The Hot Winds of Purgatory on the Southern Border
At the Mexican end of the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, a 44-year-old Nicaraguan mother squatted on the baking tarmac with her 19-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, beside a couple of bags containing all their worldly goods.
They told me they had arrived at Matamoros from Nicaragua five days ago and were waiting for American guards ahead on the bridge to call them forward. Once that happened, they could try to claim asylum based on the ongoing violence erupting between the Nicaraguan government and opposition groups.
As I scribbled in my notebook, the sweat beading everywhere, I regretted not bringing my wide-brimmed Tilley hat, guaranteed to make you look middle-aged but a godsend under the unremitting sun. Hatless, too, the mother and her children soaked up the 97 degree heat.
“That’s Trump’s so-called ‘metering’ for you,” my guide with Angry Tias and Abuelas (Angry Aunts and Grandmothers), a group that assists immigrants on both sides of the border, told me.
As the Nicaraguan woman talked about the protests and the threat of violence and anti-government forces trying to recruit her son—“You lose if you join, and you lose if you don’t join”—her expression made me think of the famous 1936 “Migrant Mother” photograph by Dorothea Lange, depicting a female immigrant worker looking pensively into the distance while her children huddle around her shoulders. The Nicaraguan mom looked tired, helpless, hacked off, uncertain, adrift, at the mercy of the officialdom to her front, and with a continent of pain and dysfunction behind her.
Meanwhile, at another of the three bridges from Matamoros into Brownsville, the Gateway International Bridge, sheets of A4 pages listing the names and order of immigrants waiting to come forward were plastered on a wall next to the turnstile at the Mexican end.
As migrants stood inspecting the pecking order, tough-looking Mexican marines stood guard amid the flow of traffic and pedestrians crossing both ways. One of them had an enormous Bowie knife stuck down the front of his body armor.
But after nearly twice as many migrants—268,044—were apprehended between October 2018 and March 2019 as were detained in the same period the previous year, this June, the numbers of immigrants taken into custody along the Southern border fell 28 percent, according to Homeland Security statistics.
The drop has been attributed to Mexico deploying thousands of national guard troops to patrol its borders and stop migrants traveling along railways and roads. This came after President Trump threatened to impose extensive tariffs on Mexico unless its government did more to stem the tide of immigrants approaching from its side of the border.
My guide told me that on July 4, while America celebrated and partied, the Mexican national guard turned up at the Gateway bridge and removed the 100 or so immigrants who had been camping there.
“About 3,000 immigrants are having to stay in three shelters on the Mexican side,” she told me, adding that they are vulnerable to kidnappings done to extort money from the relatives that the gangs know are waiting in the United States.
Much of the recent media coverage of the border crisis has focused on women and children detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers that are overcrowded with substandard living conditions.
That is undeniably troubling and needs covering. The administration’s “zero tolerance policy,” which led to children being removed from their parents, was a particular low point. Indeed, the immigrants I spoke to, who often had horrific stories of cruelties they’d fled in Central America, had little good to say about ICE.
But the border issue is so much larger than detention centers and unprofessional conduct by a minority of authorities. The hot, sweaty-looking Border Patrol officers I found proved friendly, professional, and clearly working their socks off to try and secure the border. The media, in its role as the Fourth Estate, needs to deal with that and report on it.
In the face of government agencies struggling with the scale of the immigrant influx, numerous civilian organizations have mobilized to help immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border. Their experiences have both confirmed and confounded the narratives about the border crisis.
“They are honorable men and women at Border Patrol. They have to deal with not only criminals and all the crime that enters the country but with women and children who are innocent victims of the problems in our world today,” says Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV).
Pimentel runs a Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen that partners with government agencies and provides immigrants shelter and assistance once they are released from detention centers. It’s been receiving up to 800 migrants a day, which suggests that the media’s presentation of women and children wantonly confined by ICE doesn’t give the full picture (though I also met activists who spoke of immigrants, usually without children, who had been kept in detention for years).
