A group of migrants at a shelter near Puebla, Mexico, sat in a circle of chairs and stared nervously across at five students from Eva Dziadula's Economics of Immigration class and a few other Notre Dame students studying abroad there.
The migrants were nearly all young men from Honduras. How could they describe the harrowing decision to leave their families and homes or the tortuous trip of thousands of miles on top of dangerous freight trains to get to the border of the United States?
Finally, one took the lead and spoke up.
José said he hopes to do carpentry and painting in the U.S. to provide money for his family. At home, he said, he can't make much money no matter how hard he works, and if he saves anything, it's usually stolen. He was making his third attempt without a “coyote” guide, which can cost thousands of dollars he doesn't have.
Asked about dangers on the trip, José shed some tears talking about the violence they face from Mexican authorities and gangs that often rob or beat the migrants. He said they just want to help their families and hope to be treated like human beings.
The students listened in empathetic silence. Then Jack Kelly, a junior studying pre-health and English, responded in his best Spanish.
“Thank you for sharing your story,” Kelly said. “You deserve respect, both as a person and as someone willing to do whatever it takes to help your family. I'm sorry for what you've had to go through.”
With little more solace to offer, the students stood and shook hands with each migrant in the circle. This kind of face-to-face interaction is exactly why Dziadula brings groups of Notre Dame students to Puebla and Mexico City to witness the journey at its midway point—in a course that focuses on the economic factors and outcomes at the start and end of the volatile subject of immigration.
An immigrant herself from the Czech Republic, Dziadula said she finds the portrayal of immigrants in American media to be one-sided and stereotypical. Dziadula joined the Notre Dame Department of Economics in 2014.
“The main reason I started taking the students down to Mexico is that the emotional part that comes through the media outlets in the U.S. can be very polarizing, whether it's one way or the other,” she said. “They can play on your emotions, but then people tend to forget about it in a few hours when it's off the screen.
“So my goal with this immersion trip is just to show the students the other side—allow them to see, and not on the news, not in a paper. We can actually talk to people. And they're pretty overwhelmed because the migrants that we speak with are generally about their age. They've been through abuse; they've struggled beyond what most of our students can even imagine.”
In the classroom, the students learn mathematical equations and complex models to measure and predict, for instance, why people migrate or why they decide to return home. The models try to account for variables like risk tolerance and skill level to explain positive or negative selection factors.
But it doesn't have the same impact as being in a room with Johan and his 19-year-old daughter, Michel. Johan's family left Venezuela after political opponents burned down their house. Most of the family stayed in Colombia, but Johan and Michel crossed the Darién Gap, a 66-mile stretch of mountainous jungle without roads between South America and Panama.
Everything they brought for the trip, including their shoes, was stolen just before their week-long trek through the Darién Gap, which Johan called “very difficult.” Then a worse accident happened in Mexico, which Johan didn't want to describe.
A freight train, known by the migrants as La Bestia (The Beast), cut off his right leg. He lay beside the tracks for a few hours, using his shoelaces as a tourniquet, before immigration officers brought him in for help. Michel was stuck on the moving train and had to get off at the next stop to return and find him at a Red Cross shelter. Losing an arm or leg is not unprecedented because the migrants generally jump on moving trains to avoid police or security guards.
Johan hoped to work in construction to send money to his parents, whom he talked to but did not discuss his injury with because he worries their high blood pressure can't handle it. His own nightmares about the accident make it hard to sleep. Michel wants to study in the U.S. and become a doctor to help other people in need. For now, they can barely survive.
Daniel Miranda-Pereyra, a junior studying accounting and economics, was born in the U.S. to a family from Veracruz, Mexico. He often translated for the group, a role he grew up doing for his parents. This was only his third trip to Mexico, and the first not visiting family.
“It was very disheartening to hear his story and knowing the tragedy that he faced just because he wanted to go to the U.S. to work,” Miranda-Pereyra said. “This journey is definitely so dangerous. Johan was saying he's witnessed kidnappings. He said the lucky ones are the ones that get robbed and beaten, not robbed and straight-up murdered. It was eye-opening to see that there are bad people at every checkpoint willing to profit off of these migrants.”
Miranda-Pereyra said his parents arrived in the U.S. in an era before immigration became so polarizing. Still, they must have had their own trials, and he reflected on their experience.
“My mom faced so much taking care of five children,” he said. “It's hard enough to take care of oneself along the journey; I can't imagine her doing this with five children.”
The Notre Dame group accompanied Red Cross workers to a spot where migrants often jump off the slowing trains. A group of five men hid from them at first. The men explained that bandits sometimes disguise themselves as the Red Cross before robbing migrants.
The Red Cross offered the men—three from Honduras, one from Guatemala, and one from Nicaragua—food, maps, medical supplies, clothes, and ultimately a short rest at the shelter. The migrants told Miranda-Pereyra how tough train travel can be. The hard steel tops of the boxcars range from scalding hot in the day to freezing cold at night. A Nicaraguan who left home six months earlier said he had dodged crocodiles in the rivers of the Darién Gap. He laughed easily and thanked the students for two pairs of socks, which he said were a hot commodity. The Guatemalan wore only Crocs on his feet and cheered when handed a pair of tennis shoes, holding his prize aloft. Miranda-Pereyra gave a Honduran his ND string bag.
