Wandering through the desert: One man’s journey to the land of opportunity

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To many people growing up in poor villages across Mexico, the United States is more than just a neighboring country. It is a land of opportunity and freedom that they might not have ever experienced. They imagine there being jobs for anyone that wants to work and cities full of happy people with full bellies. These ideas are what drive many Mexican citizens to take on the dangerous journey and cross the Mexico-United States border.

In the year 1985 Javier Castillo decided that he needed to make the journey to the United States to help provide for his family. At the age of 14, Castillo’s father had tragically passed away leaving him and his older brother to take on the role of financial providers for the family. They both took odd jobs here and there to make just enough money to make ends meet.

A work ID of Javier Castillo’s showing a photo of him a year prior to leaving home.

“He was always a very generous and loyal person. He helped his mother and siblings for many years until they were old enough to help out as well,” said Castillo’s wife, Maria Castillo.

Even with both brothers working the family was still struggling financially. Because of this Castillo knew that he had to do something to earn more for his family.

“I had family that had already went across and were working and making good money. So I thought that maybe I should do it too,” said Castillo.

After some convincing, his mother agreed to him leaving home and crossing over to the other side. According to Jose Castillo, a younger brother of Javier who was 11 at the time of him leaving, she was extremely saddened about him leaving home and going on this dangerous journey.

“She was broken. We were all scared that we would never see him again. My mother knew that this was going to be difficult not only for him but for our family as a whole as well,” said Jose Castillo.

Currently in the United States illegal immigration has been a hot button issue for many politicians and citizens around the country. With the election of President Donald Trump the issue gained a huge spotlight as it was a major campaign issue for President Trump during the 2016 election. According to Pew Research Center there were 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States in 2015 which was a significant decline from past years. There are many dangers in attempting to make the journey across the border. According to The Guardian, 412 migrants were recorded to have died on either side of the Mexico-United States border in 2017. Many experts attribute these deaths to migrants taking more dangerous paths due to an increase in border security. Many of these deaths can occur from things like exposure, dehydration and hypothermia.

Castillo prepared for his long and dangerous journey. He took only the clothes on his back, a gallon of water and a small backpack with some food and money to use and eat along his trip.

“I was anxious and scared but we were also hopeful that we could make it there,” said Castillo.

His journey began by catching a ride to the nearby city of San Luis Potosi. There in the city he was planning on meeting with a family friend who had completed the trip many times before and would be his guide for this voyage. Before arriving to the city Castillo ran into an old childhood friend named Felix. With him was another man who Castillo only knew as “La churra”.

Felix and La churra explain to him that they were heading over to the United States as well and that they knew exactly how to get there. So in trusting his old childhood friend, Castillo took off with them and headed towards the border.

The group made there way to the border city of Mier, Tamaulipas. Mier at the time was a very popular area for individuals looking to make it over the border. Since two of them were confident in their abilities to navigate the desert the group had decided not to hire what is known as a coyote, which is someone who smuggles and guides immigrants who are crossing the border illegally.

The group worked their way up to the Rio Grande. One of the many geographical borders separating Mexico and the United States.  They waited until nightfall and picked a shallow area in which they could cross. They effortlessly walked across the border through only knee high water. And just like that the three men were in the United States but there journey was not yet over and the danger was just beginning. Out in front of them stretched miles and miles of barren desert that they now had to navigate through.

“We walked for three days. We didn’t really know where we were going we just headed in the direction that the compass said was north,” said Castillo.

The men trekked on foot through the desert during the night and slept during the daytime to best avoid being caught by the border patrol. They walked until the approached some train tracks. They then began to follow the tracks in hopes of reaching a stop to catch a ride on the train. As they slept underneath a bridge one day they saw another group of people who had lost their way and were carrying an injured member of their party.

“They got lost and were walking in circles. One of them was being carried on a makeshift sling because his feet were messed up from all the walking. We told them to find the nearest road and wait to be picked up by the border patrol. They had given up,” said Castillo.

Three days into the trip Castillo had realized that his partners were not as knowledgeable of navigators as they thought they were. The group had run out of food and things began to look grim until they walked upon a farm. Castillo hoped to ask the owners for some food and then continue his journey while his companions hoped they would give them jobs.

As they approached the home on the farm the group spotted a truck. Thinking it might be the owner of the farm they walked towards the vehicle thinking their luck had turned. As the truck grew closer they began to recognise some symbols displayed on the side of the vehicle. It was the border patrol. Panicking Castillo looked around for somewhere to hide. But there was no where. He was in the middle of an empty field that stretched out for a quarter of a mile on every side around him.

