In a few months, the Benedictine Monastery of Tucson had become a hub of the migratory flow: American authorities were sending asylum seekers there from all the border posts in Arizona, and even from California and Texas. In April, by day, they laid on the doorstep up to 290 people, supported by the volunteers of Casa Alitas, a humanitarian association of the Catholic Church. The place was so overwhelmed that a dozen additional places (motels, gymnasiums, abandoned buildings) had also been requisitioned. And in the middle of the summer, due to long-standing work in the monastery, Casa Alitas had to move its home program.
In mid-July, when Release go on the spot, everything is ready in the nave of the monastery, as every day, to welcome the asylum seekers arrived from the border. The soft toys wait to comfort the children, the beds of camp stand in reinforcement in case the dormitories would be full. Volunteers have their hands filled with items usually confiscated by American authorities in the transit and detention centers for migrants: belts, laces, rosaries.
Since October 2018, more than 13,800 migrants have passed through this reception center. All were released by the ICE, the immigration police, and the CBP, the border police, after having been summoned to be heard by an immigration judge. During their stay of two to three days, the volunteers help them to organize the trip to join their "sponsor", a person legally present on the American territory who agrees to act as guarantor during the examination of the asylum application. The walls of the shelter are lined with maps because migrants often do not know where they are. They indicate sometimes the distances, sometimes the climates.
During the first half of July, the flow suddenly dried up. And that morning, the volunteers seem clueless: only 27 migrants woke up at the monastery. The ICE only adds another 10 in the early afternoon. Two Mexican families and a Cuban family get off the immigration police bus in silence. They cross the yard strewn with abandoned tricycles and enter the church. They stand on two benches. "We do not know why the numbers suddenly dropped, comments Diego Lopez, coordinator of the host program of the association. In any case, it is observed that recently arrived people have more difficulties, especially in medical terms. "
In one of the dormitories is a Cuban 81 years old. His health gradually deteriorated between April and July, the time that his family had to wait to talk to an American official. Three young Mexican girls, all dumb, roam the corridors. They communicate with volunteers by writing on a school slate. Ana (1), a 19-year-old Guatemalan, seven and a half months pregnant, is peacefully seated in the "departure room" when a nurse comes to tell her that she will not be able to take the trip to her uncle, At New York. His health is worrying and his contractions already too regular. "On the Mexican side, the border is congested and the waiting for a convocation is getting longer, says Christie Voelkel, a volunteer. Time is playing against migrants more and more. "
Because on the other side of the wall, the shelters are always full. In Nogales, a Mexican city south of Tucson, the waiting time for an interview called "credible fear" (where the candidate must prove that he legitimately fears for his life in his country) with a US official, first step of the asylum process, is about three months.
"Cartels have eyes"
Since February, word-of-mouth has led more and more migrants to queues at the small border crossing of Agua Prieta, a city considered dangerous, two hours away. It is said that the waiting period is five to six weeks. The only migrant shelter in the city has itself set up a waiting list after, in early June, 170 people cohabited in a space of 45 beds, making the place unhealthy.
When their turn comes to speak to an American official, the migrants will sleep under plastic tarpaulins, at the foot of the rust-colored wall topped with barbed wire, under the very noses of the border guards. Volunteers from the United States visit the families every day and take turns to accompany them on the 400 m separating them from the sanitary facilities made available by a convent. They are wearing a yellow vest with the words "help to migrants". "The cartel of Agua Prieta has already threatened migrants and we know they are watching, says Lucy Nigh, a good sister who lives in Douglas, on the American side. It is worrisome to know that families are exposed here to the dangers they wanted to flee by leaving everything behind. " Clara, a Mexican woman who left the state of Guerrero after a cartel threatened to abduct her family, paced in front of the tent when she needed to stretch her legs or walk her children. She has camped for five days at the border, which everyone here calls "line" : "I did not tell anyone where I was going, she whispers, cradling her 2-year-old son. In my country, people say that even under stones, cartels have eyes. "
700 km to the east, on the "line" from Tijuana, the migrants are surrounded by a very different procession. The Mexican Federal Police stands on one side, soldiers of the National Guard on the other, perched on the pedestrian bridge that leads to the sister city of San Diego, United States. They are part of the support of 15,000 law enforcement personnel deployed by the Mexican government on the northern border, in response to the threat of customs sanctions from the Trump administration. On June 7, she gave Mexico 45 days to stop the flow of migrants. The security deployment ordered by Mexico City seems to have contributed to the recent fall of the American-American arrests – less than 43% between May and July.
At the crossing point of El Chaparral, in Tijuana, no encampment is tolerated. Migrants flock at dawn, their children wrapped in blankets when the fog has not risen yet. Newcomers register on the "list", an unofficial register that records the order of arrival. It is a school notebook, held by migrants elected by their peers to accomplish this task until it is their turn to cross. They stand under a makeshift marquee, surrounded by agents from the Beta Group, a Mexican body officially responsible for the protection of migrants. This group claims to take care of the notebook to avoid any attempt of corruption. So he keeps it every night, "For safety reasons", and bring him back in the early morning. But along the "line", migrants suspect these agents to take bribes themselves. "It seems like it's more expensive for blacks," launches a Cameroonian, without saying if he's joking.
