Dec 20, 2019

Christmas in Juarez, Mexico and a migrant crisis

A Juarez refugee Christmas
Kent Paterson/The Digie Zone Network
Migrants at Paso del Norte Bridge in October. Guillermo Arias/ACLU.
As temperatures dip near or below freezing, scores of Mexican refugees huddle in their makeshift tents of layered plastic sheeting at the foot of the Paso Del Norte Bridge that connects Juarez, Mexico, with El Paso, Texas. Many small children form part of the group.
No colorfully wrapped packages wait below a Christmas tree. No heart warming lyrics from mariachi singers enliven the site, though a small figurine of the Virgin of Guadalupe watches over the people who wait and wait and wait for their chance to argue a case for political asylum in the United States.
Some of the asylum seekers report a presence at the bridge of two months, and like others in their predicament before them recite a litany of aggressions and atrocities that expelled them from their homes: murders of relatives, gang extortion and the forcible recruitment of the young, teenagers, into the criminal underworld, or as many contend, the real government where the line between officials and outlaws melds into one obscure if powerful and suffocating structure.
"We are fleeing delinquency," they exclaim almost in unison.
Many former residents of Guerrero and Michoacan, states long embroiled in narco-violence, constitute the group encamped along a narrow side street. For the southerners from warmer climes, the borderland’s deep December chill presents a real challenge. El Diario de Juarez reported that the temperature plummeted to 25 degrees Fahrenheit on December 18.
Like their recent predecessors, the campers complain of lack of support from the Mexican government. No portable bathrooms, such the ones installed at a similar encampment outside another international bridge a few miles down the road, service the site; two men say they must pay five pesos to access the bathrooms on the Mexican portion of the Santa Fe Bridge and 50 pesos to take a shower in nearby hotels.
Food and clothing, however, are provided by a voluntary outpouring of Good Samaritans from Juarez, El Paso and other parts of the United States, especially from Christian churches. "Really, the local people have behaved beautifully," an asylum seeker says. As the man talks, smiling folks swoop through the camp, delivering fresh burritos. If it weren't for the civil society solidarity, hunger would prevail, he says.
In contravention of U.S. asylum law, two men say they were prevented from entering El Paso on multiple occasions, according to one man's words, about "30 times" by CBP guards posted on the Santa Fe Bridge who argue there is no room to accommodate them at the moment.
Instead, they are part of a "metering" system in which families and individuals are called in small groups by CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) to come over and make their initial asylum claim. According to the Santa Fe Bridge group's spokesperson, 67 families and 250 persons are currently on their list to cross.
A man who claims two months at the bridge says nobody was allowed into this country the day of interview, one family was permitted in the day before and not a single soul two days prior.
Many people who were previously at the encampment gave up and returned home, he adds. A group of women complain that children, including toddlers, who did make it across were asked inappropriate questions for their age by U.S. immigration authorities about violence.
In recent days, about 50 people from the Santa Fe Bridge encampment who were earlier permitted to enter the U.S. were deported back to Juarez, according to a pair of men. The asylum hopefuls report that some members of their group who were admitted into the U.S. wound up with family members, while others were held in immigrant detention centers in El Paso and New Mexico- sometimes for weeks at a time.  
Dashing along the line of rudimentary tents, a young man says he was released from a New Mexico detention center after a judge decided he had no "credible fear" and agreeing to a voluntary departure instead of appealing the case. For now, he's waiting for his brother to be released from immigrant detention. What will the siblings do?  "We don't have family here,” the rejected asylum seeker says.” They're all over (in the U.S.). My brother and I will return alone." The U.S. officials have given him no real option, he says, even though the cartels pose a danger in the particular neck of the woods he fled.
He makes a prediction based on his experience with the U.S. asylum process: Many more deportees are going to trod through the streets of Juarez soon. And he gives the new deportees a moniker: “No Credible Fears."
As pointed out by the Texas Tribune's Julian Aguilar in a recent article, the sending of migrants back to Mexico stands in contrast to the Trump administration's travel warnings to U.S. citizens about Mexico. An updated State Department travel advisory dated December 17, warns U.S. visitors to not visit either Guerrero or Michoacan, places from which many of the refugees stranded in Juarez hail. Similar warnings stand for Tamaulipas, Colima and Sinaloa.
Added to this contradiction can be the White House's insistence on building a border wall as well as the President's contemplation of designating the cartels as terrorist groups. In other words, the same country is not safe for U.S. citizens but safe for Mexican citizens, according to the varied pronunciations of federal officials.
At a December 17 meeting in Juarez, Mexican municipal, state and federal officials along with unnamed migrant advocates discussed consolidating the interview wait lists from the three international bridges in the city where refugees are camped out. In a press release, Rogelio Pinal, chief of Juarez’s municipal human rights department, was quoted as saying that children’s exposure to the cold and health conditions was likewise considered by the participants.
According to Pinal, the number of people at the camps has dropped to 650 individuals. Other accounts report that some Mexican asylum seekers are not camped out at the bridges because they have found lodging with relatives or friends or at hotels if they can afford the rent.
Separately, El Diario cited a senior Chihuahua state migrant official December 18 as stating that time has run out for the campers at the bridges and authorities would place the asylum seekers in migrant shelters. “They can’t be (there) any more, for the safety of the children,” Enrique Valenzuela of the Coespo state migrant agency was quoted.
Until now, many refugees at the Paso del Norte Bridge have opposed to moving to the migrant shelters because of their distance from the international bridges and due to fears of losing a place on the waiting lists.
A fellow who's says he's left everything behind-job, property and home-and waited patiently for his turn at an asylum claims he will weather the bitter winter. He vows not to agree to voluntary departure, struggle through the entire legal process and endure detention if that is what it takes.
"We are looking for protection, not to live the good life as they say," the man insists. "The American Dream doesn't exist." New people are still trickling into the refugee camp, but at far lower numbers than in recent months, he reports. But in his estimation, that situation could change after the winter passes and more people undertake a risky asylum odyssey.
Author-journalist Kent Paterson is a regular contributor to the Digie Zone Network.

