PALOMAS, Mexico (Border Report) — Half a dozen exhausted men and women lie on cots in a building at the edge of the desert in this dusty Mexican border town.
A few of them place a forearm over their eyes, trying to catch some sleep. Others turn on their side, look at the wall and ponder if they should go home or try crossing into the United States without authorization again.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series examining how border communities are coping with an influx of migrants who are being expelled to Mexico upon apprehension at the border.
Most are coming from the Mexican countryside these days, displaced by growing drug cartel violence or, like generations of migrants before them, looking for jobs and a better economic situation. Most have just been deported by U.S. authorities within hours of their unauthorized entry under an emergency health order (CDC Title 42) to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“They are very resilient,” says Rosalio Sosa, an El Paso Baptist pastor who runs the Tierra de Oro shelter in Palomas, just south of Columbus, New Mexico. “They catch them and they go back the next day. Such is their need. Some run out of names to give (U.S. authorities). We’ve had a number of Juan Gabriel’s, Pedro Infante’s, lots of famous people.”
The shelter, initially set up as a long-term waiting area for international families requesting asylum in the United States, is now a temporary resting place for hundreds of deported unauthorized border crossers.
“We are being sent a lot more people than ever before — 100, 120, 130 every day. Sometimes it looks like a war zone with people with broken ribs, sprained ankles, back pain and blistered feet. Sometimes you have to help them walk or carry them because they can’t walk,” Sosa said.
According to Department of Homeland Security data, more than 147,000 migrants have been expelled from the United States since mid-March under the Title 42 order. The fast-track expulsions have increased almost exponentially, going from 7,079 in March to 42,071 in August.
Observers on both sides of the border expect those numbers to keep rising.
“I don’t like to get involved in politics. My job is to serve. But we are in an election season in the U.S. and we are expecting the flow of migrants being deported to continue as it is or even increase. We have to be prepared for that,” the El Paso pastor said.
Migrant advocate organizations in nearby El Paso, Texas have accused the Trump administration of taking advantage of the pandemic to tie-up asylum seekers and deport unauthorized migrants without due process.
Enrique Valenzuela, a Chihuahua state official coordinating assistance to migrants, said the migration phenomenon that has rocked the U.S.-Mexico border for the past two years continues to evolve.
“In 2018, we saw the arrival of caravans (from Central America). Last September, thousands of displaced Mexicans came to request entry into the United States. Now, we’re facing a scenario in which less people are coming south-to-north, but we are receiving thousands (expelled) from the U.S. due to Title 42,” Valenzuela said.
Add to that the need to provide food, personal protective equipment and jobs for asylum seekers stranded south of the border for more than a year and you have a still-unabated migrant crisis.
Astylum seekers endure wait by helping others at shelter
Sosa runs the Tierra de Oro (Land of Gold) shelter with the help of grants from Fellowship Southwest, a Texas-based network of faith communities. He has also rallied his East El Paso parishioners and procured help from Palomas and Ascencion town officials in Mexico.
He is now trying to ensure his proteges are safe from organized criminal gangs that allegedly operate in Las Chepas, a community a few miles west of Palomas.
“Some are getting hooked by the ‘guides.’ That’s what the smugglers are calling themselves now. I guess it’s a more elegant name. We are 100% against human trafficking. We have run them off the shelter and we tell our migrants not to go with them … but some go anyway,” Sosa said.
Most of the Title 42 migrants leave the shelter in one to three days. The camp looks deserted during the day, as the influx tends to start at nightfall. The shelter’s two large standing buildings and air-conditioned canvas tents donated by the UN’s International Organization for Migration quickly fill. All that come in are expected to wash at a sanitation station at the entrance of the camp.
The Baptist pastor relies on asylum seekers to manage the increasing number of deportees sent across from Columbus.
“We are blessed to have Cuban and Honduran families who are showing determination in staying here for the long term. They are very hard-working, very determined. We used to have a nurse, in particular, who was very helpful with the injured,” Sosa said.
That Cuban health professional herself developed health issues and needed treatment in Juarez. She has overcome those problems and is now helping out migrants in Juarez, the pastor said.
Felix Johan Valdes is another shelter volunteer. He left Cuba about a year ago following “a political conflict” with authorities in Centro Havana. Having obtained permission to travel to Nicaragua, a regime friendly to Cuba, he bolted through Hoduras, Guatemala and Mexico the first chance he had.
“In Cuba, the dictatorship doesn’t let you do anything. They don’t let you start a business, they don’t let you study what you want. We live enslaved,” he said.
Valdes said he applied for refugee status in Mexico but was turned down. He hopes to get asylum in the United States and stays busy working at the shelter’s kitchen.
“They helped me so I’m helping others. They come here hungry, tired, injured. I help them with my heart because I went through the same situation,” he said.
Leticia, another Cuban, supervises cleaning and donations at Tierra de Oro. She also enforces the rules, which include making sure migrants in transit don’t bring in alcohol, respect each other — particularly the women and children — and don’t go out after curfew.
“All of us are migrants. All of us are equal, but every house has rules,” she said.
Staying active has helped Valdes, Leticia and other asylum seekers manage the anguish of a potential years-long wait for a resolution to their claim.
And, though Valdes endured what he described as a “hard confinement” in a southern Mexico immigration facility and Leticia was robbed at gunpoint in a hotel, the asylum seekers say they’ve learned Mexicans can be kind and generous.
“Many people from the community come here and are good human beings. They feel (bad) for what happens to the migrants, they connect with us. They speak to us with encouragement, they ask questions about what we went through, how our trip was. That makes us feel good,” she said.
For more information on the Tierra de Oro shelter, visit the church’s Facebook page.