Nov 9, 2018
Migrant lives suspended in the Paso del Norte Borderland
Migrant Lives Suspended
in the Paso del Norte Borderland
Kent Paterson/Digie Zone Network
Border at Juarez-El Paso -- Their lives literally suspended over the Rio Grande, hundreds of migrants camped out on one of the two pedestrian lanes of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Ciudad Juárez with El Paso find themselves patiently awaiting their turn at making a case for U.S. asylum.
For the past two weeks migrants, principally from Central America and Cuba, have transformed the side of the Santa Fe Bridge leading into El Paso into a rudimentary "tent" city as they endure chilly nights, noisy traffic, exhaust fumes, and occasional harassment from passerby.
Without the aid of so many generous Mexicans, "We wouldn't be able to live with the cold and hunger," declared Yolanda, a 20-year-old woman from Guatemala who snuggled up next to a sleeping toddler she said was her daughter.
Stretched out like a long human ribbon from the foot of the Mexican side of the bridge up to the U.S. line at the top, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents check the documents of anyone wanting to cross into this country, upwards of 200 migrants pass their days and nights amid a jumble of mats, backpacks, piles of clothing and blankets fashioned into tent-like coverings.
Men, women and children, of all colors and sizes, form the campers' ranks. The "older" migrants aren't all that old, strikingly representing the prime working age demographic of their own nations. To pass the time while waiting their chance to cross into the U.S., migrants watch traffic zip by on the Mexican boulevard underneath the bridge or gaze at the trickles of the Rio Grande and Franklin Canal below, a deceptively deadly crossing which has claimed numerous migrant lives when it is filled with water.
The Santa Fe Bridge group is not part of one of the caravans traveling north from Central America that have received so much media play and negative comments from President Trump, especially in the lead-up to the November 6 elections.
But Donald Trump might like Eddy. The friendly, 29-year-old from Havana, Cuba, is fervently anti-communist. In comments to this reporter, he referred to the Caribbean nation's socialist government as a "monarchy" dominated first by Fidel Castro and then his brother Raul. Eddy and another young Cuban man resting next to him also denounced obligatory military service, poverty and media manipulation back home.
"They took everything from my family and left us in the streets," Eddy charged, saying that his family had property expropriated decades ago by the Cuban government and he has relatives in Miami he hopes to reunite with if granted U.S. asylum. Asked his opinion about waiting on the bridge or even spending time in U.S. immigrant detention if that happens, Eddy said in the end it will be all worth it.
"It's not important how long we are here. It's for freedom," he insisted.
Sharing the bridge with Eddy and other Cubans are migrants with sharp complaints about U.S.-backed, decidedly capitalist countries like Guatemala. "We hope they let us through. We're poor, and it's critical. There's no work-you earn very little,” said Esperanza, a woman from the Guatemalan highlands.
For Felipe, entering the United States is a matter of health. Although declining to discuss in detail his medical problem, the young man said he needs special medication that he can't obtain at home or easily in Mexico.
"I want to go (to the U.S.) and get cured. You can't in Guatemala. There's no medicine," he said. "My medicine is expiring and I need it in three days...I'm almost tormented. I want to get well."
Felipe said he didn't know why so many people are fleeing Guatemala, and could only speak about why he departed.
An asylum system stressed
Like the other migrants interviewed at the bridge, Felipe said he had a relative already in the U.S. who could help him out. All the migrants interviewed said they had spent days traveling across Mexico in buses and other vehicles, paying various sums of money for the trip to Ciudad Juárez.
The migrants said small groups of 10, 15 or 20 individuals from the bridge encampment have been periodically admitted into the U.S. by CBP officers for asylum request processing.
“When our ports of entry reach capacity, when their ability to manage all of their missions — counter-narcotics, national security, facilitation of lawful trade — is challenged by the time and the space to process people that are arriving without documents, from time to time we have to manage the queues and address that processing based on that capacity," the El Paso Sector of the CBP said in a statement.
"...No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing once space becomes available or other factors allow for additional parties to arrive."
According to the agency, "the number of inadmissible individuals we are able to process in a day" is determined by a complex sector of factors including available government resources, medical needs, the physical space of the bridge facility and more.