Nov 12, 2019

Groundwater concerns underpin New Mexico Mesilla Valley farming

Groundwater concerns underpin Mesilla Valley farming
Kent Paterson/Special to the Digie Zone Network
La Semilla Center's year-round farming. La Semilla courtesy photo.
MESILLA VALLEY, NEW MEXICO - Every year, fresh produce from southern New Mexico's Mesilla Valley is sold at the Farmers Market at Ardovino's Desert Crossing in Sunland Park.  Zach Cook and George Pouy are two of the longtime vendors that offer their harvest to borderlanders. Though the men differ in age and background, one thing they have in common is that both draw water from New Mexico's Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), the Las Cruces-based agency which supplies irrigation surface water from the Rio Grande and monitors water usage from the aquifers below the ground.
"We've been using our well a lot more than having irrigation water," said Cook, a lifelong family farmer who farms corn, peaches, pecans, squash and cotton in La Mesa, New Mexico, a small Mesilla Valley community on Highway 28 that leads to Las Cruces. "If it grows around here, we grow it," he added. But in an interview earlier this harvest season, Cook said reliance on groundwater is a pricey endeavor, costing him $15,000 last year alone. 
A retired accountant who operates a seven-acre farm in the small valley community of Chamberino, Pouy produces about six cuttings a year of alfalfa, vegetables, meat and eggs. He has a greenhouse, hoop house and grows lettuce, spinach and other cold season crops that make his operation a year-round endeavor. "I'll have greens all winter," he said. "So I'm living the dream. Sometimes it's a nightmare, though," he said, cracking a smile.
"I guess you can technically call me retired," Pouy quipped.  "But what am I going to do, sit around on my ass and watch television?" Pouy has two wells: a residential one and another for commercial purposes that draws water from a depth of about 200 feet.
When he started farming back in 2009, Pouy found that Rio Grande water was sufficient. "I didn't have a well and there was enough water for Sudan Grass and cotton," he recalled. But that situation didn't last long as drought descended on the land, and in 2012 he spent more than $33,000 putting in the commercial well.
According to Pouy's records, he spent $518.00 last year on the well, basically in electric bills to El Paso Electric Company for the cost of pumping the water out of the ground. Farmers with greater acreage than Pouy, like Cook or those bigger than him, spend far more.
In addition, Pouy said he pays an annual fee of $600.00 to EBID and is required to file quarterly reports of his well water meterings to the agency that manages Rio Grande water deliveries to farmers in the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys.
Although a decent northern snowpack that melted into the Rio Grande allowed Elephant Butte Reservoir (where water for delivery to users south of the huge manmade lake is stored) to fill halfway this year and permitted EBID to distribute 14 inches to its users, as opposed to less in recent years of drought, Pouy discovered that this allocation wasn't enough. The Anthony grower didn't have precise numbers at hand yet for the growing year, but he calculated that "we used a lot more groundwater than EBID" in 2019. 
In the aftermath of a dud monsoon year and with the specter of drought once again hovering over the long term viability of Rio Grande water supplies for farmers, the economic and environmental issues of groundwater usage for agriculture loom ever larger in New Mexico.
"As we go through the drought years, agriculturalists really rely on groundwater." said Holly Brause, research scientist at New Mexico State University's Water Resources Research Institute. "It's affected farms, because now when they have to rely on groundwater, it's more expensive for them to pump."
Brause is part of a relatively new academic field known as social hydrology, a discipline that contemplates "human and environmental systems as one system." She's also a member of an Oregon farm family that practices organic agriculture. Currently, the University of New Mexico doctoral student is researching farming values and how they fit into water consumption and crop choice, as well as looking at the crucial matter of stakeholder engagement in aquifer management.