Mario arrives from the state of Morelos, in central Mexico. He is given the number 3 664. He explains in a few words that it is urgent that the cartel of his village has killed his wife and then his son-in-law, and that his 17-year-old daughter will soon give birth. "I have all the evidence," he insists, waving a file while his twins are staring at the floor. A Group Beta agent responds that he can not help: "Better to come back tomorrow," he concluded, closing the barrier. Mario does not know that the last number called is 2 702. That each number in the list represents a group of 10 people. And that he has just visited the most congested place on the entire border. In Tijuana, more than 9,600 people are already waiting for their number to be called. Due to "Metering" a system called "dosing" adopted by the US authorities, the number of interviews granted by the border police fell from 42 per day between November and May, to 24 on average in June, then to 3 per day on the first half of July. For the fifth consecutive day, July 15th, no number is called.
A young Mexican woman from Chiapas cashes the news in silence, sitting on the sidewalk. For five weeks, she has been walking every morning from her reception center, with her three backpacks and three children. "I always take everything, She says. In case all of a sudden they bring in a lot of people. " River, an American activist living in Tijuana, knows the regulars. He goes on the "line" every day to show that someone, who more is a "Gringo" take note of what is going on there. He comments, bitter: "The quota system as it is used by the Trump administration is maintaining and then killing people's hopes slowly."
Tijuana should not only welcome the migrants on the list, who park there for longer and longer. It must also, like the border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and, since July 19, Matamoros, serve as a refuge for those called "Retornados" ghosts. After a first interview, these migrants, mostly Central Americans, are sent back to Mexico to wait for their date of hearing with an immigration judge, in accordance with the protocol set up by the Trump administration in January. Since then, the number of "Retornados" only swells: nearly 20,000 mid-July, more than 37,500 end of August. For some, the hearing date is not scheduled until December.
Pastor Gustavo Banda recently received 46 "Retornados" because its reception center, the furthest away from the "line", was the only one in Tijuana to still have room. Ten days later, at the scorpion canyon, a slum-like hill strewn with garbage and surveyed by pigs, there are now only six. Twenty preferred to take the opposite path and return "in the country". Another twenty went in search of a job and a home to start a new life in Tijuana. Luis is one of those who stayed. While waiting for his hearing, in mid-September, this Honduran father with a chiselled face by the trip takes care as he can, ensuring the security at the gate of his reception center. "I have no more money, He laments. I will never be able to find a lawyer. I've been told that even after this interview, I'll have to come back here and wait for the next one, God knows when. I do not know how long we will keep. " He wishes to leave Tijuana at all costs: "Shots, too, my 8-year-old son hears every day."
Elena confides in the darkness of the dining room of the Movimiento Juventud 2000 reception center, a hall filled with tents in which she cohabits with 138 migrants. She writes her apron that her journey began May 11, in Honduras, when she decided to extract her 9-year-old son, forcibly conscripted by a cartel, "First to prevent when the police arrive, then for more troublesome things". It evokes buses, then "the Beast", the famous goods train borrowed by migrants to go back to Mexico to the United States. This trip has earned her an accidental pregnancy, which she does not want to talk about. "Once in Tijuana, I went to the line with my son and my misfortunes and I could see that the list was not going forward, She continues. I preferred to pay $ 4,000 for me to get under the wall in Tecate. I said to myself, either it's okay, and we'll be safe. Either that does not happen, and I can at least talk to an American. I did not know that I would be sent back here and that we would have to start all over again. "
Elena expects to wait until the date of her hearing on 23 September. She is ready to return to the "cooler", the cold cell at the tiny window where she was detained in the United States without knowing how long because "There is no time, and we do not really know if it's day or night". She has mostly retained sounds: the crying of children, the laughter too and the rustling of the blankets of survival. "If after all this I'm sent back here again, I will not lose hope, She concludes. I will try another passage, but further this time. " She says that her debts, which lengthen as she goes, prevent her from returning anyway.
For José García Lara, director of Movimiento Juventud 2000, the administrative retention strategy chosen by the Trump administration pushes the flow not to dry up, but to move and change shape: "There is no more caravan, but the migrants continue to arrive, drop by drop, says he. There are fewer Central Americans, but the list continues to grow, with major arrivals from Cameroon and Eritreans. US policy drives migrants to aim out of the wall, holes and sides. " He enumerates: "There is the mountain, the desert, the sea. That, or a dangerous return home." Under the roof in the jail of the reception center, adults sweep inside their tents. Children draw houses above ground, buses, big frightened eyes, long tortuous walls, sometimes as thorny as cacti. A small group hesitates between playing hide-and-seek and musical chairs.
(1) the first names have been changed.
Laure Andrillon special envoy to Texas and Mexico