We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. … The Border Patrol will grow. There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.
[Note to readers: I have maintained the anonymity of those involved in the immigration detention or court system. Asylum seekers leave family, friends, and associates behind in dangerous places. Speaking out can get people killed. Revealing details of what goes on in immigration court can get you banned from courtrooms and from the detention centers that house them. Those who speak to the press risk being banned from visiting detainees, who end up behind razor wire for months or years, not for committing any criminal act, but simply for stating a credible fear of persecution and asking for asylum at a U.S. port of entry. Nor have I mentioned the identities of people who help migrants near border crossings in places like Ciudad Juárez. Migrants in Mexico may be extorted by petty criminals, taxi drivers, bus drivers, police, and migration officials. Samaritans who offer assistance to migrants may suffer retribution from the same extortionists if they report official and unofficial harassment of the people they are trying to help.]
I walked across the bridge to Ciudad Juárez on October 28, 2016, the day after I learned that 138 Haitian men were being held at the Otero County Detention Center—a New Mexico prison outside the community of Chaparral operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC). This criminal detention facility is next door to the Otero County Processing Center, a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center also run by MTC.
Increasing numbers of people from troubled areas of the world continue to gather at bottlenecks along the U.S.-Mexico border in the summer and fall of 2016. These people are not trying to sneak into the country, but to present themselves at ports of entry. Many of these Africans, Haitians and Central Americans are sucked into the gulag of immigration prisons near the border and elsewhere around the U.S. and they remain under the radar of presidential campaign and transition rhetoric.
The Haitians have been at the New Mexico prison complex for at least two months at the time of this writing. The large metal buildings surrounded by high chain link fences and layered coils of razor wire sit in a flat desert landscape northeast of El Paso along the edges of the vast military outposts of the White Sands Missile Range and Fort Bliss.
A local Haitian-American pastor held religious services with the detainees and then reached out to several non-profit legal agencies to express his concern about the conditions of their imprisonment. Some of the men had been separated from wives and children and had no way to communicate with family members. No one working in the isolated rural prison spoke French or Creole, so it was impossible for the detainees to communicate with prison or ICE staff. The men were held for a month before anyone in the legal or religious communities in the closest cities of El Paso or Las Cruces even knew they were there. Visitors reported that some of the men were sick, that they could not eat the food, that they were depressed, even suicidal.
It was not until a few local press reports emerged that the Haitian men were moved to the non-criminal, civil immigration detention side of the prison complex. Yet, despite efforts to protect the anonymity of Americans reaching out to them, those who spoke to the press were barred from visiting the Haitians again.
On my way to the border that morning of October 28, I listened to NPR’s hysterical reporting about the “Comey Letter,” stating that the FBI had discovered more “Clinton emails” in the process of an “unrelated investigation.” Therefore, FBI Chief James Comey had rushed to notify Congress, though no one seemed to know what investigation-worthy material the letter referred to. Yet, the announcers and pundits breathlessly reported disaster for the Clinton campaign. By the next morning, the more liberal press walked back the disaster and a week later Comey himself wrote another letter basically saying “there’s nothing there,” but as we know now, the initial hysteria was actually on target.
As I chatted with my friend Julián Cardona in a Juárez café, I scribbled “28 Oct 2016 Dia del fin del Mundo / day of the end of the world…” and then we moved on to talk about violence and the meaning of Evil vs. el mal vs. la maldad. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I felt that the FBI announcement signaled something big and evil and it might as well be the end of the world if it led to the election of President Trump.
Julián reassured me that Hillary would win big because her Democratic party political machine was expert in getting out the vote—just like the PRI (the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled for over 70 years of near-perfect electoral dictatorship and still controls most of the Mexican government, through a system of corporatist organizations running everything from basic food distribution to public transportation to the domestic drug business to state governorships). I thought Julián might be wrong this time, and that the fabled Democratic “ground game” might not work in the reality-TV-post-truth-Trumpworld. Still, Julián had predicted the winner of every U.S. election since I met him in 2003. He also named the date of the start of the Iraq War. In 2004, he told me that based on information from Mexican friends who had emigrated to the U.S. years before and voted in Texas, “Bush will win because he kicks ass. People want a president who kicks ass.”
