The trouble with paradise is its diabolic chill. Olga Arzu tries to keep warm by crossing her arms against her chest and rubbing her skin with her hands, but she is shivering nonetheless. Arzu had been excited about arriving here and the start of a new life, one that was supposed to be better than her last one. Instead she's been greeted with a high-powered air-conditioning system. And an equally cold asylum system.
Arzu's son Daylan clings to her leg. He's wearing a hoodie, but he's shivering as well. Back at home in the port city of La Ceiba in Honduras, Arzu's life may have been difficult and dangerous, but at least there wasn't any air-conditioning.
Three days ago, Arzu, 28, and Daylan, four, crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and entered the United States, the culmination of a trip that took them across Central America and Mexico and lasted somewhere between 20 and 30 days, she can't remember exactly. At some point she lost sense of lightness, darkness and time. The two were picked up by US Border Patrol officials once they crossed the river and were then locked in a small cell together with a dozen other women and children for three days, without beds, mattresses, blankets or even towels. The only thing they had were the clothes they wore on the long journey.
At one point, Olga asked a police officer if the air conditioning could be turned down a little bit. The policeman answered that the whole building would then get warmer, also affecting his colleagues. They slept on the stone floor and thought they would die -- either from the chill produced by the air-conditioner or the coldness of the border patrol. "Mom, let's get out of here," Daylan said at one point and cried for most of the three days they spent there, until they were released -- two hours ago.
Is US Still a Country of Immigration?
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," is engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The poem, written by Emma Lazarus, describes the United States' founding myth -- the fundamental idea behind a country that wouldn't exist without its immigrants. In today's America, though, it sometimes feels like Lazarus' words have lost their meaning.
The problem isn't the illegal immigrants as such. Until just recently, the number picked up at the border was lower than it had been in years. At the same time, however, there have never been as many children and young people crossing America's borders. Since October, 60,000 have crossed the border without being accompanied by an adult. Most of them, though, like Daylan, travel with their mothers. The majority come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- countries in which the state has lost control of many areas to brutal gangs.
The mass flight of children from Central America appears to be overwhelming the US. There are too few government employees to stop the onslaught on the border and a dearth of facilities that can provide for them. The biggest problem, however, is that the US seems unable to answer one critical question: Whether it is still a country of immigration or whether it has instead become one of deportation.
The dispute begins with classifications. Are the people currently making their way to America immigrants or refugees? The Republicans like to describe them as immigrants, and they want to solve the problem by making the borders to the US impenetrable. They want more police, higher fences and, for those who still succeed in entering the country, immediate deportation.
A Crisis Escalates
The Republicans also accuse President Barack Obama of having made the US more attractive to people who would like to sneak in illegally. And indeed, one law passed during his time in office does stipulate that the government must be more lenient in dealing with these children and that, when possible, they should be reunited in the country with their families. Bands of smugglers picked up on that and began spreading rumors that children from Central America were welcome in the United States.
For a long time, the president did little to address the crisis and his administration seemed caught off guard by the influx, despite sufficient hints in the past that the situation might escalate. During a trip to Texas two weeks ago, Obama attended fundraising dinners, but cautiously avoided getting too close to the border the US shares with Mexico. It was symbolic of the way he has handled the issue of child immigration. Slowly, though, it is starting to appear as if Obama is waking up to the fact that greater effort will be required for dealing with the crisis.
"I thank God that it's over," Arzu now says of her days in detention. She's standing in the gymnasium of the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, near the border to Mexico and is holding a pair of pants she wants to try on. Volunteers set up a camp in the city for mothers and their children to recuperate after their days spent in incarceration. They have collected old clothing, erected tents in a parking lot and provided portable showers. There's a constant influx of newly arrived mothers and children, with the number exceeding 200 people on some days.
After trying things on, Olga decides on a pair of baggy cloth trousers as well as a pink blouse and a light blue corduroy jacket. She takes a seat at one of the tables next to the piles of clothing.
Rampant Poverty and Violence
Arzu explains that poverty is rampant where she comes from. There may be rich people as well -- corrupt politicians, business people and gang leaders -- but most are poor like her. If you're a poor person, she says, Honduras is a very expensive country. She also speaks of how she was unable to find a job and how AIDS killed her parents. But the worst, she says, was the violence. In the past, the gangs had only threatened the rich, but today they also go after the poor. She claims they threatened her, saying, "If you don't pay the war tax, we will kill your brother and your niece." Arzu began fearing they might one day kill her son as well.
Daylan climbs up on his mother's lap. The church volunteers hand him a coloring book featuring Elmo from Sesame Street. Daylan smiles. It's the first time he has done so in many days.