Later that day, the students painted a small abandoned train station that the Red Cross was preparing to house migrants overnight. Across the tracks, the wind whipped up dust devils in a field backdropped by a spectacular mountain range.
Wearing sweatshirts, jackets, and shoes donated by Dziadula and the students, the five migrants left the shelter that evening to board a train under the cover of night. A few hours later, a torrential rain pounded the region.
At Sagrada Familia parish, where the circle of migrants spoke to the students, the shelter is accessed not from the street, but from the back where the railroad tracks run. Migrants sat along the tracks or huddled against the shelter walls, waiting for the next train heading north.
Inside, the mostly Honduran men were washing clothes, watching a single large television, or waiting while others sat in folding chairs getting their hair cut. “I was really thrilled to see at the shelter this time, the local beauty school came in and gave them haircuts,” Dziadula said. “That allows them to feel like dignified human beings who matter.”
The shelter's director said the local priest about 12 years ago started allowing migrants to rest and get food on the parish basketball court. Parish volunteers over the years turned it into a walled place of refuge with 40 beds for men and 12 for women that now employs a director, doctor, and lawyer. The shelter gets food donations and prepares meals.
Strict rules ensure the safety of those within. Each migrant must register their name and origin even though most don't have identification papers. This registry database connects with several other shelters along the route north to track their progress and help family members find them.
Emma Campbell, a sophomore studying economics and Spanish, said listening to the migrants' stories was an intense emotional experience, both frightening and inspiring. “We learn in class that it takes a certain level of desperateness to get to the point where your last resort is to travel so far and experience so much violence to try to get to a better place,” Campbell said. “That's something I don't think I can really understand until I hear it myself, and we got to do that there.”
One migrant in particular caught her attention. Meylim, 20, was the only female and one of two people there from Guatemala. Meylim showed the students her cell phone videos of riding on the train tops.
“She had been married for two years and has a 5-month-old daughter who she left behind,” Campbell said. “So she's my age and I could not imagine being married, having a daughter, and then leaving that daughter behind. I think it shows a level of courage and strength that I've never had to step into before.”
Another migrant asked the students a challenging question. Why, he asked, should they share their stories? What do they get out of it?
“Right now, I'm not going to be able to go change a policy; I'm not going to be able to do much for those individuals that were sitting in front of me,” Campbell said later. “But I now have these stories and when I go back to the U.S., I'm able to share what I've learned with others to hopefully shape the narrative.”
Miranda-Pereyra responded in Spanish, acknowledging the limitations of how the students could immediately help. He said it was hard to hear that the migrants looked at second-generation Mexicans like him as their economic competition.
Dziadula said that economic data on the competition for jobs may explain why some Mexicans don't like the Central Americans traveling through their country. The data show that new immigrants take jobs at the lower end of the wage scale, which is more of a threat to immigrants who have been working in the U.S. for years than to those born there.
The class studies wage data, as well as questions about how immigrants integrate, what services they use and taxes they pay. Other studies examine why migrants leave home, how much money they send back, and how many return home years later.
“There's a lot of data produced by economists, and we have answers to all those questions that people talk about on the news,” Dziadula said. “But when it's emotional, when it touches on people's feelings, we tend not to pay attention to the data itself, even though the answers are there and we've proven them backwards and forwards.”
The shift over American history from immigrant flows from Europe, then Asia, then Mexico, and now Central America also affects how people perceive immigrants. Some of the recent flow comes from new places: Nicaragua, Haiti, and Africa. Asked who planned to return home after a few years of work, every single migrant at the shelter raised their hand.
Dziadula said most studies show that immigrants do not have a negative impact on U.S. labor markets. If anything, she said, immigrants have a positive impact because they increase market size and allow higher-wage earners to be more efficient and increase their own wages.
At an economic conference at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), where the Notre Dame abroad students attend classes, Dziadula presented an example of the kind of specific data that the class studies. She analyzed U.S. car accident data to determine how offering drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants can reduce hit-and-run crashes and improve road safety.
Other parts of the trip focused on experiencing Mexican culture rather than migration. The students took a tour of churches and a “man-made mountain” in Puebla bigger than the Egyptian pyramids. The city exudes an old Mexico vibe, avoiding the overwhelming size, smog, and crime of Mexico City but also the tourist trap feel of Cancun.
One side trip went to an organic farm that aims to rejuvenate the soil and prevent local farmers from having to leave home. Another went to the stunning ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, where a pre-Aztec civilization lived in one of the world's largest cities just after the time of Jesus. The ultimate downfall of Teotihuacan may have been an environmental crisis similar to the one forcing farmers across Central America into exodus today.
Toward the trip's end, Dziadula was still wrestling with the challenging question about why the migrants should share their story. She finally pointed to Ava Moreno, a senior from El Paso, Texas, who went on the trip last year.
Moreno said the Economics of Immigration trip helped her decide the area she wants to specialize in next year when she starts Notre Dame Law School. Growing up along the border, immigration had always been an interest, but now it will become her career.
“Hearing those people's stories definitely had an impact on what I wanted to do,” she said. “I always met these people and helped out back home from when they finished their journey.
“I had never talked to people who were in the middle of the journey and heard their motivations for coming and how they were so determined to get there. It was really impactful because I saw a different version of immigration than I'd ever previously been exposed to.”