“Peligro y pobreza,” a woman named Gloria from El Salvador says to me. “Danger and poverty.” She is explaining why she made the grueling and dangerous 2,000-mile-plus journey from El Salvador to the U.S. border with her family – her daughter, sister-in-law and two children.
It’s Sunday, June 30, we’re at La Casa del Migrante in Juárez. A crowd of families from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador surrounds me.
Gloria and her family arrived on June 8, had their first asylum hearing on June 26, were returned to Juárez and are scheduled to go before a judge for the final hearing on July 29.
They are part of a new regime – the Remain in Mexico program.
Historically, migrants who pass their first asylum test have been allowed to remain in the U.S. and stay with family members until their final hearing. Because of a shortage of judges, however, there is an enormous backlog of cases. Rather than trying to solve the problem by hiring more judges and accelerating the hearings, President Trump wants to force those who have passed their first test to return to Mexico to await their judicial hearings.
This is an idea that may well cause much more damage than the miserable U.S.-run migrant camps like the one in Clint, Texas, that has received so much recent publicity.
However, amidst all the recent bad publicity, there have been some unique examples of humane care for migrants. Deming, New Mexico, is one of them.
In mid-May, hundreds of migrants were basically dumped there by U.S. immigration officials. Despite the lack of advance warning, the community of 14,000 people put together an exceptional program, mostly staffed by volunteers.
I visited on June 13, and there were 170 migrants in two locations. About 100 who had just arrived were housed in an old airplane hangar. There they received medical checkups, many done by the local fire department, and help contacting family members in other parts of the U.S.
Then they moved to a large fairgrounds building where they would await transportation. Those flying to homes around the country were taken to the El Paso airport. Those going by bus left from the bus station in Deming.
What I observed at the fairgrounds building was a play area for kids manned by volunteers, a well-staffed kitchen and some 70 migrants who were helping keep the facility clean. In other words, a situation totally different from the horror stories about federal facilities like the one in Clint, Texas.
Deming was doing this without any federal reimbursement. Now, however, funds have been made available thanks to the efforts of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and other members of the New Mexico delegation.
When we made a second visit on June 29, there were only about 70 migrants. Why such a decrease? Because migrants are being sent back to Mexico to await their final hearings? Not necessarily.
When I called there on July 3, the numbers were up to 150. My sense is that Customs and Border Protection started to implement the Remain in Mexico program, then realized that the Deming program was working well and decided to continue it.
But, as with every migrant issue, the rules change constantly. What you read in the press may be totally different from what is happening on the ground.
On June 30, we went to La Casa del Migrante – my eighth visit since last November – to talk to migrants like Gloria and, more important, to meet with its director, Padre Javier Calvillo, the key person in Juárez in regard to the care of migrants. (As an aside, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited just before our arrival. Why the El Paso native and his staff didn’t think to bring needed items like food instead of making this just a photo op is hard to understand.)
Padre Javier says that this is a three-party problem – Mexico, the U.S. and the three key Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – and the three must come together and find a joint solution. He has faith in Nayib Bukele, the new President of El Salvador, but much less faith in the leadership of Guatemala and Honduras.
Javier’s major concern, however, is the Remain in Mexico program, which has already forced thousands of migrants back into Mexico. He estimates 10,000 to 11,000.
Most of the migrants have dispersed, and no one knows where they are. Juárez is still a very dangerous city, so these exhausted and confused migrants are easy victims. There were 775 murders in the first six months of 2019 compared to 250 in Chicago and 135 in New York City, both much larger cities.
Mexico is developing a program whereby migrants can stay and work, but it is not running yet. Besides, working in a maquila only pays about $1 an hour.
In short, our leaders have initiated a program – Remain in Mexico – that Mexico has allowed to proceed and may be even more inhumane than what we have seen in Clint, Texas. Gloria from El Salvador and the migrants in Deming may be among the few lucky ones to receive the humane treatment they deserve.
Morgan Smith lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and travels to the border at least monthly to document conditions there. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.