Opinion | Migrants Risk It All on ‘La Bestia’

On a cold night in late February, a group of Venezuelan migrants huddled for warmth near a dumpster in the middle of nowhere, just a few hours outside Mexico City. They were waiting for La Bestia, the freight train migrants use to get from southern Mexico to the United States border.

When it finally appeared a little after midnight, everyone made a run for it. Families had priority for the boxcars that had a metal platform where they could sit or stand. I climbed atop a boxcar with two guys I had met a few hours earlier who called themselves Oriente and El Niche. Oriente had crossed into El Paso weeks earlier, but was detained trying to help friends cross the border and sent back.

We were so cold that we were trembling. We realized that we needed to jump off soon as the train slowed down. As the wheels ground over the tracks, and we struggled to hold on, I reflected on how we got here.

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. When Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, many, including me, believed that he could create a more equal society. And for a time it felt possible. But as he grew more authoritarian, the country grew more violent and chaotic. I left in the early 2000s, but I returned often to photograph the social changes that were happening.

Things got worse in 2013, when Hugo Chávez died and Nicolás Maduro assumed power. For years, I witnessed the disintegration of the country. By 2018, the weary and hungry began leaving en masse for neighboring countries like Colombia, Chile and Peru, where local communities were not equipped to absorb them.

As the pandemic closed in, many lost their jobs. The political and economic instability that followed gave them a feeling of déjà vu. Once again they packed the little they had and set off on foot. This time for the United States. More recently, I have been documenting that experience, too.

Venezuelans are among the latest wave of migrants risking life and limb in their quest for safety. La Bestia — also known, more ominously, as the “Death Train” — is part of a network of cargo trains that pass through remote areas of Mexico. Migrants wait hours to catch a train and jump off in random places along the way. They must avoid immigration officials, the police and criminal groups. They are exposed to the elements. Many have lost limbs or fallen to their deaths as the train careens around bends and through tunnels.

Things aren’t much better when they arrive at the Mexican side of the border. The rules for entry are constantly shifting, creating chaos in cities like Juárez, where shelter networks are already pushed to the brink. Migrants must use a mobile app, which often freezes, to request asylum, or try their chances through the irregular and sometimes dangerous crossings.

Nearly 190,000 have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without permission in the 2022 fiscal year. In April, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas began packing Venezuelans and other asylum seekers into buses destined for places like New York, where I now live. Many of them ended up in crowded shelters.

In October, the Biden administration announced that Venezuelans who enter the United States without authorization will be returned to Mexico. In an effort to expedite legal pathways for orderly migration, the U.S. government also said it would accept up to 24,000 per month via a humanitarian parole plan. In January, the program was extended to include Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians.

Their situation is so ugly and extreme, and as photographers we often look to reflect that. But we must not forget that this is only one part of the story. These migrants are filled with dreams, aspirations and talents. Hope fueled the dreams of the people I met along the way. They were still standing, caring for one another and showing solidarity. I was moved by their resilience, but also their capacity for lightness and joy.

I spoke to twins who aspired to be documentary filmmakers. They beamed proudly as they showed me a notebook they had prepared before leaving. It was filled with words and phrases in five languages they planned to study on the journey north.

I met a couple named Junior and Maria, both nurses, who held hands. Along the way, I listened as they encouraged each other:

“My love, you can do this.”

“You can climb this train.”

“You can run faster.”

A mother who was traveling with her five children told me how vulnerable she felt. I met a man who stared ahead blankly as he recounted he had been kidnapped and taped to a chair for 18 days and fed dog food and water. There was a group traveling ahead of us who had been robbed, but they forged on — they had nothing else to lose. Stories like these made me think that the mother had good reason to be scared.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The United States promotes human rights and democracy around the world as a supreme value, even as its policies have contributed toward the unraveling of countries like Venezuela. Those living in the very places ruptured by U.S. policies still believe in these values. Those train tracks full of despair, longing and also violence and abandonment must be part of the U.S. immigration policy in a responsible way.

Migrants’ talents and skills could help uplift abandoned work fields and rural areas, and make local economies and industries more competitive and vibrant again. Not everyone wants to live in New York or Miami. America could encourage future immigrants and the migrants who live here now in overcrowded places to resettle in areas of the country that have been emptied out, leaving towns and industries struggling, and give both migrants and communities a reason to work toward a common goal. This would be more humane and effective than a wall could ever be.

Oscar B. Castillo is a documentary photographer, multimedia artist and educator.

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