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Beyond the border

In Juárez, migrants wait for a number, their fates uncertain.

His farewell hug is more than I expect. We only met two hours ago, but he hugs me like a best friend. A best friend he may never see again.

His embrace is filled with emotion – sadness, desperation, fear. All of it raw. I don’t know if he has any hope left.

When he pulls away, his face wrinkles. His brow furrows. Tears soak his cheeks.     

“Have faith,” I tell him, as I cry too. “Don’t give up. Keep fighting.”  

They’re the only words I have.

Gracias,” he whispers.   

I watch as he and his partner are escorted away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. One of them shouts, “Keep moving!”

I don’t know what happened next. The man and his partner disappear with CBP officials down a long, brightly lit hallway, just outside of the checkpoint. The last thing I see is the scar on the man’s head as he walks away, a reminder of his life in Cuba, where he was brutally beaten and persecuted for being gay.      

This marks the end of my first day at the U.S.-Mexico border. The men have just presented themselves at an official U.S. port of entry, after waiting four grueling months in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, one of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world. And now they are gone.   

I am here with Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the SPLC, along with Linda Rivas, executive director at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Linda is guiding us on this journey along the border, where Juárez meets El Paso, Texas.

Nowhere to go

Earlier that morning, when word spread that people were helping to advise asylum- seekers, fathers came to the migrant center toting toddlers on their hips. Mothers nursed infants, not knowing where to go, or to whom they should speak. Children were so tired, they slept on the dingy, tiled floor.        

Many asylum-seekers were there to add their names to the waitlist. They are given a number and must wait until it is called to present themselves at a port of entry.  This is the result of the Trump’s administration’s use of “metering” to restrict access to the asylum process at the southern border. It is based on false assertions that CBP lacks the capacity to process asylum seekers at ports of entry. 

A sign nearby indicates that no one’s number has been called in three days.            

At the migrant center, volunteers do intakes, and pro bono attorneys listen to inconsolable migrants, desperate for representation. One man talks of a friend who was shot while waiting in his truck in Juárez. A woman traveling with her young son tells us that the police in her home country can’t be trusted.

“If you talk, you die,” she says in Spanish. “If you talk, they’ll kill you.”

My heart aches when I hear the migrants say that no one cares about them.

In the afternoon, a woman enters the room and sits. Her legs are shaking. Her once painted fingernails are chipped. While her son eats cookies, the mother explains that she was threatened by los Zetas – Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartel – once she got into Mexico.

Her voice cracks. She fears for the safety of her son in Juárez. The attorney explains that she can’t guarantee representation. The woman gives a slight, sad nod, then leaves the room. 

The sun promises to rise again the next day, but unfortunately, the woman has nowhere to go. 

‘They’ll kill me’

I never got the name of the man who hugged me. But I know that he was kind, smart and witty. I know that he and his partner traversed the entirety of Central America by foot, taxi and bus to get to Juárez so that they could seek asylum in the U.S. I also know that he is one of tens of thousands of people caught in the crossfire of the administration’s war against asylum-seekers.

“It’s been my dream to go to the United States,” he said with a smile when I first met him at the migrant center in Juárez. “I can’t go back to my country. They’ll kill me. This is my dream.”     

When the time comes for us to leave the center and head to the port of entry, he begins to sob. His shoulders tremble. His hand shields his face, so I can’t see him weep. He’s terrified the long journey to the border won’t be worth it. That his dream won’t come true. He’s terrified today won’t go as planned. Which it won’t.     

As we cross the bridge from Juárez to the port of entry, CBP tells us that El Paso can no longer accommodate asylum-seekers. There’s not enough room, they claim. It’s clear that CBP is limiting the number of migrants who can present themselves at the port of entry, a process called “metering.”

The man’s face falls when he hears this. He wraps an arm around his partner. They are both sharply dressed, wearing matching shirts.    

The claim is a lie. Earlier that day, news broke that El Paso had room to house thousands more asylum-seekers. I’ve been told by local attorneys that CBP is focusing its hostility on Central American and Cuban migrants. Why? I don’t know.

