For some in Armenia, the dream of a better life for them and their families leads them to illegally immigrate to America. But a bid for a life in the West does not come cheap, with many having to sell everything they own and brave imprisonment, injury, or even death.
Karen (not his real name), 31, had long dreamt of moving to America.
It started when he was still in seventh grade when a close friend and classmate immigrated with his family to the US.
‘We used to talk on the internet all the time’, Karen tells OC Media. ‘My classmate was depressed, he was in a completely new environment. Then he adapted, went to school, and often told me about school and his everyday life… they lived well’.
‘I was 15 when I promised myself I would get there too, no matter what’.
It wasn’t until he had turned 21 and finished his compulsory military service that Karen hatched a plan to move to the US — one that would have him smuggled in through Mexico.
‘I started looking for an intermediary to help me pursue my dream’, he says. ‘I had no way to get there legally’.
Intermediaries help smuggle people into the United States charging anywhere between $20,000–$25,000 per person. He was charged $20,000, which he did not have readily available.
‘It was a huge amount, but I was ready for anything to achieve my dream’, he says.
As a young man who had lived with his parents his whole life, Karen had little to his name, aside from a flat on the outskirts of Yerevan he inherited from his grandmother. He did not think for long about what he wanted to do with the flat — he put it up for sale as soon as the opportunity to leave Armenia presented itself.
With the money in hand, he paid his intermediary, who sent him on a journey to a Mexican border town ‘whose name [he has] already forgotten’.
‘I had only seen that country in movies; it was supposed to be an adventurous place’, he says. ‘However, instead of a beautiful adventure, it became a nightmare for me.’
Many Armenians choose to illegally enter the United States through Mexico — while visas are required for entry, they can be avoided entirely by acquiring a Schengen visa. However, with the Mexican government seeking to crack down on illegal immigration through Mexico, many Armenians, like Karen, land in Mexican immigration prisons.
‘Like Mexico, I had only seen prison in movies and imagined a prison cell as a barred room where I was supposed to be alone, but more than 20 people were sitting with me in a small cell’, recalls Karen.
He adds that his cellmates, most with a similar mission to his in mind, were of wildly different nationalities.
‘I stayed there for about 10 days. The food I ate was no better than animal food. I vomited after every bite’, he says. ‘The terrible thing was when I got poisoned and asked for water. There was no water. They told me to drink from the toilet.’
‘Do you understand? Straight from the toilet… I felt terribly bad, terribly thirsty, and I remember how I got to the toilet and tried to get to the water when a man started to urinate there. It’s hard to describe that chaos in words.’
Karen counted the minutes until his release to the American side of the border. His dream, however, remained unfulfilled, as he was deported back to Armenia from Mexico upon release.
‘I am telling you very mildly what I saw in those ten days. I’m shy and don’t want to talk much,’ says Karen. ‘Those 10 days became a reason for me to never again consider travelling to any country illegally’.
Today, Karen lives in Gyumri, in northern Armenia, working to pay off the debt he amassed in his attempt to emigrate and to save enough money to buy a house with a mortgage.
‘I was a 21-year-old boy. I had a flat in Yerevan and opportunities to live well, to settle down, but I wasted my chance. I came back with nothing, and even with more debts because the money from the sale of my grandmother’s flat was not enough to cover all my expenses’, says Karen, who says that if he ever tries to travel to the US in future, it will only be as a tourist.
‘I reached my family’
Lilit (not her real name) was 39 years old when she emigrated to the United States two years ago, driven by her desire to be reunited with her children. Her husband forged ahead to America with their three children four years ago and has since been preparing Lilit for her journey.
‘I hadn’t seen my children for four years, I was going crazy with longing, I was ready to do anything, just to reach them’, Lilit tells OC Media.
Unable to reach her family through legal means, she abandoned her career as a cosmetologist and attempted to smuggle herself to America through Mexico. It took her two years and $25,000 to prepare for the trip.
Her husband had found intermediaries to process Lilit’s paperwork and prepare her for immigration. They instructed her to apply for a Schengen visa and fly to Mexico from France. She would start her journey to America from a Mexican border town.
Like Karen, Lilit was supposed to be held temporarily in a Mexican prison before she entered the States.
‘After crossing the border [into Mexico], I ended up in an immigration prison. I stayed there for only four days, but it felt like a lifetime’, Lilit told OC Media. ‘Every moment was terrible. If it weren’t for the longing to reach my children, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it.’
An intermediary helped secure her release and moved her to a hotel.
‘I thought I would at least rest there for a while, but the trials resumed there. I was approached by the hotel manager who said he knew I was here illegally and demanded money to keep silent; otherwise, he would call the police, and I would be sent back’.
‘I paid $500 to the manager alone’, she said, adding that she later learned that she would be relocated that night.
‘They came for me at night, and I had to be taken to the [American] border. There were other people as well. The car was speeding, we reached some place and were told to run’, she recalled. ‘We were running, I don’t know where, running terrified, I was crying, everyone was crying’.
‘I still don’t understand why I was taking that path. Why? We didn’t live badly in our country’, laments Lilit, who, on reaching the US border, found herself incarcerated yet again.
‘When we reached the US border, there were incomprehensible emotions. I was glad I arrived, but still, I was tormented by the question, “why?” That question also tormented me in the American prison’.
She stayed there in squalor; there were no toilets in the prison, and she was forced to sleep on the floor for a few days until her husband sponsored her release.
Despite being reunited with her children, Lilit says that she feels ‘incomplete’ as she has yet to get a job because she does not have the proper documents.
‘I was an accomplished specialist in Armenia, a leading cosmetologist. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t blame my husband for making me go this way.’
‘I dread the thought of what awaits my child in prison’
Lilit counted among the 2.4 million people who attempted to illegally cross into the United States through its southern border in 2022.
This number grows every year amid constant reports of ill-fated smuggling attempts that sometimes lead to death.
Even Yerevan attempts to crack down on the outflow of illegal immigrants to the States and Europe.
Last year, law enforcement agencies shut down an illegal immigration ring that had facilitated the immigration of Armenians to America and Europe. The group allegedly charged people hoping to move to the West between $20,000 and $26,000 for falsified employment documents and submitted them to foreign embassies and Armenian authorities.
And yet, despite the risks associated with illegal immigration, many still choose to embark on similar journeys and put both themselves and their families at risk.
In Yerevan, 42-year-old Nara (not her real name) is biding her time until she can move to America to be with her husband and two children.
‘My family’s story is a classic one. My husband went there, brought over my children, and now it’s the turn of my two-year-old baby and me’, she tells OC Media.
‘We didn’t send my little one in advance on purpose. My husband decided to leave them with me so that they pity us on the way, and we’re able to cross the border easily and not stay in detention for long’.
Nara’s story ends here for now, as her husband still needs a couple more years to save enough money to hire an intermediary to move his wife and child — a plan Nara has deep reservations about.
‘I dread the thought of what will await my child in prison. What if they hurt them there, if they kill us during the illegal border crossing, or if the boat sinks and we drown? There are thousands of such stories. I’m not worried about myself; I feel sorry for my child’.
‘I hope my husband will change his mind so we won’t go through this hell. I beg God that he decides to come back’.