t see daylight,” Avalos-Chavez said. “You can’t tell how much time is passing so you don’t know how long you’ve been there. It’s like a freezer and we only had pants and a light sweater. We just had the clothes on our back at that point, but a weight was taken off of my shoulders because at least that place gave us food, shelter and a place to shower. I felt a lot calmer and safer there than in other homes.”

When family unit aliens (children apprehended with at least one guardian present) are detained at the border and fear returning to their native country, they undergo a credible fear interview. If the family meets the standards required for asylum, the Asylum Officer at the border releases them into the U.S. to make a full case for protection. As an alternative to detention while immigration proceedings take place, varying levels of monitoring are placed on the guardian. Avalos-Chavez’s mother has a GPS tether on her ankle, the highest level of oversight.

“We got clearance to stay because I had problems in Guatemala and my mom had problems in Guatemala,” Avalos-Chavez said. “We proved that it wasn’t a good situation for us there, so they let us stay.”

After being boarded on buses, they spent a few days on the road until they got to Grand Rapid and eventually ended up here because this is where her grandma lives. They are currently staying in a migrant camp.

“It’s always a challenge to put yourselves in the shoes of kids that have to do this to get to a place that’s safe,” Spanish and English Second Language teacher Ben Lawrence said. “It’s really hard for people to just have no idea what that might be like. I hope that people will understand the journey, the plight, the challenges, of getting here and being here.”

Avalos-Chavez thought back to the crocodiles, each one possessing 24 sharp, yellowed teeth meant to grasp and crush its victim; each one wielding the power to apply 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch; each one hungry. She knew that after witnessing that, she would not be the same. But she also knew that despite the challenges of the journey, it was worth it.

“I missed my family, my friends, school,” Avalos-Chavez said. “I missed school even though I didn’t go very much. A ton of family lived with us and close to us, and I miss all of them. My grandparents and all the relatives in my town add up to about 75 relatives in one little area. The danger and fear was the scariest part, just thinking that there’s danger around the next corner, and that overwhelming fear of being on your own.”


The US-instigated Southern Border Plan launched in 2014 after a “surge” of unaccompanied minors. The immigration plan intended to crackdown on Central American migrants and has made it harder to travel through Mexico. However, while that resulted in an initial drop in apprehensions, the number has started to rise. The amount of people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in FY 2014 was 479,371. After the Southern Border Plan passed, the number fell to 331,333, however, in FY 2016, the amount rose to 408, 870.

This has caused people to believe that President Trump’s controversial plan to build an “impenetrable physical wall on the southern border” won’t halt immigration, but force people to risk taking new routes through more isolated regions.

Resources along the southwest border are already significant. There were 18,156 Border Patrol agents stationed along the southwest border in FY 2014, and the annual Border Patrol budget stood at $3.6 billion. Border Patrol also had a wide variety of surveillance technologies at their dispense, including cameras, motion detectors, thermal imaging sensors and helicopters.

In Trump’s inaugural speech, he stated that “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He then asserted that America must protect our borders from the “ravages” of other countries “making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

According to the American Immigration Council, there is little evidence to support the proposition that the border must be strengthened to deter immigrants. Treating the current situation as another wave of unauthorized immigration misses the policy and humanitarian concerns driving migration. In fact, many women and children are turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents and aren’t attempting to escape apprehension.

“We have a legal obligation to accept refugees because of treaties we’ve entered into,” Ana Devereaux, Staff Attorney at the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center said. “As a  country that was built on many refugees throughout the generations, historically we’ve believed that individuals have varying situations which create a need for them to seek asylum here and for us to accept them. Who’s allowed to come is much more difficult and complex than most people have any idea about and a lot of individuals have this idea that some people are not abiding by the law so they shouldn’t get in or we shouldn’t provide them relief and yet forget that the law is unfair and forget about the humanity of these people. I am personally a Christian and a lot of other faiths as well call on individuals to care for those who are in need and refugees exemplify the greatest need. There’s nowhere in their country that they can get it and so they come here as an alternate to being persecuted.”

The international refugee system, constructed after World War II, has enabled millions of refugees to find safety in other countries. The Refugee Convention was adopted at a special UN conference on July 28, 1951.

The treaty defines who is a refugee, the rights they’re entitled to and the responsibilities of states that grant them asylum. It states that a refugee is someone who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, (or) membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” in their own country. The treaty states that refugees have the right not to be sent back to a country where they face threats to their life or freedom.

At the height of Holocaust, as millions of Jews, homosexuals and others were exterminated, the U.S. remained isolated. The Refugee Convention of 1951 was meant to ensure that the world never again turn refugees over to their executioners. Trump’s labeling of many refugees as “dangerous” has been compared to the way America did in the 1930s and 1940s when Jews were deemed “security threats.”

There are more refugees and displaced persons in the world now than there have been at any time since the Holocaust, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Over 65 million people have fled persecution in search of safety and freedom for themselves and their families.

“The one thing about immigration that people need to have an awareness about is that the system is not equal,” Devereaux said. “It was built, if we’re going to be frank, on a system that, like others in our nation, were built with white supremacy ingrained. When you look at it now, people kind of take the system for granted, think that it’s good or maybe that something needs to be fixed but don’t examine the fact that it was made to promote a certain way of life, a certain people that isn’t representative of all of the people that wanted to come here and their needs, so when we use the term ‘illegal immigrant,’ for example, it doesn’t really examine the fact that the laws were set up in a way that systematically excludes people who are marginalized, and especially people of color.”

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