According to The Guardian in 2017 the border patrol apprehended 341,084 migrants along the Mexico-United States border. This number is a significant decrease from the year prior in which they apprehended 611,689 migrants. Even with this major decrease in apprehensions by the US border patrol, President Trump is still calling for a complete overhaul in immigration policy and increasing border security. President Trump has even gone as far as sending National Guard troops to the border to assist in securing it.

After being caught the group was detained at a station and then quickly taken back across the border to the city of Nuevo Laredo. Just like that those three days of walking went to nothing.  Castillo’s friends became dismayed. They did not have the will to attempt the journey again. So they turned back around and returned home. This setback did not phase Castillo very much. His determination to make it to the United States grew even stronger. He knew that his family depended on him. So he made a few phone calls to secure some money to attempt the journey again. This time with a coyote.

“I was lucky and already had family on the other side that were willing to spend the money for me to make it over,” said Castillo.

On his second attempt the coyote took him and many others to the Rio Grande under the cover of the night. They then each crossed over in a small boat. The rough waters on the river crashed on the sides of the boat making it feel as if it were just about to tip over.

Once they arrived across the river the coyote lead them to a small white commercial van. 30 people, including Castillo,were then forced to cram tightly into the van to reach their next stop in their journey. Each person had to sit one on top of the other with their legs facing forward so that each person could fit into the tightly crammed vehicle.

“I don’t know how we did it but we were stuck like that for two hours driving across the desert. With every bump in the road that they hit it felt like we got tighter and tighter together,” said Castillo.

After the two hour drive they arrived at a garbage dump somewhere in Texas with many other individuals already waiting there. Castillo then waited and waited for six hours sitting next to piles of rotting garbage. Eventually a semi truck rolled down the road over the horizon. This was their next mode of transportation.

Each person then climbed into the back of the semi again packing in as tightly together as they possibly could. In the semi 180 people were stowed away in total darkness as if they were produce being shipped off to a grocery store. The inside of the semi was covered in a black dust almost resembling charcoal powder. Everyone quickly became covered in it all over their sweaty faces and bodies.

After an hour or so of driving the semi came to a hult. Voices were heard outside but Castillo could not make out any words or see what was happening. One voice approached the doors of the semi. Three hard knocks struck the metal doors.

“Alright everyone get out of the truck,” a voice screamed from the outside.

Everyone sat there in dead silence holding their breath and not making a single movement. The group had been warned not that if this happened to not listen to what they say and to keep quiet. And so they did. After a couple of minutes the doors of the semi’s cabin shut. The engine began to roar and they continued on their way.

“I did not feel safe at all during the trip. I felt more confident because I had hired a coyote that I would make it to my destination but I never felt safe,” said Castillo.

After multiple hours of sitting in the back of the semi and almost passing out from the heat, Castillo was taken to an apartment somewhere in Houston, Texas. At this apartment were many other individuals who had just crossed over from Mexico as well. While at the apartment Castillo got to shower for the first time in many days and got the chance to wash his clothes. After getting cleaned up, Castillo waited for 17 days for the coyotes to get contact from his family and receive the $950 that was owed to them for their services. During those 17 days he ate nothing but bread, orange juice and bologna.

“To this day I can’t eat bologna. Even the thought of the taste makes my stomach turn,” said Castillo.

Once the coyotes received the money, they drove him to the airport and bought him a one way ticket to Chicago. They walked him all the way up to the gate and on his way he went. Once he arrived to the city he was picked up by his uncle and taken to another uncles home. It was then that he finally felt a sense of relief.

“Finally when you’re actually sitting down somewhere with people you know and trust it when you start to feel okay and you can let your guard down a bit,” said Castillo.

He quickly sent a letter to his mother and siblings letting them know that he had arrived and was now safe. They had not heard from him for 27 days until they received that letter.

“We felt happy that he had made it but I was still a bit afraid. I was scared that he would live here and forget about us but he never did,” said Jose Castillo.

As soon as he settled in to his new home, Castillo began to work. He first worked as a landscaper and eventually went to work at a plant nursery. There he met his wife who had just recently made the trip over the border as well. He still never forgot about his family.

According to the Center for Migration Studies, over 5 million children were living with a parent who was undocumented in 2013. Many of these children’s parents share similar stories to that of Javier Castillo. With this in mind many children keep their parents journeys in mind as they work towards their own personal goals in life.

“I always think about my parents and what they’ve gone through to provide for us. I know it wasn’t easy and it’s something that I carry with me and remember when life gets hard,” said Hadrian Castillo the second oldest son of Javier Castillo.

Eventually Castillo went on to achieve legal permanent resident status to live in the United States. He has gone back to his home many times and will never forget what it took for him to make it out and into the United States.

He no longer has to worry about being deported back to Mexico but fears for those that are still attempting to take on the journey across the border themselves. He fears Trump’s policies will do nothing to truly deter people from crossing over illegally but will only make it more dangerous and profitable for those that aid them in their attempts.