Julián’s prediction made sense and he persuaded me that the world would not end. I spent this Election Day at a middle school polling site in southeastern Doña Ana County, New Mexico. Voting lines were long and steady all day and by far most of the people voting there were Mexican-American. People smiled and chatted with each other and the poll workers. The mountains glowed purple as the sun went down; the wind picked up and it turned cold outside. I stayed to observe the closing procedures and a young custodian was also there sweeping up. At about eight o’ clock, we sat down to wait, compulsively checking the election news on our phones. We didn’t talk for some time—the warm energy of the day was as long gone as the desert sun. He finally spoke very softly: “Today was the first time I voted.” It seemed so damned important but I didn’t want to pry so I said something like: “I’m really glad you voted, even though I don’t know who you voted for.” He answered wistfully, “I think you and me, we voted the same, and this happened the first time I ever voted.”
Millions of people all over the United States will be directly affected by President-elect Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Not just the estimated 11 million people who live here without documents, but members of their families who are legal residents and citizens and now face the prospect of seeing children, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents and/or siblings deported. Perhaps most vulnerable are the more than 700,000 “dreamers”—young people who came out of the shadows to register for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), established by an executive order that can be reversed by the signature of the incoming president. In exchange for a temporary permit to study, work and travel freely in the United States, DACA applicants registered with the government and often revealed the presence of family members not eligible for the program due to age or other circumstances. Trump’s promise to round up and deport people could easily begin with this registry.
Yet, while a great deal of press covers scenarios in the Trump future for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, there are thousands more people in migration. These are refugees fleeing violence and environmental disasters, political asylum seekers, and others simply desperate to reunite with family members—who face the same crisis regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election. With apologies to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, there is no immigration remedy—magic or legal—in the wizard’s bag for most of the people now attempting to cross the borders into the United States. This situation existed before the election, and Trump’s win makes little difference.
In late summer, in fact, reports emerged in the Mexican and international press that thousands of Haitians, Africans and Central Americans were waiting on the Mexican side of the border at California, Arizona, and Texas ports of entry. Some had traveled from sub-Saharan Africa on trans-Atlantic boats to South American ports; migrants with enough money obtained visas to fly to Brazil and then traveled overland to the southern U.S. border. During the recent boom years in that country, migrants often found work to pay for the rest of their journey.
Brazil had set up a visa center in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and issued more than 40,000 humanitarian visas to Haitians who migrated to Brazil to work. When the Brazilian economy crashed and jobs disappeared after the 2016 Olympics, Haitians and other migrants in Brazil moved on through Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and into Mexico. At each step on this odyssey, networks of smugglers earn huge sums transporting this human cargo. Earlier this year, Mexico began giving out short-term visas allowing some Haitian and African migrants 30 days to travel to the U.S. border.
Humanitarian groups set up shelters at crowded ports of entry on the Mexican side of the border, but most of the migrants preferred to wait in lines along the streets close to official border crossings in Tijuana or Nogales, often sleeping outside so as not to miss a chance to be allowed to cross into the United States and request asylum.
The Haitians are in a particularly strange limbo—many left their country years ago, after the 2010 earthquake killed or displaced at least two million people. Added to that disaster, a cholera epidemic killed and sickened hundreds of thousands. At that time, the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allowed thousands of Haitians already in the United States to remain under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), seeking to deport only those who had been convicted of serious crimes. In September 2016, the U.S. announced that deportations of Haitians in the U.S. illegally would resume—which may have spurred the recent bottlenecks at southern ports of entry. At the same time, Haiti began to limit repatriations to only 50 people per month, meaning that it became impossible for the U.S. to actually remove thousands of Haitians with criminal convictions.
Another natural disaster—Hurricane Matthew—hit the southern coast of Haiti on October 4, 2016, killing at least one thousand people and destroying the homes of more than 175,000. The DHS announced the suspension of deportation flights, but also that Haitians determined “removable” would be detained. I heard reports from several observers— reports that are not independently confirmed—that Mexican immigration officials had coordinated the transport of large numbers of Haitians to different border crossings in California and Arizona and handed them over directly to ICE officials who immediately detained them. Haitian-American community activists estimate that more than 4,500 Haitians who recently crossed from Mexico are now being held in prisons and immigration detention facilities all over the U.S.—including the 138 men isolated in Otero County, New Mexico.
On November 23, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement noting that after a brief suspension due to Hurricane Matthew, “removal flights to Haiti have now resumed.” By that date, ICE had already removed over 200 Haitians and those removal operations would “significantly expand” in coming weeks. The memo also confirmed that ICE would expand detention space “so that those apprehended at the border and not eligible for humanitarian relief can be detained and sent home as soon as possible.”