About 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) south of Texas, Olga Arzu's husband, David Palacios, sits down in his Honduran national soccer team jersey and starts to talk about how much he misses his wife and his son. His eyes are narrow and there's something melancholy and empty about his gaze. Sitting in a small Internet cafe in La Ceiba, he explains how he and Olga married six years ago. "We haven't had any contact since she has been in the US," he says.
Palacios says as much as he would have liked to join his wife, he didn't have the money. The smugglers who would have taken him to the US wanted $7,000. He works in a sawmill at the edge of the city, where he toils for 12 hours at a time for $10 a day. The trip to the US is cheaper for women and children. Olga paid $3,600 to her "coyotes," as the smugglers are called. She borrowed part of the money from her sister, who fled years ago to the US while a go-between lent her the rest of the money, which she is obliged to pay back once she has found work in the US. "If she doesn't," her husband says, "then the coyotes will come to collect the money from us here."
Palacios speaks slowly and seems a bit intimidated, as if he harbors fears of some unseen forces. The Internet cafe is managed by his sister and is located in Colonia Miramar, a neighborhood where the government has capitulated to the gangs.
Olga Arzus' sister Carla Isabel, 25, points out the window with her finger and then begins to share stories of violence about the neighborhood. There's the young man with the new Samsung phone who they shot in the face several times after he refused to hand it over. Then there's the old lady from the corner store who was murdered because she didn't want to pay any protection money. And the granddaughter of the liquor store owner who was killed because her grandfather hadn't paid his "war tax".
"We fear we will be the next," says Carla Isabel Arzu. To keep a low profile, she says she doesn't do any advertising for her Internet cafe. There's just a small sign indicating what kind of store it is. "We don't want to stand out," she says. "The Mareros could turn up here at any time."
'We Are All Americans'
Mareros is the name given to members of the Maras, the country's feared youth gangs. The gangs were formed during the 1990s in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Chicago that were home to large Salvadoran populations. When the violence began escalating in those cities, US officials started deporting gang members to El Salvador. With a new base there, they began to spread across Central America. Today, they control the prisons, the drug trade and for a few years have also been making money through extortion that often comes in the form of what residents call the "war tax," which the gangs levy against people and businesses alike in what is no different than a mafia racket.
Carla Isabel Arzu lives with three siblings and her brother-in-law David Palacios in a house next to the Internet café. Until they fled, Olga and Daylan also lived here. The Arzus grew up in Colonia Miramar, where finding work was tough enough for everyone but even harder if, like the family, a person comes from the Afro-Honduran minority.
There was a time when Colonia Miramar wasn't a bad place to live, back when La Ceiba's economy was supported by booming exports of bananas and pineapples grown in the surrounding countryside by the American company Dole. The dilapidated palace that once housed the customs office and the splendid main square are a reminder of this golden age. But today, many houses are up for sale or they are decaying, their owners having fled to the US. Stinking wastewater lies in puddles and ditches. Windows on the houses are barred and the walls surrounding many of them are topped with barbed-wire. Even the local Catholic church is boarded up -- out of fear of the gangsters.
"Many look like normal teenagers at first glance," says Carla Isabel Arzu. Mareros used to be recognizable for their tattoos, but gangsters now have identifying symbols branded into the inside of their lower lips. In Colonia Miramar, they operate from premises that not even the police are willing to visit. "The Mareros are better armed," Arzu says.
Drug cartels have provided the Maras with modern firearms. The cocaine arrives by speedboat from Colombia and Venezuela, with drug couriers as young as 13 smuggling the stuff across the border into Honduras. The country has become the most important hub for the cocaine trade on the continent. Arzu says that the situation has dramatically worsened since the overthrow five years ago of the left-wing populist President Manuel Zelaya. The city of San Pedro Sula, three hours by car from La Ceiba, now has the highest murder rate in the world, with more people dying there every day than in some war zones. In 2013, there were 1,400 murders.
When darkness falls in Colonia Miramar, the streets empty out almost completely -- and the rush hour of violence begins. The Arzu family barricades themselves into their house at sundown; just recently they installed a new security door. Still, it doesn't silence the shots that ring through the streets and remain audible inside.
"When I get enough money together, then I'm leaving too," says Carla Isabel Arzu. Her youngest brother Henry, 22, also dreams of fleeing to the US. "We have no future here," he says.
A State of Emergency
But whether their sister Olga has a future in the US is uncertain. On the day following her release, Olga Arzu and little Daylan are standing with several other Hondurans at the McAllen bus station. She is clutching a ticket to far-away New York, where yet another sister is living. Those who, like Olga, can prove that they have relatives living in the US are allowed to stay with them initially. The authorities are unable to cope with caring for and housing all of the refugees at facilities near the border.
The Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas is in a state of emergency these days. Visitors used to frequent Anzaluas Park, four miles from McAllen, to watch rare birds or to take advantage of the playgrounds and picnic tables there. But now, the only visitors are border patrol officers. Helicopters buzz overhead.
Not far from here is where Olga and Daylan crossed the border on their raft, just as another girl from their neighborhood in La Ceiba did a few days prior to them. Jacqueline Ramírez, 14, had lived in a shack on the beach, sharing a single room with five siblings. Like Olga, she didn't have parents anymore; they died years ago of diabetes. One day, she was stopped by a Marero who held a pistol to her head and demanded money. "They kill everyone who refuses," Ramírez says. She gave them what she had.
It wasn't much, but it was still too much for her and she decided to leave -- alone and without the help of a coyote. She didn't even tell her sisters about her plan. When she was packing her backpack on May 5, she was thinking about how she might make a living once she arrived. "Cleaning lady, washing, I would do anything," she says. A friend of hers had raved about life in America.
She took the bus to San Pedro Sula and traveled to Guatemala from there. She then stowed away on a ferry sailing to Mexico before climbing onto the roof of a freight train heading north. She was arrested once but then released, enabling her to continue traveling by train to the Texas border. "The train cars were covered with children and teenagers from Honduras. We helped each other," she says.
When she climbed down from the train just short of paradise, she found herself staring into the barrel of a gun. Kidnappers locked her and other children up in a warehouse, beat them and demanded telephone numbers of relatives in the US from whom they could demand ransom money. But Ramírez didn't have any telephone numbers with her; she knows nobody in the US. And that was her salvation; she was set free. "Many of the girls were raped," Ramírez says.
Before wading into the neck-deep waters of the Rio Grande, she threw away her backpack. And before she knew it, she was across, just like all of the other children and youth who have crossed the border alone since last October -- a wave of migration that has made America's well-established immigration system look completely helpless. Across the country, people are protesting against the establishment of refugee housing facilities in their neighborhoods and officials are desperately searching for helpers to deal with the influx. In contrast to Daylan, who arrived with his mother, unaccompanied minors must remain under state care.
In the McAllen business district, a new camp was recently opened to house a thousand children and youth. Their new home is an abandoned warehouse around which border control officials have erected a fence. Dozens of police cars guard the entrance and the surrounding streets, making it look almost as though they were guarding a high-security prison. The first images that found their way onto the Internet were reminiscent of refugee camps in Africa. Nearby, signs have been erected reading: "We love our children, please slow down."
Jacqueline Ramírez spent two weeks in such a holding center. Now that she was north of the Rio Grande, not having relatives in the US became a disadvantage. Those who can lodge with a family member are rarely deported. Ramírez, though, was sent back across the border to a detention center in Mexico, where she remained for 20 days, crying for much of the time. Then, her hands and feet were bound and she was placed in a bus heading for Honduras.
Shortly after her arrival in San Pedro Sula, she is sitting at a snack bar telling her story. Suddenly, she becomes nauseous from the hamburger she is eating. For the previous three months, she had eaten extremely poorly, she says. Her stomach was apparently not used to anything more substantial.
Grounds for Asylum
Back at the McAllen bus station, Olga Arzu and her boy Daylan are still waiting for the bus to the Bronx. The outcome of their odyssey -- and whether she will ever again see her husband David -- remains unclear.
Within two weeks they have to appear before an immigration court and present reasons for their stay in the US. If they fail to show up, they could be deported. Even if they conform to the rules, Arzu will have to convince the judge that she and her son have a right to asylum. Thus far, though, gang violence has not been recognized as sufficient grounds. And Arzu also isn't likely to have a lawyer at her side. Most refugees must represent themselves in court -- and most fail.
In Olga Arzu's luggage is a lunch packet for the almost 24-hour trip, provided to her by Sister Norma from the Sacred Heart Church. The elderly woman has seen many refugees passing through her hometown and it used to be that they were running from state violence or economic hardship. The situation has changed, she says. This time, it is violence perpetrated by the gangs that is fueling the influx, and there are more children than ever before. Either together with their mothers or completely alone.
"The courts finally have to redefine the right to asylum," Sister Norma says. And then, she continues, her government must meet with those responsible in the countries of origin. There needs to be a grand, joint solution, she says. "We are all Americans. In all of America people should be able to live in safety. Not just in the USA," the nun says. "And if we feel safe, we can all stay home."
It sounds simple, but it is also true.