Roger Maier, CBP public affairs specialist for the El Paso sector, clarified that his agency does not do asylum interviews and only processes individuals who are then turned over to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, another Department of Homeland Security agency. "We don't make admissibility decisions," Maier added.
El Diario de Juárez reported November 8 that Mexican federal, state and municipal authorities were considering a plan to remove the migrants from the bridge and transfer them to a shelter like Ciudad Juárez's Casa del Migrante so an orderly and safe system of asylum requesters could be channeled to the U.S.
Migrants, however, are reluctant to leave the Santa Fe Bridge- and their turn in the line- because of the structure's proximity to the U.S. port of entry and the unpredictable timing of when U.S. authorities will call for the next group to get processed.
"We prefer to remain here, and we really are grateful of the attention that (Mexican authorities) want to give us, and yes we are very grateful but prefer to remain here," one waiting migrant was quoted by El Diario.
Besides the Santa Fe Bridge, migrants from Central America and other places have recently turned up at the Zaragoza Bridge on the southern end of Juárez as well as at ports of entry in Brownsville and McAllen in Texas and in San Ysidro (San Diego) in California, according to Mexican and U.S. press reports.
Mexican solidarity comes through
Ciudad Juárez's residents are responding to the migrant crisis with a notable outpouring of material support. Many goods flow from the Mexican Red Cross, multiple church congregations, activist groups and ordinary citizens who ascend the bridge carting water bottles, tortas, sandwiches, burritos, clothing, diapers and other items.
Near the bridge’s entrance the Mexican Red Cross has set up a "permanent" station to serve migrants' needs, according to a staffer. Situated at the bridge's foot, two large public bathrooms for men and women are available to the migrants.
Eddy praised the treatment Mexicans have accorded to the group on the bridge. "It's a good thing that they are helping us," added Esperanza. "They've treated us good."
Pablo Morales is a 24-year-old psychologist who works with the Caravan Collective, a group of Juárez psychologists that is assisting the Red Cross in attending the migrants at the bridge.
In addition to providing any needed psychological attention in a stressful situation where it is difficult to sleep, Morales and his colleagues are helping organize garbage collection and sanitary needs and giving children puzzles and other word games to keep them occupied in a cramped and mundane space.
On November 4 alone, 51 children were counted at the bridge (27 females and 24 males), he said. "We're asking people to bring toys, which mentally stimulates them," he said. Garbage bags, sanitary supplies and disinfectants are likewise needed, according to the Juárez professional.
On a recent evening, José Luis Castillo showed up at the bridge with other members of the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, a grassroots Juarez and El Paso citizens' group which formed amid the national protests in 2014 over the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students in southern Mexico.
Since then, the group has remained active on human rights, environmental and immigration issues. Together with other Popular Assembly members, Castillo distributed meals of rice and mole to hungry migrants and spoke about the need for justice.
Wearing his trademark double-sided poster of his disappeared young daughter Esmeralda, who vanished from Juarez's streets in 2009, Castillo said supporting the migrants was a way of reciprocating the hospitality he and other Juárez and Chihuahua City relatives of violence victims have received from the public on the multiple caravans to Mexico City they've staged in recent years in an effort to publicize their cases and obtain justice.
Supporting the migrants is a way of showing people they "aren't alone.. the people of Ciudad Juárez are with them. "We're not doing anything extraordinary, just returning what people have given to us on our caravans."
Breaking the evening’s boredom a bit, a woman member of the Popular Assembly contingent read a book of stories about women migrants while a man strummed a guitar to tired migrants huddled near the U.S. line.
Dressed as a calavera in Day of the Dead style, Juarez educator Elizabeth Nieto, then read a children's story, Tita y Sus Titeres (Tita and Her Puppets) as a few young ears perked up. The story's plot revolves around a young girl who is put down by a friend for having misshapen finger puppets but then wins over the boy by showing him all the diverse and interesting figures she can display on her hand.
Tita's tale ended, another night was marching on and the November air growing colder. Perhaps several of the migrants waiting on the bridge would finally have their chance at gaining admission to the U.S. the next day.
Kent Paterson is an author-journalist based in New Mexico and a frequent contributor to The Digie Zone Network.