"A lot of farms in the area are thinking about how they can conserve water, and they're interested in using less chemicals," the UNM doctoral candidate said. "Even if they aren't interested in organics, they're thinking about the impact on the environment, the chemical use, water use."
As with surface water, groundwater availability is not the only factor affecting New Mexico farms. Quality, too, figures as a crucial component of the water portfolio.
"Salty" is how Krysten Aguilar, co-executive director of the Anthony-based La Semilla Food Center describes the well water at the non-profit organization's small Mesilla Valley farm.  Plunging to a depth of approximately 330 feet, La Semilla's well sucks out water with a high salinity content- a not uncommon occurrence in the valley- which negatively affects yields.
But La Semilla's leaders view water consumption as one piece of an overall farming strategy and philosophy that includes soil health, appropriate plant choice and organic methods.
"We've been doing a lot of things to attract native pollinators," said La Semilla's other executive co-director and founder, Cristina Dominguez Eshelman. By incorporating native Chihuahuan desert plants on the farm, more beneficial insects that prey on pests are attracted to the farm, she said.
Now 10 years old, La Semilla does year-round farming, producing greens in the winter. "We've been doing continuous vegetable production for the last five years," Dominguez Eshelman added. To aid in growing, the Mesilla Valley farm uses row covers and sometimes a hoop house.
La Semilla's farming practices are guided by the concept of agroecology. Concretely, that means "landscape approach, crop diversity, and rotation, integrating crops and livestock (manure) and cover crops," according to the organization. Viewing actual farming as just one part of the food system, La Semilla is also involved in community education, "edible" education, food policy advocacy and much more.
"La Semilla Community Farm provides opportunities to grow farmers and support local farms in historically underserved areas, but also supports a generation of producers that are adapting innovative practices and system, re-defining what a healthy farm in the Chihuahuan desert looks like," the Mesilla Valley food center notes.
But hanging over the futures of Mesilla Valley farmers is a pending Supreme Court case that pits Texas against New Mexico over Rio Grande water and the alleged over pumping of groundwater in the Mesilla Valley. The conflict is rooted in decades of differences stemming from the geographic flow of the river and the hydrology surrounding it; national and international water sharing compacts; environmental impacts from crop choices; the sweeping influence of the global agricultural market and, increasingly, climate change.
"We don't get enough of it," Cook said of the irrigation water supply and controversies with Texas downriver. "We need it to rain, and it would be nice for EBID to get us more water and if we didn't have to send more water down to Texas because of that lovely agreement."
For La Semilla's Krysten Aguilar, the lawsuit is "concerning" but a somewhat distant matter for the moment. "I know it's there and it's crazy but it's not here yet," in the same way as problems like climate change, she said.
In her conversations with farmers, Brause has found concern about the lawsuit's possible consequences, but more immediate worries including the performance of markets, weather, prices, disease, and labor availability.  "Every day there is something that is imminent that can end their business," she said.
Author-journalist Kent Paterson is a regular contributor to the Digie Zone Network.
Editor's note: This story is the first in a series on water issues in the Paso del Norte borderland of southern New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. The series is made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.