I accompanied an immigration attorney on a brief visit to a few of the Haitian men detained at Otero on November 18. The men had not communicated directly with the attorney; rather the information came in phone calls from relatives around the U.S. One of these men spoke Spanish; the other only spoke French and Haitian Creole. Both had indicated that they wanted to apply for asylum. We arranged for a Haitian Creole speaker on the outside to translate via cell phone for us— prison officials gave permission for us to bring a cell phone into the visiting area—a honeycomb of tiny booths where the detainee sits behind a thick glass panel. Documents can be exchanged through a tiny slit below the window. But there was no phone reception. All we could manage were a few words of French to tell the man that we would return with a translator on another day.
On November 29, we got word that the U.S. government had deported this asylum seeker and thirty others to Haiti.
Meanwhile, many thousands from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala continue to flee some of the highest levels of violence in the world. They get no permits to travel across Mexico to the U.S. border. If they come into contact with Mexican police or migration officials, they are quickly deported. In fact, part of the U.S. response to the huge influx of Central American women and children in 2014 was “Plan Frontera Sur”—millions of dollars in aid in technology and detection capability to Mexican law enforcement to intercept and deport as many Central Americans as possible. This effectively outsourced border enforcement to Mexico. In addition to deportation, Mexican migration officials and criminal gangs working in tandem with them regularly extort and assault Central American migrants in Mexico.
Mexico’s stepped-up enforcement reduced the numbers of Central Americans reaching the U.S. last year, but in 2016, numbers of people coming north have already surpassed the surge in 2014. In recent weeks, the surge in Central American refugees has impacted all areas of the border, from California to Texas. Religious humanitarian volunteers have mobilized to help migrants who make it through the Mexican gauntlet to border crossings, providing temporary shelter and travel assistance to women and children who cannot be held in the already overcrowded detention centers near the border. Before being released, these people are processed and given dates to appear in immigration court. El Paso groups received about 1000 refugees each week in October and November. The pressure in this region of the border is so high that a new temporary processing center is set to open near the Tornillo port of entry, southeast of El Paso.
A story that goes largely unreported is that these refugees are often robbed yet again as they get close to a border crossing. One humanitarian worker told me that “everyone gets ripped off.” The worker, recounting the story of one Guatemalan family, told me about two brothers and their two young sons who had traveled north without a coyote, who took a taxi from the terminal in Juárez to the border. “They were taken into a room on the way and asked to hand over all money, phones and suitcases. They were stripped even to their socks and crying kids were threatened.” Eventually the brothers were separated.
I heard about a mother who handed everything she had over to a taxi driver who then told her she couldn’t cross with money or her bags. Two men accosted a woman and her young daughter after taking a local bus from the Juárez terminal to the border. They took the mother’s belongings and money, leaving her only the four peso coins needed to cross the bridge. The last coyote at the border in Juárez told the migrants to turn everything over.
These refugees are fleeing for survival, not for some vague idea of a better life or to seek “the American dream.” Ironically, the way the asylum law is written works against victims of generalized violence. Many Central Americans who make it to U.S. immigration courts have valid cases, but grants of political asylum are rare. In addition to establishing a “well-founded fear of persecution,” an asylum seeker must show that s/he is in danger of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. It is not enough for the person to be fleeing extreme criminal violence and persecution: they must convince an immigration judge that the violence comes from state actors or that the state is unwilling and/or unable to protect them. It is difficult for Central Americans to establish state involvement in persecution: most evidence points to criminal street gangs as the primary source of violence.
Though arguments can be made that the state provides no protection or that government actors are complicit in threats and acts of violence, most asylum seekers end up in complex immigration proceedings without representation, with no idea how to present their cases. In a kind of compassion triage, asylum attorneys have made an effort to provide representation to vulnerable children in the system, while thousands of adult men and women end up in court without representation. Most will receive deportation orders.
