Across the Border

The War on Migrants

Is hiding the problem the answer?


Where have all the migrants gone? For some months now, the extraordinary program put together by the city of Deming has been empty. When I last visited, the cots were in neat rows, the storeroom was full of blankets, clothing and hygienic items like toothbrushes, and volunteers were ready to assist. On the walls there were large welcoming banners in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

In July, Aaron Sera, the City Manager told me that the goal was to be “the model shelter in the Southwest border.” Now it is empty. Why? Because of President Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy.

Historically, migrants coming to the United States could stay with family members or sponsors until their actual judicial hearing. When this process was in effect, many of them would be brought to the Deming shelter by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). They would be given a medical check-up and then transportation would be arranged for them to go to the family members or sponsors.

This worked. A very high percentage of those released into the U.S. showed up for their hearings.

Now Remain in Mexico forces them to return to Mexico and wait there for their judicial hearings. This means that thousands of migrants who were exercising their legal right to apply for asylum are jammed into border towns like Juárez. There are some shelters like La Casa del Migrante but not nearly enough for everyone.

So, a problem that was highly visible and controversial has disappeared. Or has it?

On Sunday, Sept. 29, I was in Juárez and went to the international bridge with two good friends, Father Peter Hinde and Sister Betty Campbell. They have maintained a ministry named Tabor House in Juárez for 23 years.

What we saw on the narrow side street that leads diagonally to the bridge were some 200 migrants from the very dangerous Mexican state of Michaocán. For two weeks they had been living on the sidewalk that flanks the street, using thin foam pads and some blankets and sleeping bags. Sheets of plastic had been draped above them for protection from rain. What do they do all day? How are they fed? What about bathrooms? I visited again on Nov. 3 and there were even more living on this squalid street. It is an inhuman way to live, especially for little children.

Look at the contrast. Earlier this year there were about 200 migrants in Deming, safe and treated with care. Now that facility is empty and there are 200 migrants living on the sidewalk in Juárez. (There are many more in the Chamizal Park but I haven’t yet had a chance to visit there.) Not only are these conditions squalid but life in Juárez is still dangerous. In the first six months of 2019 there were twice as many homicides in Juárez as the combined total for the two much larger cities of Chicago and New York.

President Trump has waged war on migrants, and he has won this phase. With migrants now dispersed in border towns like Juárez, this may become a hidden chapter in American history but it’s a shameful one.

The Wall

The second issue is the border wall that President Trump promised would be built and paid for by Mexico. What has happened? Look at the area west of El Paso and Juárez and between the Santa Teresa border crossing and Monte Cristo Rey. We were astonished back at Easter to see that the wall ended in that area. At that time, it was the now-disbanded militia that was watching the area and reporting crossings to the CBP when people came across. On a later trip, a dozen young migrants came running across and sped by my car. Then a CBP officer then told me that they had sensors at that opening so that they could quickly spot those entering illegally. At the same time a family in Anapra invited me to come by some evening and watch migrants show up after dark and quickly surge over the wall with ladders. They no longer needed that gap where they had been crossing earlier.

When I visited on Oct. 18, however, there were at least 40 Mexican soldiers at the gap and along the wall where the migrants had previously been crossing with ladders. The two I talked to were from Veracruz; they had no idea how long they would be stationed in Juárez and stuck with this boring work, but they were convinced that they were stopping anyone from crossing. I spoke to other soldiers on Nov. 2; again, they had no idea how long they would be stationed in Juárez.

Maybe this will work. Maybe Trump was right. Maybe Mexico has built and paid for a wall as he claimed it would but with soldiers rather than barriers.

There is a cost, however. Thirteen police officers were killed in an ambush in Michoacán on Monday, Oct. 14 and on Thursday, cartel gunmen overwhelmed 35 soldiers and police in Culiacán and forced them to release Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo’s son. Would these atrocities have been possible if Mexican soldiers hadn’t been diverted to the border?

No one would make the lengthy, expensive and dangerous trip from Central America to the U.S. border to ask for asylum unless the conditions in their home country were unbearable. Our goal must be to help stabilize those countries in order to reduce the pressure to flee. Yes, border controls are essential but unless the conditions of violence, corruption and poverty are alleviated in those Central American countries, the walls that separate us will continue to be breached and the misery will continue.

Morgan Smith is a free-lance writer who has been making monthly trips to the border in order to document conditions there and assist a variety of humanitarian programs. He can be reached at