by Leonard Olsen
It was a hot and sticky morning in the central park of Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico. Sweating profusely, I quickly realized that me and my towering, 65-liter backpack looked silly surrounded by hundreds of men and women who had packed all of their belongings into a gym bag. I paused to look around and take it all in – the first moment of many in which the reality of a ‘migrant caravan’ set in. My colleagues at Pueblo Sin Fronteras (a multinational community support group whose name translates to ‘People Without Borders’) and I spent months planning the caravan over the phone, but standing in that park and watching with my own two eyes the underbelly of Tapachula’s population rise up and decide to join together in their journey north was, as we like to say in Philly, a ‘whole ‘nother story.’
Before I knew it, we departed the park and the Viacrucis Guadalupano Migrantxs Solidarios began. We were three immigrant justice advocates alongside hundreds of Central American migrants marching north together to lighten the load of an otherwise strenuous journey and stand together in calling for the right to migrate. Soon, I got a call from my colleague Roberto back in the States. “Leo, I’ve been watching you guys on Facebook live. You look good, but don’t forget our chant, ‘Somos un pueblo, sin fronteras!’ (‘We are people, without borders!’).”
Would you believe in a world with no borders? If you’re anything like me in that moment, your reaction might be, “Well, that’s a nice thought…” As such, I agreed, hung up, took a deep breath, and bellowed out the words. I might not have believed in the reality of what I was saying, but I liked the message.
Fast forward a couple chants and a couple hundred meters later, and we’re staring down the first Mexican immigration checkpoint. We are immigrants in Mexico, and hardly any of us have immigration status here. They know it, and we know they know it. Yet as we approach the checkpoint and begin to pass through a lane designed for automobiles, the most astonishing thing happened…Nothing. Nothing happened. The Mexican officials sat back and watched as hundreds of undocumented immigrants passed through their checkpoint.
I had another reality check, as that ‘nice thought’ had all of a sudden become quite real. Not only were we a people without borders in spirit, but we were truly living like one. I was filled with emotion, and I no longer cared how heavy my oversized backpack felt. I was uncontrollably jumping up and down and dishing out high fives to a group of people who I would come to consider family over the next month and a half. And not only we were chanting, but we were demonstrating that we chose not to live under the repressive authority of borders.
Beginning on the day described above, and throughout October and November of this year, the ‘Viacrucis’ (which literally translates to ‘the stations of the cross’) traversed the entirety of Mexico promoting the right to migrate freely and demanding a just treatment of migrants across the world. We began to live more and more like a people without borders every step of the way, and our voice got louder with each of the 4,000 miles we traveled.
We marched through quite a few more checkpoints on the journey, and not all immigration officials accepted our mentality so passively. In an act of solidarity that overcame any separation via borders (and also gave us our name as ‘Migrants in Solidarity’), we stood alongside the Mexican people and helped reconstruct hundreds of houses affected by recent earthquakes. Meanwhile, a group of women and children raced ahead to Mexico City to bravely stand in front of a forum in the Mexican Senate. They denounced Mexico’s systemic denial of applications for refugee status, and told their tales of severe violence, domestic abuse, and persecution that lead them to leave their countries.
Departing Mexico City, we climbed aboard the famous train – ‘La Bestia’ – and made it an integral part of our world without borders. I can’t imagine any place in the world where borders mattered less than on top of that freight train. ‘The Beast’ treats everyone the same, regardless of nationality, and there was a certain beauty to that. A cruel beauty, as The Beast is by no means tame. Hunger, thirst, and cold (at night) or heat (during the day) are ever present, and raids frequently happen at the hands of both organized criminal groups and immigration officials. Fortunately, after nearly two weeks, our unity prevailed and The Beast did its work – we were at the border.
Here, we began our preparation to exercise a critical part of the right to migrate: the right to seek refuge. Many on the caravan came fleeing for their lives, each carrying a unique story that nevertheless shared alarming trends with their companions. On November 12th, 37 of these men, women, and children proudly marched together once more, this time through the streets of Tijuana, arriving in unison at the border in San Ysidro, California to seek asylum in the United States.
This ‘turn-in’ was a solemn and powerful way to close out the Viacrucis Guadalupano, but I felt that the most symbolic closing ceremony occurred two weeks beforehand in the border town of Mexicali. In a spontaneous display of our heightened emotions at the time, likely caused by finally arriving at the gate of the American border, we had some fun and expressed our distaste for the famed wall by climbing on top and sending our warmest greetings to the border patrol agents on the other side. In the aftermath, a group of caravan members approached me and asked a simple question that impacted me greatly, “Leo, why do we have to stop here?”
I was first inclined to explain that crossing the U.S. border was a different ball game. Mexico was one thing, but we couldn’t possibly do the same in the States, right? As I thought further, I realized that the group had an excellent point. “What do you propose we do?” I challenged them. We discussed the question, and the group became frustrated at the realization that this caravan would soon be drawing to an end and not able to continue any further north. Not to mention, much of our group was soon to go their own ways.
However, to try to soften the emotional blow of the physical separation of our caravan family, the other coordinators and myself got in the habit of telling people that the caravan never ends. As such, “La lucha sigue! (The fight continues!)” became the most popular rallying cry. We had to get used to frequent goodbyes, but were optimistic that much of our group would reunite for another caravan that would further turn a world without borders from fantasy to reality.
Then, we were reminded that our fight wouldn’t just rest until the next caravan when we received a harrowing call four days after the group of 37 turned themselves in at the border to seek asylum. On the line was José, a caravan member that fled gang persecution in El Salvador along with his infant son Mateo. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), forcefully separated José and three other asylum-seeking fathers from their young children. He was calling us from a detention facility in San Diego, with no idea what happened to his baby boy. When I went to see José the following day, he and the other fathers could barely make out words in desperation over being stripped of their children.
It wasn’t for a week that José found out that U.S. immigration processed Mateo as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ and shipped him to the polar end of the border in South Texas, where he still remains in foster care over two months later. But despite the blows, the fight continues. Quickly, the very members of the caravan that traveled alongside José and Mateo demanded that ICE reunify father and son and launched the #GiveMateoBack campaign, which has since been thrown into the national spotlight, especially as the Trump administration mulls turning family separation into an official policy as punishment for those who cross the border illegally. However, even had José and Mateo arrived as such, they were still unjustly stripped of several basic human rights the U.S. has sworn to uphold, including proper treatment under the UNHCR Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
In the end, José’s case is a brutal reminder of why the caravan fights and what we fight against. And as long as immigrant families are separated, as long as refugees are treated like criminals, detained in privately-run jails, and treated as second-class human beings, this fight will indeed continue.
Leonard, or ‘Leo’ hails from Philadelphia. He graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in American Studies and a Spanish minor in 2014. Since then, he’s worked for the U.S. Congress on immigration reform issues and as an immigration law paralegal. He has also taught English and worked with a baseball charity in Bogotá, Colombia, worked at a shelter and advocated for deported U.S. military veterans in Tijuana, Mexico, and carried out an investigation on the effects of the Trump administration’s immigration policies on Nicaraguans. Most recently, he joined a group called Pueblo Sin Fronteras, and participated as an organizer in a migrant caravan that traversed Mexico calling for a just treatment of migrants worldwide. Leo currently lives in Philadelphia, where he continues to work with Pueblo Sin Fronteras as well as a local non-profit called the Free Migration Project. He starts at Northeastern University School of Law as a Public Interest Scholar in the fall.