In Ecatepec, a sprawling suburb of Mexico City, Mayor Jose Luis Gutierrez has done something almost unheard of: He has declared his city a "sanctuary" for the illegal immigrants traveling from Central America to the United States.
Every day scores of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and others begin the long, final stage of their journey from Ecatepec to the U.S. border aboard a freight train known as "the beast."
Gutierrez, a longtime activist with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, has ordered his police officers and city officials not to arrest, extort, or otherwise harass the migrants, according to the Los Angeles Times which added that he has also ordered them not to cooperate with Mexican immigration agents.
"Let them go, and guard the borders," he told the Times. "For Ecatepec, migration is not a criminal act. It's a universal right: the right to seek work and the right to travel freely from one place to another."
Wrote the Times, "Thousands of undocumented immigrants pass through here every year, but you won't hear many Ecatepec residents call them 'illegal.'"
"A lot of people help them," Guadalupe Ambriz told the Times. Ambriz, a 33-year-old resident of Xalostoc, an impoverished Ecatepec neighborhood divided by the rail line, lives in an old boxcar that's been converted into a home. There are many such homes along the tracks.
"They might let them take a bath, or give them some food, or some old clothes," Ambriz said.
The Times explains that given Ecatepec's history, the mayor's decision was not a controversial one, since the city's population is composed of migrants, people who resettled here from other impoverished corners of Mexico, including the nearby states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, and Puebla.
Every year Ecatepec sends many of its sons and daughters northward creating large communities of Ecatepec natives in California, Texas, and other U.S. states.
"For us, the bravest people of Ecatepec are the ones who go take the risk of going to the north, with all the abuse and the hatred that goes on there," Gutierrez said. "Those people are heroes for us."
Gutierrez explained that immigration is a deeply personal issue for him, telling the Times that one of his cousins has lived in the Los Angeles area, "without papers," for 10 years.
"We were raised together by our grandmother," Gutierrez told the newspaper. Because his cousin is in the U.S. illegally, he hasn't been able to return to Mexico and the two men haven't seen each other in a decade. "All those people who have gone to the north are our blood," the mayor said.
Central American immigrants have been passing through Ecatepec for more than a decade even though their journey is so life-threatening, that many have died along the way or suffered crippling injuries in falls from the train. All along the route, from the Guatemalan border to the Rio Grande, police and immigration officials routinely seek bribes, or simply rob migrants.
"For years, our police protected the extortionists," Gutierrez said of Ecatepec's officers. "The immigrants didn't complain, but the residents did. It just added to a climate of excessive violence in a neighborhood that was already dangerous."
"It's a hard journey," Armando Peña, a 40-year-old bicycle-taxi operator in the Xalostoc neighborhood told the Times. He recalled that he paid a smuggler the equivalent of $1,000 to get him to Los Angeles last year. "But if you want to get ahead, it's the only way."
The smuggler, he said, got him across the border at San Ysidro in a box attached to the underside of a car. "I thought I was going to suffocate," he said, adding that the experience is the reason why he helps the passing migrants any way he can.
After three months in California, selling ice cream on the street, he says he got homesick and came home.
He told the Times he might join the migrants who pass through Ecatepec and return to the U.S., adding that he expects to have to pay the smuggler $2,000 or more this time around.
"I should have stayed in California," he said.
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