Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The laughter of children playing games and kicking around a soccer ball has long since faded from inside the former National Guard Armory in Deming. So has the chatter of volunteers sorting clothes, washing dishes and cooking.
For months in the spring and summer of 2019, this building about 40 miles from the Mexican border was transformed into a makeshift shelter that offered a safe haven to thousands of migrants.
But the last of the asylum-seekers – mostly from Central America – were dropped off in Deming in October, City Administrator Aaron Sera said. The southern New Mexico city with a population of 15,000 cared for more than 10,000 immigrants last year.
American border communities are no longer overwhelmed with immigrants, as Deming and Las Cruces were a year ago. El Paso, which at one time was home to 14 shelters for migrants, no longer has one.
“But we still have people and shelters on standby; we have people willing to help,” said Rosalio Sosa, a pastor who spends time at migrant shelters in Juárez and Palomas, Mexico.
In one Palomas shelter, several wait for their opportunity to go to the U.S. Many of them are from Cuba.
A red Cuban baseball jersey hangs over Osmary Opizo Harey’s bunk at the Tierra de Oro shelter, a refuge for migrants. Harey, a Cuban migrant, is 25 years old and has spent about two months near the port of entry in Palomas, waiting for his number to be called for an asylum interview. Harey, like about a dozen other migrants, is stuck in limbo while trying to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, the shelter has had to convert a tent with six beds into a quarantine area for new arrivals.
Angelo, a 9-year-old boy from Cuba, is traveling with his grandmother. The boy’s parents are already in the United States.
The number of families crossing the border as a unit in the El Paso sector – which includes New Mexico – has dropped 92% from 124,855 year-to-date in July 2019 to 9,492 in July this year. The number of unaccompanied children fell 77%, from 15,348 in the first seven months of 2019 to 3,591 this year.
There has been an increase in arrests along the border in the past few months, from 16,968 in April to 40,746 in July in the Southwestern region of the border, but those numbers fall well below 2019 levels, when 144,000 were arrested or detained in May and more than 81,777 were apprehended in July.
Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said the majority of those arrested from May to July this year were single adults, in contrast to the large numbers of families that were apprehended by the hundreds in remote places along the border in such places as Antelope Wells in New Mexico’s Bootheel last year.
CBP officials attribute part of the drop in crossings to the COVID-19 policies put into place by the Trump administration in March.
The policies – implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – bar the introduction of “certain aliens” migrating from Canada or Mexico regardless of countries of origin. And Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries where most of the migrants come from, have also closed their borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Imagine the disaster at our borders if there were a sudden migrant surge from Mexico and other countries – thousands of potentially infected individuals in close contact with each other and hundreds of CBP and other law enforcement personnel would be at risk of testing positive for COVID-19,” Morgan said in a news release. “This threat could seriously affect border security and overwhelm an already taxed health system. We refuse to put American lives at risk.”
The number of crossings dropped by almost half from March to April, when the policies were first implemented.
CBP has about 100 migrants in custody at a given time, according to Morgan, and “some Border Patrol stations go days without a single individual in custody.”
Although CBP spokesperson Dennis Smith told the Journal that apprehensions are handled case by case, most are processed and returned to Mexico within two hours “with extremely limited human interaction,” according to Morgan.
But that is something Sosa disputes.
“They are returning people day and night without any processing,” he said. “And that includes minors.”
And the practice of returning unaccompanied minors, children 17 and under, has met criticism from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
“I find it disgusting that the president is using a global pandemic as cover to implement its inhumane, anti-immigrant policies and turn away migrant children at our nation’s southern border – many of whom are fleeing extreme violence and terror in their home countries,” Heinrich said in a statement.
And while the COVID-19 policies may be among the reasons for the decrease in crossings, the numbers were dropping significantly before the onset of the pandemic.
There were about 36,000 apprehensions in February, a drop of nearly 40,000 from the same period last year. There were 34,000 in March, a drop from 103,000 in March 2019.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy – which was struck down in federal court butwas allowed by the Supreme Court to remain in place through the appeals process – is cited as another reason for the decrease. It is officially called the Migrant Protections Protocols and requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their U.S. immigration court hearing.
Tougher enforcement by Mexico at both of its borders, including the use of National Guard troops, is also credited with contributing to the decline in the number of migrants.
According to The Washington Post, President Donald Trump praised Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for his cooperation on immigration enforcement.
But the Remain in Mexico policy has not been without consequences.
Although American border communities are no longer overwhelmed, that is not the case in Mexico.
Sosa was asked to help set up a shelter in February in Palomas, where some migrants had been left to sleep on the streets, he said. Shelters were also set up in Juárez, and a migrant camp has been set up in Matamoros, Mexico.
Sera said the city of Deming sent leftover donations it received last year to Palomas “to assist with their migrant population.”
Sosa said that the number of migrants staying in Palomas changes by the day but that those in Juárez shelters are “staying until their asylum cases are heard.”
“And the pandemic has pushed back the timeline for their cases to be heard.”
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., visited the Matamoros camp after the Remain in Mexico policy was implemented last year. He was critical of the conditions and voiced concern about the safety of those staying in the camp.
It is also a concern for Sosa.
“There are parts of Mexico that are more dangerous than the countries they are fleeing, especially the women and children,” he said. “They are in danger of kidnapping, rape and assault.”
Anthony Jackson and photographer Roberto E. Rosales contributed to this report.