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Migrants in Tijuana reflect on what brought them on their journey to the U.S.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

What is the American dream? One could argue the American dream is deeply rooted, maybe even codified, in our early historical documents. Listen to President John F. Kennedy recite the first line of the preamble in our Declaration of Independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

MARTINEZ: So there it is, the belief that anyone is free to try to achieve their personal version of success. During our recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico, we met migrants who are seeking that, too.

DANIEL GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) We're not looking for anything luxurious. All we really want is to give our kids a better education.

MARTINEZ: That's Daniel Gutierrez (ph), who we'll hear more from later. But we also spoke with a local migrant advocate who doesn't think the pursuit is worth the risks.

LOURDES LIZARDI: (Through interpreter) And they come looking for that famous American dream that sometimes turns into a hellish dream.

MARTINEZ: Lourdes Lizardi (ph) has been helping migrants in Tijuana for 28 years and has seen firsthand how the pursuit of the American dream has put people in perilous situations. The path to the U.S. is a long one. For example, starting at the Mexico-Guatemala border, it's at least a 2,000-mile trip split up any number of ways - by train, car, truck or by foot. The journey on a moving vehicle can be crammed in tight, unsanitary spaces with no bathrooms. And all that, coupled with extreme weather and cutthroat cartels, can prove fatal. Dr. Cesar Raul Gonzalez Vaca, the state director at SEMEFO - Baja California's forensic medical service - says they get a lot of migrant bodies from Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate.

CESAR RAUL GONZALEZ VACA: (Through interpreter) These are border cities where we frequently find bodies that have a link to migration, who die trying to cross or due to other violent causes.

MARTINEZ: They receive around 1,600 bodies per year, with the majority recovered in Tijuana. Each year, about 120 mass graves are added there. Now, the other big change in migration toward the U.S. is in the reasons why it happens, why people are making this sometimes-dangerous journey. When my grandfather came to the United States from Ecuador in 1969, it was simply because he thought he'd be able to find a better paying job. For many migrants today, their motivations are more about survival. Rafael Fernandez de Castro Medina, director at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, says migration has shifted from just an economic motive - that better life - to also now one of safety, as in just being alive.

RAFAEL FERNANDEZ DE CASTRO MEDINA: It's very difficult to separate the fear from the economic need. I will say, both of them come together.

MARTINEZ: And we heard violence and a fear for their lives as a reason from every migrant we spoke with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Why did I leave my country? Because of death threats and persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Because of the gangs over there. Things are really dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) Because of violence in my home state of Michoacan. If there was peace there, I wouldn't leave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) If I returned home right now, they'd kill me.

MARTINEZ: These men and women are from Honduras, Mexico and Haiti. And all say death threats, gang violence and extortion led them to flee their home countries. And this is where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness gets boiled down to simply being alive in order to have a life to live. So is pursuing this American dream still worth it to them?

JUNIOR ANTONIO RAMIREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: Junior Antonio Ramirez (ph) says, yes. Ramirez came from Guatemala with his family. We found them one hot morning sitting on the sidewalk, huddled together, each wearing a hoodie, their backs up against the wall of a shelter called Movimiento Juventud 2000. It was full, but he was hoping to be first in line if a spot opened up. When I asked him why he was there, his answer checked all the boxes I've been telling you about.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) We had to leave because of safety concerns, because we had problems with the gangs where we were living. They were demanding rent for our business - extortion, you see. They also wanted my sons to join their gang. But that's not something we approve of. My sons were raised well. They're educated and calm. The fear became real when the threats began. We either had to start paying up or they would start killing us.

MARTINEZ: So the decision to leave came quickly after that.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) We grabbed what little we had and got rid of other stuff. As far as our neighbors and family members, we didn't tell them anything for their safety and for our own. We had to leave like we were fleeing. And that was really sad, not being able to say goodbye to everyone.

MARTINEZ: Driving from Guatemala City to Tijuana takes about 50 hours of travel. Ramirez explains why it took a lot longer.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) It took us six days. Normally it takes three days, but there were lots of complications along the way. The first bus left us stranded. Then we had to find another ride. And they left us in another town. It's a draining trip and a little dangerous. The immigration checkpoints are nice, and they treat you well. But there are also cartels and others that stop you along the way. We were told each one had their own territory, and that's the way it was. Every place we passed through, they asked for our papers and where we're from. And they also asked us to pay for passing through their territory in order to continue safely.

