Living and Dying in Border Purgatory

At least six children have died in ICE custody in the past year. As draconian immigration policy grows ever-more inhumane, we can only expect the suffering to increase.

Molly Molloy 5/29/2019

Migrants wait at the Casa de Migrante Juárez in March 2019 (Photo by Molly Molloy)

Christmas Eve 2018. The numbers of Central American families crossing the border near El Paso were continuing to grow. The day before, ICE had released busloads of families onto the streets of El Paso with no warning. Details had just emerged of the death of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, a Guatemalan Q’eqchí Maya child from Alta Verapaz, taken into Border Patrol custody a few weeks earlier in a remote desert area in the southwestern “boot heel” of New Mexico. Hundreds of families—sometimes as many as a thousand people in one day—were being detained by Border Patrol just in the El Paso sector, “processed” by Customs and Border Protection, and confined for days at a time to cells referred to as hieleras, or iceboxes by migrants and agents alike, before being released to local non-profit shelters.

Average December temperatures in the New Mexico-West Texas border region drop to the low 30s at night and seldom rise above 60 degrees, with even colder temperatures in the high desert region (elevation near 5,000 feet), where Jakelin crossed the border with her father, near Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

A long-term volunteer at Annunciation House in El Paso had put out a call for drivers to ferry migrants and asylum-seekers to the bus station or the airport once family members elsewhere in the U.S. agreed to take them in and pay for their transportation. Spaces at houses, churches and motels were running out for those being released from detention, so it was critical to get people on their way as soon as family members somewhere in the U.S. were able to pay for their transportation.  Despite evidence that ICE has sometimes targeted undocumented family members, thousands continue to serve as sponsors for relatives who are released.

I had no plans for Christmas Eve, though I did have a nasty cold. Less than an hour later, another volunteer called with details on getting people to the airport late that night for flights out early the next morning. I went to bed in hopes that my cold would miraculously disappear by evening. It didn’t. I thought of canceling because I didn’t want to expose anyone to my germs, but rides were urgently needed.

My instructions were to get to the El Paso motel by 8:00 PM, check in with the volunteer in charge and do whatever she told me to do. I picked up candy, cough drops and tissues at a Dollar Store and drove down the I-10 in the chilly damp night to the forlorn motel, bereft of holiday cheer, an empty Chinese restaurant next door. But in the large room to the rear, dozens of people milled around, sleepy children everywhere, many in the arms of their exhausted parents.

The volunteer pointed to some notices tacked to a wall, cards with names, phone numbers, flight reservation codes. I called out the names and found a small group by the door, a few bags packed. “¿Aeropuerto?” “Sí…” A young Guatemalan woman, so small it seemed impossible that she could carry the weight of her three-year-old daughter asleep in a shawl tied as a sling, waited with a middle-aged man and two young boys, Manuel, José, and Martín. Manuel told me the young woman spoke no Spanish, so he interpreted for her in Acateco, the language spoken in their neighboring communities in Huehuetenango. An uncle had bought a plane ticket to North Carolina. Her baby looked sick—glassy eyes, coughing, congested. Volunteers gave her some over-the-counter cold medicine before we left, crowding into my small car and back on the highway to the airport. José and Martín each got a handful of chocolates and cough drops. Manuel dialed his cousin in Tennessee and they spoke in Acateco as I drove across town.

In the darkened airport lobby, I punched the reservation numbers into the self-service kiosk, wondering how they would figure it all out on their own. No one would be at the airline services desk until 6:00 the next morning. I walked them to the foot of the escalator where they would ride up to go through security, making sure that they had the ICE documents that allowed them to travel. Then I showed them some chairs where they would have to pass the night. The baby was awake now, feverish and crying. I drove back to the motel to pick up the next carload—this time two young fathers from Honduras each with boys who looked to be about ten years old. Nelson and child were headed to Connecticut; Miguel and son to south Florida. The fathers said they had spent nine days in the hielieras.

It seemed a miracle that more people were not sick. The super-human (or let’s say the super-humane) efforts by Annunciation House to provide shelter, food, and compassionate care for tens of thousands of refugees helped stave off more tragedy. In fact, during the past 40 years of its existence, Annunciation House has sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants in the El Paso region, according to their director, Ruben Garcia. And this was before the current unprecedented numbers of arrivals. Garcia told the Washington Post that as of April 1, Annunciation House had taken in 50,000 Central Americans who had been detained and then released by government agencies since October 2018, raising more than one million dollars in donations to pay for motel rooms when the network of houses and church shelters overflowed.

