Migrant shelters begin to empty, even as wave of Brazilians arrive at US-Mexico border


Casa del Migrante staff in Juarez, newly arrived Brazilians find ways to overcome language barrier

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Even as groups of Brazilians newly placed in the “Return to Mexico” program trickle in, Juarez’s two largest migrant shelters report a drastic decrease in guests.

Casa del Migrante, the not-for-profit shelter that in August hosted in excess of 800 people from Central America and elsewhere, on Thursday evening housed less than 290.

The government-run Leona Vicario shelter, built to accommodate up to 3,000 migrants, is holding 488 and hasn’t accepted new arrivals since mid-December due to a measles outbreak, spokesman Pedro Torres Estrada said.

Sixty-five Brazilians placed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program have arrived to Casa del Migrante in the past month. However, on any given day half as many migrants are leaving.

“Just yesterday, a bus with 29 Salvadorans left. They realized that the United States is granting very few people asylum and decided to go home,” said Olga Flores, a social worker and human rights advocate at Casa del Migrante.

She said few Central Americans are coming to the border now — for the same reason — and that even the number of families from Western and Central Mexico fleeing the drug wars has dropped.

The coalition of 21 refugee and immigrant-serving organizations sought to highlight the contributions made by refugees in the state and beyond.

In October and November, nearly 3,000 displaced Mexicans set up camps near three border crossings leading to El Paso, Texas, waiting to stake asylum claims in the United States. By the time president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador visited Juarez in January, the camps and the migrants were gone.

“The number of Mexican families coming here has dropped dramatically. We have no more camps,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Chihuahua Population Coucil, which runs Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center.

Many people left disappointed. “They came with false expectations; some were made false promises elsewhere. We try to provide them accurate information because it is necessary that they know under what circumstances they can aspire to asylum or refugee status in the United States,” Valenzuela said.

Still, some migrants keep coming.

Children play inside the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Juarez, Mexico. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Speaking through hand signs and smiles

Constant extortion attempts by criminals in their native Minas Gerais, Brazil, forced Quelso — who raised animals in a small farm — and his wife, Jocileny, to make a difficult decision: grab their young son Octavio and head for the United States to ask for asylum.

CBP granted them an initial interview and an immigration court set their first hearing for April 3. Meantime, the U.S. government showed them out of the country, expecting them to wait in Mexico until then. This is a controversial practice. Migrant advocates in El Paso say Juarez isn’t safe; they’ve documented many cases of alleged aggressions against some of the asylum seekers they have come across.

In an interview Thursday with Border Report inside the fenced compound at Casa del Migrante, the Brazilian couple struggled to tell their story — literally. Neither speaks Spanish or English and the Portuguese interpreter that volunteers at the shelter was not around.

Social worker Flores said that’s not an unusual situation, but insisted that hasn’t been an obstacle to communicate with the new guests from South America.

“We can use hand signals, and some Portuguese words sound like Spanish,” she said. There’s also nods and shakes of the head, and slow repetition of either Spanish or Portuguese words. Quizzical looks mean people are not getting what they hear; smiles mean they do.

When asked how they’re being treated at Casa del Migrante, Quelson says. “nada mau” (good) and repeats the phrase “muito respeito” (well respected) several times. He points to a migrant sweeping the floor of a communal dormitory to explain he’s trying to repay the shelter’s kindness by doing chores.

When asked in Spanish if she is able to stay in touch with her family in Minas Gerais, Jocileny pulls out a worn cellphone.

Flores said each migrant group comes to the border for different reasons and with a disparity of resources. Cubans, for instance, are highly educated and, even though they don’t bring much with them, get assistance from relatives in the United States. They usually leave Cuba after disagreements with government officials or policies on the island.

Central Americans are both economic and crime refugees. They usually come without many resources or extensive educational backgrounds, Flores said.

Brazilians fall somewhere in the middle. Many are leaving because of a continued economic downturn in their country, according to experts. Nationwide, some 18,000 Brazilians were apprehended in the United States during the fiscal year ending in October, a 600% increase from the previous high in 2016, according to the Associated Press.

Quelso, a Brazilian asylum-seeker, shows Border Report the dormitory area of Casa del Migrante shelter. (photo by Roberto Delgado)

In 2015 and 2016, Brazil plunged into its worst-ever recession, which ended in 2019 with a third consecutive year of roughly 1% growth, the Associated Press reported. Unemployment stands at 11% and a quarter of the workforce is underemployed, according to AP.

With the Trump administration taking a hardline against asylum seekers from Central America and Cuba amid the migrant surge of 2019, there is no guarantee Brazilians will fare better. However, Jocileny is optimistic about her family’s chances. “Muita confianca,” (I am confident) she says.

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