Migrant Status Inc: Using Tech to Make Journeys Safer

Migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States navigate a minefield of dangers and bureaucracy. This week, Courthouse News takes a look at what they face and the people who help them along the way.

MEXICO CITY (CN) – As tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from Central and South America, make their way through Mexico toward the United States, many of them don’t know what to expect.

Laura Gardiancia (standing) and Robin Hoover (seated, blue shirt) of Migrant Status Inc. show Father Alejandro Solalinde, a longtime Mexican migrant rights activist and advocate, how their new education monitors work. The screens will be installed in migrant shelters throughout Mexico to give migrants information they need to navigate toward the U.S., where many will apply for political asylum. (Brad Poole / CNS)

Some had never left El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua, the countries that make up the lion’s share of migrants coming north. They don’t know the laws. They don’t know the climate. They don’t know what clothes to bring, how much water they need or whose territory they will pass through.

So longtime Tucson, Arizona-based migrant rights activist Robin Hoover decided to act. He launched the nonprofit Migrant Status Inc. to educate migrants coming to the U.S. Recently he went to Mexico City to install a test run of three video screens in migrant shelters. The screens use USB drives or SD cards to loop a guide aimed at keeping migrants safe and healthy during the journey.

“Central Americans crossing Mexico need to be advised of the goods and services available to them from both the civil society – private sources – and various government expressions from federal to local,” Hoover said.

The guide, available online, as a PDF and in print, covers Mexico and the U.S. border states. It includes maps (including a map of Mexican cartel territories), information specific to women (menstruation can increase your risk in the desert, so before you leave calculate when your next menstrual cycle starts), and how to find the North Star to maintain direction at night.

It includes information about the Red Cross and government offices to help migrants file complaints or seek legal services. And because some migrants are fleeing criminal organizations, “we’ve included a map of where the cartels are operating. If you are fleeing organization X, then you need to travel around them,” Hoover said.

The genesis of the project dates to nearly a decade ago, when Hoover wrote a guide for migrants crossing the U.S. deserts. In 2016, he decided to expand that to include Mexico.

“At the time we were thinking we needed printed materials, then we kept coming to the realization that we live in a different world today, so we thought about putting everything on the Internet,” he said.

Hoover, a social ethicist with degrees in religion, journalism, social ethics and political science, wanted a new way to help migrants after stepping away from Humane Borders, a nonprofit he founded in 2000. Humane Borders skyrocketed to international attention when its volunteers began putting out water stations to prevent deaths in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, where summer temperatures often soar near 120 degrees.

U.S. Border policies are purposely deadly, Hoover said.

“Federal policies have been killing these people, they’re marching people down death trails,” he said, referring to increasingly stringent border enforcement that has shifted migrant populations into more dangerous parts of the desert in an effort to deter them from entering the United States.

“The United States has deliberately chosen public policies designed to kill people as a deterrent, but it is not a deterrent. It speaks to no one, except some sort of conservative, punitive, retribution mentality amongst some, predominantly conservative, people in the United States,” Hoover said.

Mexican priest Alejandro Solalinde, an icon in the migrant rights community in Mexico, agrees U.S. policy is at the heart of the problem, and not just current policy. U.S. actions in Central America decades ago combined with worsening conditions there now means more migrants who need help, Solalinde said.

“That is the cause. That is a big part of the problem that we have right now,” Solalinde said.

Ultimately, Hoover hopes to get screens in migrant shelters in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and elsewhere.

“You need to educate people before they leave home,” he said.

Hoover will return to Mexico at the end of June to continue the project. So far all of the potential nonprofit partners – some civil, some faith-based – have praised it. Migrant Status Inc. is providing all of the hardware.

“We do not want to create a burden on the shelters, where they have to use their own computers, their video screens, etc., so we wanted to provide them with screens that can run 24/7,” he said. Funding for the first three screens from Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey.

Hoover likened it to a hotel services television channel that cycles through information for guests, such as where the pool is or where the restaurant is. This information, however, is designed to keep the migrants alive.

“Frequently asked questions, FAQ, is a good metaphor for what we’re doing,” he said.

Even one Mexican law enforcement organization praised the project.

“They’re more interested in the safe conduct of these people across their country and a way of minimizing or at least keeping order in the interactions between the migrants and their local citizens,” he said.

Migrants staying in a shelter in Toluca, Mexico, now have a video screen that loops information about the journey, including maps of Mexican cartel territories, climate and what to carry. (Brad Poole / CNS)

Armand Vilchis Vargas runs a migrant shelter out of his auto shop in Toluca, about an hour west of Mexico City, where Hoover installed a screen last week. About 75 migrants sleep there nightly and most stay just a few nights. They get off of El Bestia, a famed freight line that thousands of migrants ride through Mexico annually, a few blocks away.

Vargas has helped more than 4,000 migrants register to work in Mexico. A lot of them don’t know what to expect as they approach the U.S., so the information is appreciated, Vargas said.

“Anything that helps the migrants is good, because they need the help,” he said.

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