Since then, the nonprofit has rented and renovated a warehouse where 500 refugees rotate through from night to night, sleeping on cots, eating donated meals, and relying on volunteer labor ranging from medical screening to sorting donated clothing to arranging travel—all provided by civil society with no financial support from federal, state, or local government. Only in recent weeks have the sheer numbers of refugee families being released overwhelmed this astounding volunteer effort. Beginning in March, Border Patrol and ICE agents began to transport refugee families from border holding cells and tent camps to many cities in the region, sometimes with little advance warning. Local jurisdictions in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Denver have provided emergency funds for shelter, but volunteers still provide for most of the human needs of the refugees before they can travel to unite with family members far from the border.

A Policy of Death

When I awoke Christmas morning after the night of airport runs, national news reported that eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo—a Chuj Maya child from a community in Huehuetenango, Guatemala—had died Christmas Eve in Border Patrol custody in New Mexico. On May 20, 2019, Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a Guatemalan teenager traveling alone, died in a Border Patrol holding cell in the lower Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, apparently from complications of the flu. Carlos was held for six days, waiting for a bed to become available in a youth shelter (though CBP is supposed to release children within 72 hours). Carlos had been isolated due to his illness and was apparently alone when he died. As I was writing on May 22, 2019, news emerged that a ten-year-old girl from El Salvador had died after medical treatment while in custody in September 2018. The fact that her death had not been publicly acknowledged earlier called other agency reports on child deaths into question. At least six children are reported to have died in government custody since September 2018.

On May 24, Chairman Nadler and several members of the House Judiciary Committee called upon Acting Homeland Security Secretary McAleenan to formally investigate these child deaths and report back to the committee on June 3.

These children's deaths became shocking news because children have not been known to die in Border Patrol custody before. They are dying now both due to draconian immigration policy and because so many are coming, whereas in the past a larger share of migrants were single men rather than children or families. According to a recent report in El Diario de Juárez, more than 13,000 migrants from at least 14 countries have come to the Mexican border city since last October, most waiting for an opportunity to cross to the U.S. to ask for asylum. Customs and Border Protection officials at the border bridges allow only a limited number of asylum seekers to enter the U.S. each day.

Thousands of young children each month are apprehended at the border, usually along with their parents. Considering their reasons for leaving home—extreme poverty, hunger, insecurity, persecution—the length and conditions of their journeys and detention, and the fact that border enforcement agencies are not prepared to take care of children, it’s perhaps surprising there haven’t been even more deaths.

Adult deaths are more commonplace. Several hundred die each year while walking in remote regions of the border: estimates range as high as 10,000 victims since the 1990s, yet many bodies are never found. The Southern Border Communities Coalition records significant numbers of adult immigrants who are shot to death or who die in violent confrontations or vehicle crashes while being pursued by Border Patrol agents, or while held in ICE detention. It is rare for an agent to be prosecuted or otherwise held accountable for these killings.

Death is certainly the most brutal result of the neglect and cruelty that refugees endure at the border, but thousands of people must run a long and varied gauntlet of lesser abuses on their journeys. Family separations, “zero tolerance” prosecutions, and asylum seekers turned away at ports of entry blew up the news cycle about a year ago, though border advocates and a handful of reporters have documented these practices for years. Hope Border Institute, a faith-based research and advocacy group, has compiled extensive documentation on the damage done by “zero tolerance” and other draconian border policies in the El Paso, Las Cruces, and Ciudad Juárez region. Annunciation House Attorney Taylor Levy described the long term trauma inflicted by family separations and family detention to the Washington Post:

=“At a family detention camp in New Mexico, I met a suicidal four-year-old whose face was covered in bloody, self-inflicted scratches. Every time she and her mother walked past the drainage ditch—running along the chain-link and barbed-wire fence that enclosed them—this little girl would beg her mother to get in the water. She didn’t want to swim. She wanted the “crocodillos” to eat them so they could go to heaven and escape that place.”

While the press and many advocates focus on the treatment of families and children, most adult refugees and asylum seekers who cross the border end up detained for months in immigration prisons. On any given day, as many as 52,000 people are detained in a large network of prison facilities, most of them operated by corporations that profit from increasingly punitive policies toward asylum seekers who turn themselves in to immigration authorities at the border. And unlike under the previous administration, thousands of undocumented people who may have overstayed a visa or committed some other civil immigration infraction have been prioritized for detention and deportation under Trump.

As the numbers of asylum seekers continues to grow, it appears that the government will expand its capacity to imprison immigrants by taking advantage of military land and labor to build “tent city” detention camps in the border region. If the military is in charge of the land and installations, there will be less oversight, and it will be even more difficult for journalists and advocates to monitor the treatment of people held in these facilities.