Irritated, I wait. Even though the men are allowed to present themselves, CBP officials do not relent. They refuse to let anyone into the U.S., including a group of transgender women seeking refuge.          

Along with the men, Mary, Linda and I are also presenting a lesbian couple and their young daughter. Again, CBP refuses. The agents threaten to call the National Guard, which would force the migrants to again wait in Juárez.   

But just like the men, the women cannot wait any longer.  

Life or death  

The little girl is almost 3. She wears pigtails and speaks with a slight lisp, blissfully unaware that she will soon be separated from one of her mothers, who will almost certainly be detained. Standing in 100-degree heat with little shade, the little girl whimpers and clings to both women.     

For this family, today could be worse than the day before.

Last night, a vicious windstorm erupted in Juárez, sending plumes of dust and trash through the city’s already grimy streets. The women cradled their little girl while seeking shelter on a bridge, hoping to protect her.

But as they tried to sleep, three men approached and tried to rape them. The men tried to steal the daughter from her mothers’ arms. The family barely escaped both tragedies. It was pure luck, because in Juárez, many asylum-seekers have been kidnapped. Many have been raped.   

Like the Cuban men, the women need out of Juárez. It’s a matter of life or death.     

The worst day

Once we’ve made it to the port of entry, the dry, dusty air fills my nostrils. So do exhaust fumes. At least 35 people crowd together on the bridge, baking under the hot sun. Our bodies drip with sweat. Our shirts are soaked. A man standing on the highway sells water to the group. “¡Agua, agua!” he yells, walking by the formidable line of traffic inching its way through the port of entry. A tall Wells Fargo bank stares at us from downtown El Paso, as if to taunt the migrants. The U.S. is so close, but virtually impossible to reach.            

Calls are placed to a congressman’s office, demanding that CBP allow our group and the transgender women to enter. After an hour, CBP finally lets us pass. I notice a message, la frontera es donde debe vivir, written in graffiti under the bridge. “The border is where you should live,” it says. I wonder who tagged the bridge with that message, because for the migrants stuck in Juárez, there’s no other choice.

Past the checkpoint, the migrants depart with the CBP officials.

It’s difficult. We assume all will be detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at an immigrant prison for a long time. They may be deported back to the countries they fear. We know the little girl will be separated from the woman who isn’t her biological mother, even though she calls her “máma.” This, Mary tells me, could be the worst day of the little girl’s life.

Still waiting

The next day, I wake up to news that a detained man at an El Paso detention center has been protesting his prolonged detention by hunger-striking. When the attorney who represents him returns from federal court, she says the judge ruled in favor of the man being force-fed, viewed by many as a form of torture. The ruling sickens me. I am surrounded by one tragedy after another.

Later in Juárez, Mary, Linda and I visit a shelter where migrants wait until their number is called.

The children’s faces light up when they see we’ve brought snacks. For them, it’s like Christmas.

¡Hola, hola!” they call with a smile, a cacophony of gleeful cries. “¡Gracias, gracias!

Each child greets us, hugs us and kisses us on the cheek. The mothers do the same.     

One boy hugs a teddy bear to his chest. A couple of children play on a discarded razor scooter on a concrete patio. Others watch a movie, while their mothers gather in the kitchen to tell the stories of what led them to Juárez.   

This is a “nice” shelter. While most migrants waiting in Mexico must wait on the street, this group is lucky to have a roof over their head.  

Still, the shelter is bare. There’s little furniture.

One mother shares the story of how her father was murdered. His killers threatened to murder her next, so she was forced to flee her home country. She says she is depending on God to get her through this trying time, words that remind me of a mountain in Juárez bearing this message: La biblia es la verdad. Léela.

“The Bible is the truth. Read it.” 

The irony of the mountain’s message is not lost on me.   

A verse from Proverbs says to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” A verse from Matthew says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

As we head back to El Paso, I glance through the car window and bid farewell to Juárez, wondering when our country will welcome the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty stranger.     

Much like the migrants of Juárez, we don’t know. So we are forced to wait.