All across the Rio Grande Valley, I heard a range of diverse and conflicting voices, ranging from those who think Trump’s tactics are a disgrace to others saying he has done the most of any president in living memory to tackle the border crisis.
“That AOC lady, she only ever says negative things, never anything good about this country,” a gentleman in his 60s in the town of Harlingen who said he was of Mexican-American descent told me. “I don’t like that. I’m proud of my country. The problem I have with immigrants is the ones who come here and won’t work and just expect handouts.”
While reporting on the border situation, I kept an eye out for media stories about immigration, looking for leads and ideas to buttress my own confused reporting. Some articles were helpful, but I also found myself thinking: “If I read another story about detained women and children, I may scream.”
Because once you’re there sweating under the scorching Texas sun looking over the Rio Grande River toward Mexico, beyond which lies a collection of basically failed states whose populations are looking northward in hope—and who can blame them?—it all starts to look a lot harder and more complicated.
Indeed, when eight out of 10 Democratic presidential candidates in a recent debate said crossing the border without authorization should be decriminalized, it was hard not to wonder about the prudence of such a policy (as well as how much it would serve the re-election interests of President Trump).
Most of the 100,000 who arrive at the border monthly are not fleeing political and religious persecution—for which the American asylum system was set up—but poverty, joblessness, and violence. If you embrace the latter, as the Democratic candidates seemed to do, as reason enough to enter the U.S., then about 2 billion people on earth are eligible. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras alone, the infamous “Northern Triangle” with some of the highest homicide rates in the world, there are 32 million people.
Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with those fleeing such endemic violence, even when it isn’t related to religion or politics.
Feliberto Pereira, executive director of Southwest Good Samaritan Ministries, which assists refugees and asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley, told me how one day he saw a woman immigrant sitting in the McAllen Greyhound bus station clutching her child unusually tightly. He asked her what was wrong, as she was safe now that she was in America. The women told him that one day in Honduras, her other child, a 12-year-old boy, was approached while leaving school by a gang and asked if he wanted to work delivering drugs. He said no. A week later, the gang came to the family home to recruit the boy anyway. The mother told them no again. The following week, she found her son in bits on the front door.
It would take a hard heart to argue against that as a case for asylum, though another problem is that such claims are often tougher to prove compared to political and religious persecution.
While visiting a nice park in McAllen beside the Rio Grande River, and which is also a popular spot for illegal migrants to cross over, I fell into a conversation with an amiable policeman. He noted that he and his fellow officers were having to hang around such parks as opposed to patrolling their usual beats because of the strain that illegal immigrants were putting on the entire system. He asked me how I knew that things were so bad in these Central American countries. Had I ever been to any of them?
“Well, no, but, um…”
So how could I be sure, he pressed. When someone applies that sort of skepticism, which seems an increasing trend these days amid the crossfire over fake news, you can find yourself wondering: how do I know?
“We have countless reports from the UN and human rights agencies, plus there are those of us who have been there,” says Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer who has lived in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley beside the border for over 40 years, and has long been involved with people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Suffice to say, I’m confident things are genuinely bad in Central America without needing to, as the officer advised me, go tour the Northern Triangle. Still, more reporting on these countries, as well as all the other variables feeding into the immigration equation, is needed to inform the deeper discussion. Just talking about women and children being maltreated too often results in righteous anger rather than long-term solutions. If you really want to help those women and children, it’s going to take a lot more.
“I could have gone home and sat on my sofa and wept about the situation, but I decided to do something about it instead,” Harbury says.
Such efforts, however, may well come to naught in the face of the current administration’s unrelenting tactics. On July 17, the Trump administration introduced a new rule stipulating that asylum seekers who pass through another country before reaching the United States must seek asylum there first—and be denied—before they can be eligible for it here. Even if the Nicaraguan woman and her children were called forward onto the bridge after I saw them, they now have another hurdle in their way.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.