Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Witness to the Refugee Crisis on the U.S.-Mexico Border

July 17, 2014

  Susan Gunn, CCAO Communications & Outreach Associate

Luis Enriquez Jacquez

In El Paso, we have experienced an increase in the number of migrants for the last two years. We were told by U.S. Border Control to expect 60,000 people this year. We have been in crisis-mode since April.

We haven’t seen a big increase in kids staying in El Paso. Everyone is saying it but we haven’t seen it. So we’re thinking kids are being sent to the big camps in San Antonia and in Oklahoma.

We have stopped seeing teenagers and started seeing kids under the age of 12. We’re thinking that there will probably be a big deportation of teenagers and anyone under the age of 13 will be allowed to stay behind. That’s what we suspect but we don’t know if that is true or not.

The shelter where I work has a facility just for pregnant teenagers and children under the age of 12. Usually it will be 50-50 children over and under the age of 12 and now I would say it’s 90% under the age of 12. And the other shelters where it is just supposed to be for teenagers – that’s all they are licensed for – they are packed with probably 80% under the age of 10. We’re seeing a lot of five year olds and six year olds. It’s really devastating to see so many unaccompanied minors that young.

For the last month in El Paso, the gentleman who runs the migrant house in El Paso [Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House] started getting phone calls from ICE saying we have families and we don’t know what to do with them because there are no detention centers for families so we are going to release them to the public, to their family members. What they are doing in Arizona is they are just leaving them at the bus station but they have no one to contact. Can they stay with you? What we have seen and we’re really happy with is ICE and Border Control have a really humanitarian perspective. They see care of the families as a big priority. They don’t want to just release them to the street with nothing, no money. And so for about a month now, in El Paso we have received over 2,000 families, mostly women and children that have been released by ICE. They are in the process of deportation but they are going to try to reunite with their family members.

One thing I read in the [Washington] Post is that this is all government-funded but the only thing that the government has given us is the ride from ICE to the sites where we are housing families. Everything else, food and clothing for the migrants, is all done by donations. Even the bus and plane tickets to go be with their family members is bought by their family members, not by us or the churches.

There is a coalition of churches from Catholic to Christian Evangelical that are coming together. We now have five sites that all in all can hold up to 400 people at one time. They are in the process of being reunited with family members. We’ve seen mothers with children, fathers with children. We haven’t seen separation of families except for the unaccompanied minors in the sense of a mother comes with her child but also her niece or nephew. The mother is released with the child but the niece or nephew because they are not with the parent, have to be separated and sent to a detention center. Those are the only incidences of separation we’ve seen.

As of right now, we know that there was only one detention center for family members but they opened up an emergency detention center in Artesia, New Mexico that can hold up to 650 families. It won’t be complete families. It will be just mothers and children. If fathers do come, I think they will release the fathers if they have a child. That’s my understanding of it. They opened last week and received the first group. We think that shelter is going to be the fast-track deportation site. We heard that this week a coalition of Catholic sisters and legal aides are going to go into that detention center and see if there is representation of the families.

What has been reported to us by the families is that in South Texas reports of verbal abuse, some spitting, by Border agents and people coming to the area to protest. In El Paso, Border agents are completely different and treat them humanely. Where as in Arizona and South Texas they just throw the food at them. I don’t know if it’s because of the overwhelming numbers. My brother-in-law is a border agent and his friends were saying that one thousand people come up to one agent each day. It’s not like they’re escaping or running away. They go to the border agent saying “We’re here to declare ourselves. We want to escape the violence.”

Working with the kids, everyone is telling us that the violence is getting worse. I could say that three years ago most of the children would say the reason they left Honduras was that they wanted to be with their moms. Now it is getting bad. The gangs are coming to their school. One boy went into detail saying the gangs would come every Monday or Wednesday, or something like that, to their school and count the number of boys and tells them “OK, meet here at three. If you don’t, we will kill you or kill your family.” So their grandmas or aunts who are taking care of them say “Just go to the United States. Go be with your mom. Or your uncle who is up there.” It’s been astonishing, the amount of violence, the sheer audacity of what’s happening.

A lot of girls are also being abused. Currently, in our custody we have two Guatemalan girls, who are 11 years old and are about seven months pregnant due to rape and assault. We don’t know if it was on the journey or there in their home country. It was reported that Guatemala is now one of the most dangerous countries for women. I heard a report that one out of four are victims of rape. We’re seeing a lot of Guatemalan females coming through downtown El Paso.

Also something is that they’re crossing through the bridges as well, and declaring themselves at the port of entries instead of just crossing the river. Before we never had anyone cross the border at the El Paso region. It was always from South Texas or Arizona but now we are getting a substantial amount of kids crossing the border at the port of entry through Juarez. Recently there was a little girl who died, who killed herself in Juarez. We don’t know what the human smugglers are bringing them [through], how they are treating them, what’s going on, what’s the status of that.

As far as I know they have said that the travel through Mexico is getting safer because there was a lot of pressure on Mexico last year from the international community to establish a safer route. So a lot of kids haven’t talked about assault in Mexico but it’s still going on.

I’ve been really impressed by the El Paso region on how they have been treating the families. About 99% have been released and reunited with their family members. About 1% have decided to stay in El Paso to await their court hearing. We have had a lot of mothers who we have asked “Who you know in the United States.  Who is going to be helping you with your case?” And they say “A friend of a friend that I met on the internet.” So we don’t know about human trafficking, where they are going, what is the status. That’s the reality and the sad fact, too that these families come with little or no information of where they are going but they need to escape the violence.

The reality is that El Paso is one of the poorest zip codes in the United States but it’s still providing a lot of services for the families coming in. We keep hearing about immigration reform but we haven’t heard that this a refugee crisis. We really stand with the [U.S.] Representative Beto O’Rourke who has been really outspoken and supports what’s happening in El Paso. He is saying that we need to identify the children as refugees.

By Susan Gunn, CCAO Communications & Outreach Associate
Contributions made by Ben Martell, Peace & Conflict Transformation Intern