As I cross the border to Palomas, Mexico, on a recent Wednesday, the Mexican customs officials wave me right through as groups of soldiers watch. Fortunately, no one pays attention to the bags of beans and rice and boxes of Oreos in the back of my car.
I’ve been visiting the border at least once a month for over a decade, mostly Palomas and Juárez. I help different humanitarian groups, as well as several families and document conditions there. My goal is to bring attention to the heroic people who serve the needy. For reasons I still don’t understand, this will be one of my most painful trips.
My goal in Palomas (pop. 4,600) was to visit a shelter for migrants founded by Padre Rosalio Sosa and the Iglesia Bautista Tierra de Oro, a church in El Paso. I haven’t met Sosa. We spoke on the phone earlier, and he gave me permission to visit.
Juan Rascón from Border Partners leads the way, and I follow him through puddles that are more like small lakes. The shelter itself is surrounded by a fence, and we wait by a locked gate until a young man named José appears and lets us in. I assume that he is an employee from Palomas but he is actually Honduran. He has been waiting three months for his asylum hearing but has proven himself to be so reliable that he now helps manage the facility.
The people in the shelter are two groups, women with children who are awaiting asylum hearings and hoping to enter the U.S. and men who have been deported and will have to return to their home countries. The latter are given food, clothing, medical care and then receive financial assistance with transportation costs from an organization called Grupos Beta.
There are about 25 men, women and children in the shelter, but the numbers fluctuate wildly. The night before a group arrived without any advance notice, cold, soaking wet from the rain and exhausted. The staff fed them, provided dry clothing and gave them comfortable bunk beds.
I decided to focus on the men who had been deported. I first met with Pedro from Guatemala who had had a tortillería near Guatemala City and was doing pretty well until gang members tried to extort him.
He realized that he couldn’t pay what they wanted and that they might kill him so he fled, leaving his family behind. He paid a “coyote” about $4,670 (money he had to borrow) and after 15 days of traveling reached the border wall at night.
He went up a ladder, but there was no ladder on the other side and he fell, breaking bones in his legs and feet. Then he was deported, ended up in the shelter and now has to heal so that he can walk again. Then it will be back to Guatemala where he will have to face the people he borrowed from, as well as those who tried to extort him earlier.
Alberto from El Centro, California, said he had been in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program but was deported for some minor mishap and ended up in Juárez where he was beaten and robbed. The robbers even ripped a patch of hair out of his head. He seemed dazed from the whole experience, and although he spoke perfect English, his story was confusing. Both Juan and I gave him money.
The older man in the next bed, Juan Ramón Rios, was robbed and beaten in Agua Prieta. He had worked in San José, California, and Chicago for 15 years and had a patron who valued him. He had spoken to the patron, but it wasn’t clear that the patron could do anything to help him.
For years I have written about people who live on the border, often in dire circumstances. And I’ve written about migrant families at La Casa del Migrante in Juárez, the wonderful shelter run by Padre Javier Calvillo. The plight of these three men, however, seemed even more painful. No money, no family with them, and in the cases of Alberto and Juan Ramón, no certainty where they were going to go.
José from Honduras said the shelter had been in place for a year and three months and can hold up to 150 people in a crisis.
Padre Sosa said in our phone conversation that he has other shelters in El Paso and Juárez, and I plan to visit them on a future trip. I wish for the best for all the migrants I met, especially Pedro, Alberto and Juan Ramón.
For Americans, this is a political issue. How many of today’s problems are the fault of the former president, Donald Trump? Is President Joe Biden to blame for this recent surge? The political parties battle it out, but they are missing the point. What I saw was not a political issue but a humanitarian one.
Morgan Smith writes frequently on border issues and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.