JUAREZ, Mexico — Once a down-on-his-luck street preacher in Downtown Juarez, Juan Fierro Garcia had a recurring dream: He saw himself chased by a growing crowd of homeless people on his way to a church.

The dream baffled Fierro for several months until a real-life encounter with a homeless man unraveled the meaning.

“My pastor was hosting a group of Americans and he asked me to watch their backpacks. I was with my daughter and we were in the park when a homeless man started to get closer and closer to us,” Fierro recalls. “I thought he wanted to grab one of the backpacks, so I didn’t take my eyes off of him.”

It was a hot summer day, and while the game of cat and mouse went on, the preacher’s daughter asked her father for ice cream.

“I reached into my pocket, and I didn’t have any money, so I had to tell my daughter no. … Then the homeless man got close and he pulled out all of his coins and offered to buy both of us the ice cream. I was humbled. My eyes were opened at that moment. I learned to look at (the homeless) in a different way,” he said.

Today, Fierro provides a roof, food and prayer services for more than 100 stranded migrants in a shelter in a working-class neighborhood near the Juarez mountains. Sacks of beans and rice line the entrance to his office. Vans from American churches stop by to drop off clothes and other supplies. Cubans and Central Americans are organized into cleaning, cooking and security teams.

The people under his care include mothers with young children; men from Africa fleeing torture and persecution; fathers looking for a safe place for their teenaged daughters; and economic refugees, among others.

Trial by fire

Fierro’s church, The Good Shepherd, has become Juarez’s second-largest shelter for migrants awaiting asylum hearings in immigration court in El Paso, as well as for those who have been returned from the United States as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.

The safety of migrants in Juarez is the subject of controversy, as El Paso advocates urge immigration authorities not to place their clients on the MPP program, which means they will await the outcome of their asylum claims in Mexico.

The advocates say migrants suffer assaults, robberies, kidnappings and extortion when they’re sent from El Paso to Juarez. The migrants themselves have told judges in court hearings attended by KTSM in June that they feared being victimized if forced to wait in Mexico.

Fierro admits that the sheer numbers of migrants overwhelmed him at the start of the migrant surge last October. “We had some people in hoods prowling outside. At first, I thought it was just neighborhood teens playing around but then I started hearing complaints from our migrants,” he said. “Also, some people who didn’t belong in the shelter occasionally helped themselves to sleeping spaces at night.”

Fierro insists that things have changed. He showed KTSM newly installed closed-circuit cameras and night lighting the City of Juarez provided. He has organized security details and has instituted a 5:30 p.m. curfew for his charges (Those who work can come in as late as 8:30 p.m.).

“We know all of our neighbors well. The main gate has been closed permanently. We keep control of everyone who comes and goes and we are about to build a guard’s station. This is a safe place,” the pastor said.

The church has operated for 18 years and for much of that time it has sheltered Mexican migrants and Central Americans waiting for a chance to cross into the United States. Room was never a problem until last fall’s migrant surge, which caught Juarez, Tijuana and other Mexican border cities by surprise.

“Back in November, my wife went to Mexico City for training and we left a church member in charge. We told her our capacity was 40 migrants, to not let in more. But when we came back we had 90. The church member told us it was getting cold and she couldn’t leave them out on the streets,” Fierro said. “Then people started knocking at our door, from Central America, from Cuba and other places. We told them we had no room, but they said, ‘let us sleep on the floor.’ From 90 we went up to 120, then to 150. At one point we had 260. There wasn’t even room to walk.”

Although Mexican federal officials this week announced they will build a new state-of-the-art migrant shelter with dormitories and medical care, the migrants today stay primarily at three church-run shelters, the largest being Casa del Migrante, then Good Shepherd and Apaseo el Alto in the northwest skirts of the city. The government also operates a shelter at the Central Park on an on-again, off-again basis, and several smaller churches provide housing relief for some. Many of the migrants pool resources to rent hotel rooms, and a few sleep on park benches.

Fierro says he has managed to keep his shelter’s occupancy to no more than 120 during the past few weeks. The timing coincides with the Mexican government’s immigration crackdown at the Mexico-Guatemala border and increased enforcement at bus stations and along the levee of the Rio Grande.

But with the United States expanding its MPP program and rumors of impending raids and deportations in the interior of the United States, Fierro said he wants to be prepared for the next big migrant wave from the north. He has a crew working on a nearby building that will become an auxiliary shelter. “We will have dormitories, a medical area and even a family playroom,” he said.

Fierro is receiving some aid from the City of Juarez and from churches as far away as Springfield, Missouri. But providing for 120 people a day takes a lot of money, so the pastor is continually fundraising. “We have received support from El Pasoans. We are very grateful,” he said.

If any El Paso groups want to contribute or tour his shelter, Fierro urges them to call (011-52-656) 345-2692.

No choice but to flee

Most of the migrants in Fierro’s shelter are Cuban or Central American, but he also houses Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and people from four African countries.

Sylvester (left) and Wilson are two Cameroon natives who fled their country for political persecution and torture. (Julian Resendiz/KTSM 9 News)

Some are recent arrivals to the border. Others are “returnees” from the MPP program, like Jose Eduardo Caballero, from El Rancho, Honduras, and Sebastian Mateos, from Guatemala City.

Mateos ran a modest used-clothing business when he began being harassed by street gang members. He said he was afraid for himself and for his daughter, who had just turned 15. The encounters with the gang members escalated, so he fled with his daughter in tow.

“It’s too dangerous. There is too much crime. We don’t feel safe,” he said. Mateos and Caballero already presented their asylum claims in El Paso federal immigration court. They have differing views of what it was like to be in an American detention facility.

“They had air conditioning. It was safe. It felt safe for my daughter,” Mateos said.

But Caballero said he didn’t like how he was treated. He didn’t want to go into specifics, except for the food. “They give you a little cup with oatmeal, then a burrito or a sandwich and then instant soup. That is all they give you,” he said.

Caballero, a small-time farmer in Honduras, left because of falling bean prices. “We couldn’t take the (beans) to the city to sell, so we had to take whatever they gave us for it. The prices are too low,” he said.

Sylvester, 20, and a native of Cameroon said he has cheated death twice in the past year.

The first time was when authorities beat and tortured him in Cameroon for “expressing my opinion.” The second time was when a viper bit him while crossing the jungle in Panama.

“I give thanks to God for my life because in my country I was threatened and when I got to the jungle I was bitten, I got very sick. Twice I could’ve lost my life,” he said.

Sylvester said he was a student who was arrested “for exercising my rights.” The detentions resulted in beatings, torture and other violations of his rights, he said.

“There is a lot to be told, but I don’t have the time to discuss it now. I left so many things in my country. I was a student but couldn’t go to school. I had to forfeit my education. Now I have to build my life from scratch,” said Sylvester, who didn’t want to give his last name.

Still awaiting his initial immigration hearing in the United States, Sylvester hopes to provide for his parents in Cameroon. “I don’t know how they are doing. I have to get a job, get some money, make sure they are safe,” he said.

Wilson, also from Cameroon, spoke of an arbitrary arrest in his homeland, beatings and torture.

Wilson didn’t want to go into the details of his ordeal, but volunteered his surprise at being made to wait in Mexico for several months. “I had no idea what to do. I was lucky that I was brought to this church. I feel safe here, but not safe in Juarez. Juarez is very dangerous. A lot of people die,” he said.

And as safe as Good Shepherd shelter is, Wilson isn’t comfortable with the strict rules. “I cannot go out far. It’s like staying in prison. My life has stopped. I don’t know about the future. Hope is all that is keeping me alive,” he said.