African asylum seekers, though fewer in number than Central Americans or Haitians, are also coming to the southern border in larger numbers. When they ask for asylum at a port of entry, they are almost always detained. In the past two years, I have met with six detained asylum seekers from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. All spent at least nine months in detention while their cases proceeded; several remain in detention after 16 months. None had any criminal antecedents or illegal entries into the United States. Some have little schooling while others are college-educated professionals. Some are Catholic, one is a Muslim, and one practices a tribal religion. In the ICE detention system, they are called “exotic Africans” since they come from places relatively unfamiliar to people in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
In June 2016, I visited two asylum seekers from Zimbabwe—I will call them James and Gabriel—at the West Texas Detention Facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Their attorney is located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a three-hour drive away. This is a federal facility, privately-operated by the Emerald Corporation, that houses people charged with crimes as well as about 600 immigration detainees. There were only six Africans there at the time I visited. The men told us that they had found scorpions and snakes inside their dormitories and then laughed at my horrified reaction: “But we are from Africa, Miss…” Their attorney had asked that her clients be transferred to the ICE Processing Center in El Paso, where their court proceedings take place, but the request was denied due to the fact that the detention center in El Paso was full. So she made several six-hour roundtrip visits to Sierra Blanca to prepare them for their testimony. On the day of his hearing, James was awakened at two o’clock in the morning and transported, his wrists and ankles shackled, to the court. He is not charged with any crime; rather, he simply presented himself at a port of entry and asked for asylum.
James was a farm supervisor in Zimbabwe and worked for a white landowner. During the violent government land reform in 2015, the landowner abandoned the farm after being harassed by soldiers who also burned the buildings on the property, including the houses where the farmworkers lived. James tried to organize the workers to resist these actions but he was eventually arrested and tortured by agents of the Mugabe government for being an anti-government activist. James had several hearings on his case and the immigration judge eventually denied his asylum claim. He was deported in early November 2016.
Gabriel, also from Zimbabwe, has worked as a truck driver, road builder, and miner. He also did cross-border trading in handicrafts and other goods in the neighboring countries of Botswana and South Africa—constantly seeking ways to support his children in the disastrous Zimbabwean economy. He became involved in an unsuccessful opposition political campaign that tried to unseat President Robert Mugabe in 2015 and shortly after joined a new opposition party as a local secretary. He was arrested and tortured by government agents who demanded that he reveal the names of party members in his region. He fled and eventually made it to the United States where he asked for asylum. Gabriel has been detained for 16 months and is still waiting for a decision on his case.
These short summaries do not do justice to the complicated events that forced these people to flee their countries. During the past 10 years I have met dozens of Mexican asylum seekers fleeing state and criminal violence. I’ve also met Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Africans from all over the continent. All have stories of danger, trauma, travel, and survival that most Americans cannot imagine. Some do obtain political asylum in the United States—certainly the most difficult process of immigrating to this country but one that places them on a path to permanent residency and citizenship.
But, even when they win, asylees have often left children, wives, or other family members behind in dangerous situations. It can take years of complicated and expensive immigration paperwork to reunite these families. Until this process is complete, most asylees keep very low profiles; thus, few Americans get the opportunity to know much about them. The recent presidential campaign brought anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric into political discourse “big league,” and this tendency seems likely to intensify as the Trump administration takes power. Even people with inspiring stories will remain silent and hidden out of reasonable fear that new immigration laws could dissolve their hard-won asylum status. Worse, such laws could keep their families separated indefinitely.
In the words quoted in the epigraph to this article, Charles Bowden was writing about Mexican immigration at its highest point in the past decade. This was before the construction of massive border barriers that began a few years after September 11, 2001; after the environmental disaster of hurricane Katrina when thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans were sought after for work in dangerous clean-up and reconstruction jobs across the southeastern United States. It was before the crash of the U.S. and world economies in what became known as “the great recession” that slowed Mexican immigration to pretty much net-zero—at least for now.
Since that time ten years ago, we have witnessed a mass exodus from the war-torn Middle East, across the Mediterranean Sea, and into Europe. We also see thousands of people from Africa making this dangerous journey from Libya. Many arrive safely to then face an uncertain future as nationalist, anti-immigrant politics become more vocal in Europe as well as in the United States. And many thousands die.
Still, the desire for survival and freedom outweighs fear of the sea, fear of border walls, fear of death. And as Bowden wrote in 2006, migration is spurred not only by violence, but also by hurricanes, droughts, and floods stimulated by climate change.
Trump or no Trump, the world does not end. But it gets warmer. Our own fears and failures build new border walls and prison walls. Climate change continues to spawn storms, fires, droughts and famines. And the people keep coming.
Molly Molloy is a Latin American specialist at New Mexico State University Library in Las Cruces, NM. She edits Frontera List and co-edited El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin with Charles Bowden (Nation Books, 2011) and has written for The Nation, Phoenix New Times [here and here], Narco News Bulletin, Small Wars Journal, and NACLA.