Posted on Thu, Aug. 10, 2006

Border claims another immigrant's life

By Oscar Avila

Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO - Herminia Silva crossed the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time last week, traversing the hellish Arizona desert with her 10-year-old daughter by the hand.

She crossed the border again Thursday, through the clouds, her casket nestled in the cargo hold of American Airlines Flight 1597 from Chicago to Mexico City.

Silva had made the trip from her tiny town of Rio Grande because her daughter wanted to reunite with Dad in Chicago.

Relatives say a cactus had apparently ripped through Silva's right leg during her Arizona crossing. The wound became infected, she did not immediately seek medical care, and she died in a Chicago hospital.

The border had claimed another illegal immigrant's life.

About 100 mourners, including Pilsen, Ill., residents who had never met Silva, trickled into St. Pius V Church on Wednesday. Her husband, Feliciano Velasco, clutched two of his children for comfort as someone hung a crucifix on Silva's casket and placed a rosary in her hands.

"She risked her life to bring my daughter to me so we could have a better future," Velasco said softly in a chat in the back of the church. "Now I have to fight for our family, to honor what happened to her."

Both immigrant advocates and proponents of stricter immigration enforcement agree: Mexicans like Silva should not be streaming illegally into the U.S. Silva's death puts a tragic face on an immigration system that lawmakers of all stripes consider a failure.

For lawmakers and activists aghast at the flow of illegal immigration, border deaths reflect the inability or unwillingness of the U.S. government to secure its border. The Mexican government is also guilty, they argue, for not discouraging its citizens from emigrating and not providing economic opportunities at home.

Immigrant activists make a different point: If U.S. employers dangle jobs at illegal immigrants, the U.S. government must create a framework so those immigrants can work without risking their lives.

Silva's story is slowly spreading through Chicago's Mexican community. At a Monday news conference, even before they knew Silva's name, immigrant organizers of a Labor Day weekend march to Batavia, Ill., invoked her death as proof of a broken immigration system.

At her funeral, Father Brendan Curran compared Silva's journey to Jesus dragging the cross up the hill to Calvary. On the cross, he suffered from thirst and died after telling God that his task was completed. Silva also completed her mission of bringing her daughter to the U.S., Curran said.

"In the midst of the profound thirst, we feel in this sadness. We remember the hopes that came from a family. We remember a brave mother accepting whatever risk to achieve a new future," Curran said.

With Illinois home to about 400,000 illegal immigrants, the family's tale is a common one.

Velasco left the Mexican state of Oaxaca where he worked as a farmhand and made only about $50 a week. Velasco said he often did not have enough money to buy food or clothes for his five children.

In Chicago, he works two restaurant jobs and was able to save money - enough to pay the $5,000 fee to have his wife and daughter smuggled into the United States and transported to Chicago. They had been separated for nearly three years.

Velasco's daughter, Adriana, had often called her father on the telephone from Mexico to say he didn't love her because he hadn't brought her to Chicago. Herminia Silva had joked that she would stash their daughter in one of the care packages she often sent her husband.

But the humor masked a deep fear within the family about Silva's upcoming journey. The woman couldn't avoid the TV news reports in Mexico of immigrants dying en route. And her son, 18-year-old Feliciano Velasco Jr., had endured his own brush with death.

When Velasco crossed the border illegally years ago, he had been packed into a trailer with dozens of other immigrants. The smuggler had told them 40 minutes, but the trip turned into four hours.

"I know how dangerous it is," he recalled, "and I was praying she would make it safely."

By the time Silva reached Chicago, the wound on her leg was in awful shape, her husband said. The bottom of her leg had swollen to twice its size and was covered by an unhealed wound. Hospital officials told the funeral home that Silva died from a widespread infection and septic shock, worsened by her diabetes.

In his book "The Devil's Highway" - about a group of illegal immigrants who died in the desert - Chicago author Luis Alberto Urrea had described the landscape this way: "The plants are noxious and spiked. Saguaros, nopales, the fiendish chollas. Each long cholla spike has a small barb, and they hook into the skin, and they catch in elbow creases and hook forearm and biceps together."

Curran said he wasn't surprised that so many strangers came to the church to mourn Silva. Many parishioners also had endured their own harrowing crossings into the U.S.

Experts worry that the desperation will only get worse. With the deployment of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, they predict immigrants will seek even more isolated routes through the desert. Earlier this week, nine immigrants died when their overpacked van overturned while fleeing the Border Patrol.

Chris Simcox, president of the Arizona-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group of volunteers who patrol the border to detect illegal immigrants, said the blame for the death toll doesn't fall just on illegal immigrants but on a broken immigration system.

"Mexico is forcing its citizens to put themselves in peril. We are facilitating it by not securing our borders and enforcing the law," Simcox said. "If we secure our borders, no more deaths. It's horrible what's going on. To allow that to happen is immoral."

Velasco said he realizes that he is just another player in a tragedy being played out in both countries. He considered returning to Mexico but he will keep the family in Chicago because he thinks his wife would not have wanted him to abandon their goal of starting anew in this country.

Velasco had written a tribute in a condolence book, expressing the belief that his wife will always watch over their family. But those hopeful words also came with a warning to his countrymen.

"I beg the other immigrants to not do the same, cross the border, because you are risking your life to find a better life like she did."


2006, Chicago Tribune.

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