Mateo Gutierrez has lived in the same small apartment near the CTA Pink Line since he illegally arrived in the United States in 2006. The apartment is cold with little furniture and only a couple of windows to look out of. Outside smells like fresh tortillas and laundry detergent and the noise from neighborhood children playing fills the air.
Gutierrez survived his first crossing from Mexico to the United States six years ago. The 2,100-mile long southern border of the U.S. has dangerous mountain ranges, canyons, rivers and deserts. It’s become a violent crossing for some desperate Mexican immigrants who can face death, rape and exploitation.
“I miss my family, but I know they need my help. I work hard so I can financially support them,” Gutierrez said. He is the eldest male of 11 children and came to the United States when he was 18 years old. Gutierrez is from Veracruz, Mexico, which is just east of Mexico City. His father, Mateo Gutierrez Sr., illegally crossed the border when the younger Gutierrez was still a child.
“My father made coming to America easy because he truly had it bad when he came.” Gutierrez said. “He would sleep on dirty floors and room with strangers. He lived in constant fear of being deported. I appreciate everything he’s done for our family, but now it’s my turn.”
In the last 15 years, the deaths occurring during unauthorized border crossings have been a predictable and inhumane outcome of border security policies like Operation Gatekeeper, according to a report released in 2009 from American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights.
Operation Gatekeeper was enforced to stop migration at the U.S.–Mexico border in 1994. Since then, over 5,000 people have died in attempts to cross.
“The Department of Homeland Security has now completed its fence along much of the border, as well as the largest number of boarder patrol agents ever and other devices to watch,” said Monica Trevino, communications director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an advocacy group based in downtown Chicago.
Trevino says border crossing today is much more dangerous than in the past. “People come to the United States to pursue work or to be with family. Often the situation at home is so desperate that people will take the risk in crossing the border if it means being able to reunite with family members,” Trevino said.
The younger Gutierrez described his 18-day crossing as terrifying and exciting. “I crossed with my two aunts. Each of us had a bag filled with water. Water was our only resource; anything else was too heavy to carry,” he said.
Gutierrez said his lips would blister and bleed during the day because of the harsh sunlight. At night he would almost freeze with what little clothing he had on. “Part of me found it exciting because of the end goal, but some days I didn’t know if I’d survive.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Mexico is by far the leading country of origin for U.S. immigrants, accounting for 32 percent of all foreign-born residents and 66 percent of all Hispanic immigrants.
When Gutierrez and his aunts arrived in Texas he said distant relatives met them. “About 20 of us lived in a small bedroom for three days,” he said. Gutierrez waited for his name to be called out. When that happened, he received instructions to meet his father in Indiana. After a short reunion, the elder Gutierrez returned to Mexico once Mateo found a job in Chicago.
“One of the first things I did when I came to the U.S. was look for family and start working,” said Camerino Perez, Gutierrez’s roommate. “There was no time for rest. This country is very different from Mexico, we have bills to pay just like everyone else,” he said.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented immigrants made up about four percent of the nation’s population and about 5 percent of its labor force in March 2010. Perez has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. He was a professor in Mexico before he crossed the border illegally.
“I am good friends with Mateo’s father, and Mateo is a hard worker just like him,” Perez added.
Despite the dangers in crossing the boarder for the second time Gutierrez plans on leaving the United States and returning in a year. “I know it’ll be dangerous, but I want to see my family,” he said. Mexico’s borders aren’t the only danger; drug cartels like Los Zetas and gang violence are at an all time high.
Los Zetas, once the military wing of the Gulf Cartel, is now one of the most violent groups in Mexico, with a growing presence in different areas of the country. They are responsible for a number of drug-related homicides, beheadings and other criminal activities.
“My brother was killed by gang violence, but the police reported the death as a suicide,” Gutierrez said, of the time he still lived in Mexico.
He recalls the night his brother was murdered; still unsure if it had any relation to the drug cartel, but certain he wouldn’t kill himself.
“I was out with my friends when my sister came to me crying, she said something awful happened to Jorge. I ran home and saw my mom hysterical so I went to his house,” he said.
“He was hanging from a pillar, bounded by his hands and feet. How could he have tied himself up so tightly and hang himself?” he said. “I knew something went wrong but the police didn’t investigate – Jorge was my best friend.”
Gutierrez said his brother was a good man, but got involved with drugs at an early age. “I have a lot of great memories with him; he taught me how to box, and it’s something I turn to when I need a release,” he said.
Uncertain of his future here in the United States, Gutierrez remains optimistic. “I am young and I am illegal, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”