MARTINEZ: Ramirez made it clear to me a couple of times that he was never planning on leaving Guatemala. He liked his life there. He told me his wife was taking college classes and that his kids were enjoying being high schoolers. I noticed that every one of them had colorful streaks in their hair, which he explained by telling me his daughter had fun experimenting and was thinking about going into cosmetology. I asked him what he's hoping for in America, what he's hoping will be different.

(Non-English language spoken).

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) Over there, gangs, at least, aren't as prevalent. And they aren't in contact with you as much. I trust the authorities over there more. From what people have told me, it's a little safer.

MARTINEZ: There was a reason Ramirez and his family were waiting outside of that particular shelter, Movimiento Juventud 2000. And that's because the people that stay there live in tents. This way, families can sleep together with a degree of privacy and safety and not have to be separated, as they might be at other shelters. UC San Diego professor Fernandez de Castro Medina says, living as a migrant has changed.

MEDINA: Shelters are different. In the past, shelters were for migrants to stay three or four or five days, and they come across to the U.S. Now it's different. In the shelters, migrants are staying months, even years.

MARTINEZ: That brings us to Daniel Gutierrez.

GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) In May, we marked one year and three months of living here in Tijuana.

MARTINEZ: Daniel Gutierrez is also from Guatemala. He's at a shelter, Embajadores de Jeses, with his family.

GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) We felt a little more hopeful staying in a border city like Tijuana.

MARTINEZ: Gutierrez told us, in the past year, he had made three attempts to cross the border. And each time he was apprehended, he asked for asylum. But no explanation was given for why he was being sent back.

GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) The same thing happened all three times. There wasn't any difference whether I was there with my family or on my own. The three times they apprehended me, they did it without saying a single word. They never asked me questions like, what made you come from your country? And what are you running away from? Nothing. They didn't ask me anything. They just took us to some kind of shelter. And then they kicked us out.

(Non-English language spoken)

MARTINEZ: This lack of communication by Customs and Border Protection sounds familiar to Fernandez de Castro Medina and the migrants that he has spoken to, especially since the start of Title 42, the public health order that allows for quick expulsions because of COVID.

MEDINA: Titled 42 basically facilitates them to try to come into the U.S. because under Title 42, they could try many times, as many as they can.

MARTINEZ: I asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about this. And he wanted to be clear that Title 42 is not an immigration policy. It's a public health order, which is why when a migrant is sent back, it is considered an expulsion, not a deportation. And Mayorkas said migrants are made aware of the expulsion. Either way, Gutierrez wishes American immigration officials would be more sympathetic to what migrants have to go through.

GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) Psychologically speaking, because of the damage it causes us, I wish the protocol had a little more humanity - that is, that they were not so rude and that they at least explained to us that we have some type of right.

MARTINEZ: He says the psychological trauma is affecting his children, too.

GUTIERREZ: (Through interpreter) I have twin girls and a boy. And one morning, one of my daughters woke up and asked me, how long are we going to be here? And we told her, God willing, about three weeks, and we'll be gone. And she said, and what sneakers am I going to take? We told her, well, these are fine. And she said, but the problem is those are a little loose. And sometimes we have a lot of uphills (ph). So they still believe we're going to keep doing the same thing, go up hills and down hills. (Non-English language spoken)

MARTINEZ: Gutierrez says if a fourth attempt for asylum in the U.S. does not work, he's promised his kids they'll stay in Tijuana and try to make a life there. And Lourdes Lizardi says, that's OK, that the American version isn't the only dream worth chasing.

LIZARDI: (Through interpreter) And the whole world is still chasing the American dream when there are Mexican dreams, Canadian dreams, Chinese dreams - all these other dreams.

MARTINEZ: The mayor of Tijuana, Montserrat Caballero Ramirez, works with migrants to try and get them to consider making Mexico their new home. She agrees with Lizardi.

MONTSERRAT CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) It has been romanticized a lot. We need to remind the citizens of the world that these dreams can be built wherever you are.

MARTINEZ: The mayor welcomes anyone to make Tijuana the place where they build that new dream.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) I think Tijuana is a safe city. We do not have the peace that we would like in the whole country. I would be lying to you if I said that. But we are going for stability.

MARTINEZ: And for many migrants and refugees, a simple sense of stability would be a big improvement from where they were before.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN SOLLEE AND TIME FOR THREE'S "LEARNING TO TRAP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.