Asylum seekers who pass a “credible fear interview” are eligible for release under humanitarian parole or bond, but immigration judges and ICE officials seldom approve these releases, especially in the border region. It is becoming increasingly common for asylum applicants to spend a year or more in detention while pursuing their cases. Since these people are not being detained as punishment for a crime, their detention is indefinite—I’ve worked with several people who remain detained for two years or more while pursuing their asylum cases. Some eventually win, and within a year thereafter can become legal residents of the U.S., but in the process they have been subject to treatment generally reserved for those who have committed felonies. Recent reports have documented routine use of solitary confinement and other extreme punishments on immigration detainees, part of a system that “involves widespread abuse of human beings,” said Ellen Gallagher, a policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, to The Intercept.

Last year I worked with an attorney representing a Guatemalan teenaged asylum seeker who spent 11 months detained in Otero County, New Mexico. He survived beatings and death threats in his rural community and traveled alone through Mexico, usually sleeping on the ground by the side of the road. He only spoke Acateco, and had never been to school or traveled outside of his village. We prepared his case with the aid of an interpreter we hired to help us talk to him via telephone. After nearly a year, he was finally able to speak face-to-face in his language to the court interpreter at his asylum hearing. The judge denied his claim from the bench, and when he heard the decision, the young man broke into sobs. He could not bear being imprisoned and isolated any longer, and asked to be deported, rather than to appeal his case.

Remain in Purgatory

Though usually called “Remain in Mexico,” the (Orwellian) Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) may be the most bizarre purgatory faced by migrants and refugees at the border. Under a binational arrangement announced in January 2019, establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” for Central American migrants, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began sending migrants back to Mexico for the duration of their immigration court proceedings.

Since MPP began in the El Paso region in March, at least 2,800 Central Americans in immigration court proceedings have been returned to Juárez. So far, only one judge is attending to these cases. Large groups of “Respondents” crowd into a single courtroom each day to answer preliminary questions about their asylum claims. They are assigned a date to return for a second hearing, often many months in the future. New arrivals in the MPP program are given initial notices to appear in February 2020. If a name appears on the court docket but that person is not present in El Paso for the hearing, the judge issues a deportation order en absentia, often without the person’s knowledge.

I attended an MPP hearing on May 9. One young man from El Salvador told the judge through tears that he had learned his baby son was very sick, that he wanted to withdraw from the program and return home as soon as possible. In a twist that only Kafka could have imagined, the attorney representing the Department of Homeland Security said that if he withdrew from MPP, the man would be detained, because without MPP status, he would not have legal permission to travel through Mexico. The agency did take him back to Mexico that day, but kept his Salvadoran identity document. After several days, he managed to travel by bus back to his town in El Salvador, and the U.S. government agreed to close his case without prejudice (meaning without a deportation order on his record) but his documents have not been returned, thus making life in El Salvador even more difficult than before he left.

When people return from court in El Paso, they are on their own to find shelter in Juárez. The Catholic diocese and other churches provide most shelter space with little financial support from the Chihuahua state or Mexican federal government. People usually have no documents since CBP takes these away when they are initially detained. They have no legal permit to live, work, or travel in Mexico, though many find jobs in the informal sector; others report being recruited by criminal organizations to sell drugs, or even to carry out assassinations. Migrants report having been robbed, kidnapped, or extorted. According to local media, nearly 600 people have been murdered in Juárez so far this year, including three Honduran migrants who were killed on May 3.


Life itself is increasingly unsustainable in many parts of Central America. Due to the destruction of civil society in the aftermath of U.S.-sponsored civil wars in the 1980s, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are some of the most violent countries in the world. Homicide rates are extremely high and criminal gangs act as de facto governments in many areas of the region. In addition to the violence caused by crime and the failure of governments to provide the most basic elements of security, the region is increasingly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Agriculture dominates the economies of the Northern Triangle countries and many people rely on commercial agricultural labor and subsistence farming for survival. Years of drought and crop failures have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of poor people, leading to extreme poverty and hunger, especially in Guatemala.

In a region also accustomed to violent natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, climate change creates a slower kind of catastrophe that can lead to waves of migration. And yet, as more and more Central Americans flee criminal violence, poverty, and hunger, these conditions do not neatly conform to the ever-tightening rules for granting asylum in the United States.

Molly Molloy is a border and Latin American researcher at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She edits the Frontera List on U.S.-Mexico border issues.

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