Sheltered at the border

Casa de Refugiado, the El Paso immigrant refuge where my husband and I volunteered in January, has space for 400 people, but during our two weeks there, the number of guests reached no more than 40. The main reason is the Trump Administration’s remain-in-Mexico policy, which has sent more than 60,000 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico since January 2019. There, they must wait for months before appearing in an immigration court in the U.S. The grim consequences are well-documented: Squalid tent cities, violent crimes against immigrants, asylum seekers giving up before their court dates arrive.

In late February, a federal appeals court found the policy legally invalid, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the policy to continue until the court can make a final decision about its legality.

 We visited one small refuge in Ciudad Juarez to talk with families affected by that policy. Here’s what we learned.

At first glance, the refuge looks like the scene of a poor man’s house arrest: A modest house above and dim cement-block basement below, all surrounded by a high metal fence with concertina wire coiled on top. Outside the fence is Anapra, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where rutted dirt roads are dotted with stray dogs, broken sewer pipes and people selling old clothes. A few blocks to the north, the rust-colored border wall stretches in both directions across the desert landscape. Beyond it, I-10 and the hillside homes of El Paso are visible in the distance.

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Only trusted visitors pass through the refuge’s metal gate, and the basement’s residents leave only for court dates in El Paso, which are infrequent and unlikely to end as they wish. There are no bedrooms, simply bunkbeds curtained off with blankets for privacy. The only safe space outdoors is a narrow strip of land inside the fence where long strings of laundry hung the afternoon we visited.

Yet the residents of that basement – five mothers and eight children from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – count themselves lucky. Unlike thousands of other Central American asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico while they seek protection in the U.S., they have food, clean clothes, a safe place to stay and dedicated women from the nearby Catholic parish looking after them. Every morning, they give thanks in the basement’s tiny chapel.

“Our aim was to protect the women and children. They are the victims here,” explained Si, a lay missionary with the Columban Fathers. The Columbans operate the local Catholic parish, Corpus Christi, and parish volunteers provide food and transportation for the families. Si, who gave only her first name, served as the interpreter during our visit. She asked that we change their names and take no pictures of them in order to protect them.

Since the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols took effect more than a year ago, more than 60,000 asylum seekers from Central America have been sent to wait for months in Mexico for a date in a U.S. immigration court.  When it’s time to appear before a U.S. immigration judge, asylum seekers must walk across the bridge into El Paso and reënter U.S. custody. At the end of the day’s proceedings, they’re bused back to Mexico, where they must remain until their next court date.

Rosa, who lives in the refuge with her two small children, left Guatemala last summer to follow her husband, who fled before them after gangs threatened to kill him if he didn’t join up. He made it to New York, but the rest of the family is stuck in Juarez. Rosa has been to immigration court in El Paso three times since last summer; her next hearing is scheduled for August.

The Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the Migrant Protection Protocols as a way to restore a “safe and orderly process” for people seeking asylum in the U.S. “Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay,” the website promises.

The reality is otherwise. Families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America must wait for months in towns like Juarez. Even if they can find lawyers and make it across the border for multiple hearings, their requests for asylum are likely to denied.

A few statistics illustrate the risks they face in Mexico.  Juarez is twice as big as El Paso, but in 2018, it had 54 times as many homicides:1,247 in Juarez compared to 23 in El Paso. Gangs, government corruption and the failure by police to investigate most crimes all contribute to the high crime rate. During our stay, the Sunday newspaper in Juarez reported that five Mexican national guardsmen assigned to the Juarez airport were being investigated for kidnapping and abuse of authority.

“It’s a very big danger,” says Gertrud, who came to the border last July with her five-year-old daughter when gang violence in Honduras made it impossible for her to feed her family at home. She worked in a bakery and a factory that made cement blocks, but gang members showed up on payday to steal workers’ money.

Like most asylum seekers, Gertrud has family in the U.S. with whom she and her daughter could stay while awaiting their asylum hearing. That’s the way things worked before the Trump administration implemented the remain-in-Mexico policy. After being interviewed by immigration officials, Gertrud would have received an ankle bracelet and been released with her daughter to stay with family until making her case before an immigration judge. The people we served in El Paso had made it through that process and were on their way to join their family members.

But in Mexico, the Central Americans’ accents, clothing, even the lack of shoelaces (ICE takes them from people in detention) make them targets for thieves and kidnappers. So does the awareness that family members in the U.S. can pay ransom. One mother at our El Paso refuge had to raise $8,000 to pay kidnappers to return her three boys – ages 7, 8 and 12. Another mother reported that a man in Juarez tried to steal the baby she carried on her back.

These aren’t isolated incidents. As of January 21, there had been at least 816 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico, reports Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights group based in New York and Washington,.

Unlike in El Paso, where religious and community groups ensure that no immigrant family is left on the street, Juarez has too few refuges. Si keeps a list of 400 immigrant families waiting in Juarez who need shelter. “And there’s many more,” she says.

Merely supporting the five families in the refuge in Anapra requires great effort. A Corpus Christi member named Cristina Coronado organized the basement refuge in space donated by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, who also pay for utilities. Cristina also persuaded the Juarez cathedral to donate space where asylum-seekers can get necessities and legal counsel. Outside donors also help. My Catholic parish in Minneapolis donated $4,000 at Christmas.

But being confined for months with strangers, with little privacy or contact with the outside world, presents its own challenges. The children aren’t in school; local residents fear they would attract gangs. The women take turns cooking and cleaning, but boredom and depression set in.Gertrud's sunflowers

To help, Cristina’s sister taught the women to embroider bright patterns onto cloth bags. Sunflowers, roses, a peacock displaying its tail feathers, each design takes about two days to complete and sells for $35 at the farmers market in nearby Las Cruces, N.M. Of that, $20 goes for materials and house expenses; the resident keeps $15. Gertrud sends what she earns to Honduras to help the husband and three children she left behind.

Each bag carries a tag with the maker’s story.  Gertrud’s tag explains, “In Honduras, the rise of organized crime and insecurity is threatening our nation…It is an injustice that we have to wait in a country where we are not seeking asylum.”

Across the circle of the women bent over their needle work, she delivers a more direct message – about the lack of health care and education back home, the narco-traffickers who control so much in Honduras and the U.S. government’s support for a government that serves its people so badly.

“Don’t support a corrupt government,” she pleads. And then she turns back to her work.

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