On US-Mexican border, the rules change, but human impulses don't

Why We Wrote This

Immigration is a topic heavy with statistics and policy proposals. But it's also about humanity. Our reporter went to the Texas-Mexico border to hear stories from people on both sides.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Joyce Hamilton, a retired educator who lives in Harlingen, Texas, gives supplies to a Honduran family waiting on the Gateway International Bridge to seek asylum in the US.

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When Joyce Hamilton heard that people were lined up in 100-degree heat on the bridge connecting Reynosa, Mexico, with Hidalgo, Texas, she went to them. She carried water and snacks, umbrellas and fans. On a second visit she found a longer line, and resolved to make regular supply runs. Ever since the Trump administration implemented its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy last month – prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border without proper documents – the situation has been changing quickly. Yesterday, President Trump ordered an end to the separation of undocumented families. But there is confusion over what the rest of the order will mean for the situation at the border. What hasn’t changed: the flow. Most of the would-be crossers are from the Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where murder rates exceed those in war zones. Those already in Mexico are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of detention or long waits, advocates say. “Where they’re coming from, they’re poor and afraid,” says Ernie Mascorro, a resident of Brownsville, Texas, who was waiting to enter the United States after visiting family in Reynosa. “This is not going to stop.”

So much has happened so fast, Joyce Hamilton says, that she has to double-check exactly when her small role in the 2018 border crisis began.

Checking her calendar in a park across the street from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville earlier this week, her guess is close: 15 days ago.

There had been nothing in the news then, and no one had been talking about it until she heard from a friend of a friend that asylum-seekers were lined up on the bridge connecting Reynosa, Mexico with Hidalgo, Texas – a few miles south of McAllen.

At first she was surprised, says Ms. Hamilton, a retired educator who lives in Harlingen – then eager to learn what supplies the asylum-seekers needed.

Ever since the Trump administration implemented its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy last month – prosecuting everyone caught crossing the border without proper documents, including those requesting asylum – the situation on the US-Mexico border, particularly here in the Rio Grande Valley, has been changing quickly.

After hearing of the line at the bridge, Hamilton and a group of her friends packed their cars with water, snacks, clothes, sun umbrellas, and fans to fight the 100-degree afternoon heat and brought the supplies through the turnstiles into Mexico. There, about 40 asylum-seekers told them they had been waiting at the border for upwards of five days.

When she returned with friends four days later, the line had doubled.

“They were just kind of pleading for specific clothing items, and alimentos, food for the kids,” she says. “They’re not MS-13. It’s not gang people,” she adds. “These are good people from little villages in central America trying to get away from violence.”

Hamilton, who resolved to bring supplies every few days after her second trip to the bridge, says she has found it hard to keep up with the changing situation on the border.

Just Wednesday, President Trump ordered an end to the most controversial aspect of the zero-tolerance policy: the separation of undocumented families caught crossing the border.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Ms. Hamilton talks with US Custom and Border Patrol officers on the Gateway International Bridge. She was bringing supplies for asylum-seekers who were sleeping on the bridge.

The changes at the border notwithstanding, advocates for migrants and asylum-seekers see no let-up in the demand to enter the United States. Almost all the migrants are coming from the “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – where murder rates exceed even those in active war zones – and are unlikely to be deterred by months in immigrant detention or long waits on bridges over the Rio Grande, the advocates say.

“It’s a life-or-death decision for them,” says Efrén Olivares, director of the racial economic justice program at the Texas Civil Rights Project in Alamo, Texas. “It’s going back to the threat of ‘If I ever see you again I’m going to shoot you in the head’ – after they’ve shot your brother in the head.”

Meanwhile, if the reversal of family separations means children as young as 12 months should no longer be detained without their parents, it is unlikely to mitigate – and may even exacerbate – other consequences of the zero-tolerance policy, experts and advocates say. There is no clear plan for how to reunite the more than 2,300 children already separated from their families, the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday.

“We’re certainly happy that children aren’t being ripped from their parents, but it really does appear that the executive order is trading one humanitarian crisis for another,” says Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “Children won’t now face immediate separation or long-term separation from their parents, but it appears they’re going to be locked up together in detention facilities” while their cases are processed, she adds.

Lined up on the bridge

Most days on the Gateway International Bridge between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, the only sign that you’ve crossed an international border is a change in the tiling of the walkway near the center of the bridge.

Earlier this week, however, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers had set up a small wooden desk at the line, with about a dozen asylum-seekers waiting on the Mexican side. They had all spent weeks traveling here from Central America, and days sleeping and waiting on the bridge.

One of them was Marcos, who said he rode buses for 20 days to escape violence in his native Guatemala. Next to him was a Guatemalan family of four who said they left because of the volcanic eruption there this month.

Alla, a teenager from Honduras in a tattered New York Yankees t-shirt who traveled here with his mother and two younger siblings, wandered back and forth between asylum-seekers sitting or sleeping against the fence and the long line of people making routine crossings from Matamoros.


Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
A Honduran woman, who asked to not be named, and her three-year-old son waiting on the Gateway International Bridge to seek asylum in the US. They had spent three days sleeping on cardboard boxes on the bridge, having fled "violence and killings" in their home country.

Near the feet of the CBP officers, a young woman from Honduras, who asked not to be named, waited with her 3-year-old son amid boxes of water, baby formula, and bread, clutching her own backpack.

“I think [the situation] is really bad for the kids,” says Ernie Mascorro, a Brownsville resident who was waiting to enter the US after visiting family in Reynosa.

“Where they’re coming from, they’re poor and afraid,” he adds. “This is not going to stop.”

Even after fleeing to Mexico, many migrants don’t even feel safe, propelling their journey north. Last year a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, on the Guatemala border, for example, reported gang members in the shelter that were essentially stalking refugees.

US support for immigration

While families caught crossing the border will no longer be separated, Mr. Trump’s executive order made clear that the policy of prosecuting every illegal entrant will continue.

Yet recent US polls have found strong public support for immigration as well as strong public opposition to family separation. A record-high 75 percent of Americans think immigration is “a good thing for the US,” according to a Gallup poll conducted in the first two weeks of this month and released Thursday. On Monday, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 66 percent of voters opposed the family separations policy. Ninety-one percent of Democratic voters opposed it and 55 percent of Republican voters supported it.

That public pressure – and political pressure from Republican Party and religious leaders – seems to have prompted Trump’s reversal on family separations.

Besides the fact that migrant families will no longer be separated, there is significant confusion over what the rest of the executive order will mean for the situation at the border. The administration has not clarified if or how families who have already been separated will be reunited.

SOURCE: Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geographica, New York University, US Geological Survey, Natural Earth, US Customs and Border Protection
Jacob Turcotte and Henry Gass/Staff

The government currently faces strict requirements when it comes to detaining children – including keeping them in the “least restrictive conditions” possible while they are detained and placing them with a relative “without unnecessary delay” – but the order directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to try and modify those requirements.

Advocates are also concerned about a section saying the Department of Defense could make “existing facilities available” to house detained families.

“They’re going to detain the families throughout the immigration proceedings, families are going to be detained, imprisoned, incarcerated for over a year,” says Mr. Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “In some ways the executive order makes things worse.”

Back on the Gateway International Bridge, the two tote bags of supplies that Hamilton had brought are empty. In line to reenter the US, she leans against a railing in exhaustion.

“I feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place, and I’m sorry that we’re part of that rock and hard place,” she says. “These are people trying to get away from danger, they’re not bringing the danger. I just really wish that people would see that.”

Correspondent Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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