On Aug. 13, SPLC staff writer Liz Vinson visited the U.S.-Mexico border with Deputy Legal Director Mary Bauer to speak with migrants affected by the Trump administration’s asylum policies. She saw firsthand the human toll of Trump’s “Turnback Policy,” under which immigration authorities are illegally restricting the number of asylum seekers who are inspected and processed at official ports of entry. The SPLC and its allies are currently challenging this policy in a federal lawsuit.
Liz also visited a shelter for migrants who have been sent back to Mexico following inspection and processing to await their asylum hearings under the “Remain in Mexico” policy. In addition, the SPLC and its partners are suing the administration to stop this practice of forcing migrants to return to dangerous conditions in Mexican border towns as they wait for their cases to be heard. Since Liz returned, the Trump administration has implemented a rule that renders non-Mexicans who enter the United States through the southern border (including many of the people featured in this photo essay) ineligible for asylum unless they applied for and were denied asylum in at least one transit country. The SPLC and its partners have also sued the administration in an effort to halt the implementation of that rule.
The migrant center, Day 1
Just outside the migrant center in Juárez, a white board marked with dry erase pen hangs on the wall of an abandoned shack. Cigarettes litter the ground below, and traffic from the city roars by. The message means that August 12, three days before I arrived, was the last day that a number was called for someone to present themselves at a port of entry to seek asylum. Migrants who place their names on the waitlist in Juárez must look to this board to see if their number has been called.
A mother and daughter wait on a concrete railing at the migrant center, hoping against hope that their number will be called. The red polish on the little girl’s tiny toenails has cracked from walking through Juárez’s dusty streets. The mother’s ripped jeans hide the scars she suffered at the hands of her abusers in Honduras. “Tengo hambre,” she says. She’s hungry and hasn’t eaten in days. All the food she’s been able to secure, she’s given to her daughter. Not pictured is the baby bottle the little girl holds in her hands, which are stained brown from dirt.
As people line up to add their names to the waitlist, a little girl sleeps on the hard, dingy floor of the migrant center, covered only with her mother’s jacket. As she naps, her mother desperately pleads for help from a pro bono attorney. The night before, the mother says her daughter was viciously kicked by peddlers on the streets of Juárez. The little girl is exhausted, sad and hungry. Besides the formula, she has eaten only a single piece of bread in the last few days. After the 38-hour ride to Juárez, the once-crowded bus arrived in the city with only three other remaining passengers. Most deemed the ride too perilous and got off early. Now that the family is in Juárez, the mother says she doesn’t know what to do. “No puedo estar aquí y no puedo regresar a mi país.” I can’t be here, and I can’t return to my country.
Yet another little girl patiently waits alone while eating a small ham and cheese sandwich. When I ask where her mother is, she tells me that she’s inside the migrant center. When I ask why, she says, “Porque mi máma tiene miedo.” Because my mom is scared. Meanwhile, the outside world of Juárez buzzes by, oblivious to those waiting. Just blocks away, restaurants welcome patrons, music filters through the streets, and the smell of tacos from street vendors wafts through the air. But the migrants can’t afford to eat at a restaurant. They can’t afford street food.
When placed on the waitlist, migrants’ names are scribbled on paper as small as a Chinese fortune and handed to them by Mexican officials. Migrants must hold onto these little scraps of paper like a lifeline. They’re the proof they carry that will – they hope – get them to a port of entry. Once their number matches that of the number listed on the dry erase board, they can present themselves. Many migrants wait weeks or even months for their number to be called. Today, this family’s time has come.
More migrants wait on the bridge due to CBP’s false claim that El Paso no longer has room to accommodate them. Wearing backpacks, they carry what few possessions they have. If CBP relents, many will head straight to a hielera – an icy waiting room where they will wait for an interview to determine whether their fear of persecution in their home country is sufficient to seek protection in the United States. Most will suffer through the night in frigid temperatures before being sent to an immigrant prison or deported. Some could be sent back to Juárez to await a hearing in immigration court. Not pictured is a little girl who has been told to eat whatever they feed her at the hielera. “You’ll need your strength,” an attorney warns her in Spanish.
The migrant center, Day 2
Two young girls play on a discarded razor scooter left on the enclosed patio of the migrant shelter. It’s virtually the only toy they have. Along with their friend, a young boy, they take turns racing down the patio, where they ride past dead cockroaches and dirty laundry scattered on the pavement. The children laugh and smile. They joke with one another. It’s a tiny patio, but they peddle around in circles, squealing. They may have precious few belongings and little clothing, but it doesn’t matter. Surrounded by friends they’ve only just met, for the moment, they’re happy, unaware of why they’re in Juárez and what that means for them.
As mothers gather at the kitchen table to share their stories of what led them to Juárez, their children squeeze together on the sofa to watch a cartoon. The sofa doesn’t fit all the children, so some must sit on the floor. Some appear bored, their faces blank, as if they’ve already watched the cartoon hundreds of times. Others are captivated by its plot, which tells the story of a superhero. The cartoon reminds me of their mothers, whose journeys to escape the violence of their home countries have most certainly been heroic.
The older children line up on the metal steps of the shelter, barefoot. They’re not interested in the cartoon, because they’ve got chores to do. They are to clean the shelter. Their day is structured, which is good. It distracts them from the harsh realities of why they’re here. “¡Sonríen, por favor!” I ask them to smile, even though I can’t show their faces. When they do smile, it’s beautiful.
The teddy bear rarely leaves the boy’s arms. Aside from the scooter, this is the only toy I see at the migrant shelter. When I ask him if the stuffed animal is his, he tells me it belongs to everybody. The children take turns sharing it, he says. The boy is all by himself, standing next to a bare table. I remind him that we brought snacks and ask if he’s hungry. He says he’s not. When I ask for a picture, he holds the teddy bear close to his chest, as if he doesn’t want to risk losing it. His words, posture and demeanor give off a sense of vulnerability. He seems scared, worried. I ask him how he is. “Triste,” he says. Sad.
A little boy and his older sister hold hands as they roam the patio, never letting go. “Mamá dice que vamos a salir de aquí,” the girl tells me. Mom says we’re going to get out of here. The girl doesn’t know when they’ll leave, or where they’ll go. “¿Cómo son los Estados Unidos?” she asks me. She’s wants to know what the U.S. is like. “It’s nice,” I reply in Spanish, even though I’m more upset with our government than ever. “¿Me gustará vivir allá?” she asks. She wonders if she’ll like living in the U.S. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t know. I also don’t know if that day will ever come. So I tilt my head and shrug with a smile. She holds the hand of her brother and pulls him into the kitchen, where their mother wraps them in a bear hug.
Before we leave, a few children line up on the patio holding hands. Together, they’re united. They’re each other’s refuge. “¿Te vas?” a little girl asks me, confused. She wants to know if I’m leaving. “Sí,” I respond. “Espero verte pronto.” I tell her that I hope to see her soon, and then I pat each child’s head, ruffling their hair. I know the odds are stacked against them – that they might never set foot on American soil. I know I’ll likely never see them again. But I won’t forget this moment. A moment caught in time, where it seems as if it’s them – the children – against the world.