Donald Trump was unable to keep the big campaign promise that delivered the White House to him in 2016. He did not build a wall along the southern border, as he kept claiming he would do with a catchy phrase (We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it) that he repeated tirelessly at election events four years ago in a bid to appeal to his most nationalist voter base, even though experts were warning that such a feat would be impossible due to a geography of over 3,100 kilometers of mountains, rivers and private ranches that separate the US from Mexico.
During the Trump administration, at least 597 kilometers of border barriers have been erected, 90% of them to replace old fencing, according to information provided to EL PAÍS by a spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This agency says that this construction activity “has helped stop smugglers’ behavior and activities” and border crossings by undocumented individuals. But before Trump arrived at the White House, there was already a wall extending along a third of the border, and it did not seem like the most efficient way to stem immigration: during the first half of Trump’s term in office there were record arrivals, mostly Central American families crossing through Mexico to escape a combination of poverty, violence and lack of opportunities in their home countries. And with a dream that further north, with hard work, they might be able to provide their children with a future.
But that does not mean that the president did not achieve his goal. Through a series of decrees, regulatory changes, brutal policies such as separating children from their parents at the border, and agreements with third countries, Trump has created a series of barriers to legal and illegal immigration and, with unexpected help from the coronavirus pandemic, he has managed to virtually close off the southern border to those who used to come seeking refuge.
EL PAÍS has traveled to remote border locations where a wall is being built in a race against the clock, causing significant damage to the environment and to ancestral land and other areas of cultural importance to indigenous populations. Meanwhile, the virtual walls carefully built from White House offices have transferred the task of persecuting migrants to southern countries, leaving tens of thousands of immigrants in a state of limbo and delivering a blow to the right to request asylum in the United States that experts warn could take years to turn around.
What the wall separates
They were there before Mexico and the United States. And they were obviously there long before the first wall came up, a makeshift barrier built between Tijuana and San Diego in 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Tohono O’odham and the Kumiai are two binational Native American nations who are divided by imaginary lines that countries call “borders” and which, with the passing of time, have become physical barriers separating California from Baja California and Arizona from Sonora. Now, with the wall enlargement pushed by Donald Trump, these indigenous groups and environmental organizations are reporting damage in areas that they consider to be sacred, as well as environmental alterations that could have profound consequences for wildlife migration and could even lead to the disappearance of some species.
When Trump arrived at the White House, there were around 1,100 kilometers of border wall between Mexico and the US: from tall fences to stem the flow of undocumented migrants in areas located near urban centers to bollards preventing vehicles from accessing roads in the more remote locations. During his 2016 campaign, the business tycoon pledged to build a wall along 1,600 kilometers of the border. In time, he progressively reduced that target to a little over 800. So far the US government has built 597 kilometers, and by the end of the year, there are plans to reach 724. But Mexico has not contributed a single dollar, even if the US president keeps claiming at his campaign events that it has. In fact, the fight to secure funding for his signature issue led to the longest government shutdown in US history in order to pressure Congress into releasing the necessary resources; Trump also declared a national emergency at the border to channel funds from other departments. And a recent investigation by Propublica and The Texas Tribune has revealed that the infrastructure is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars more than what the initial contracts stipulated.
The virtual walls
In 2018, the indigenous villages of Guatemala that for decades had sent their young people north in search of the “American dream,” almost as a rite of passage into adulthood, began receiving calls informing them of the deaths of children and teenagers in US custody. These were underage migrants who were getting sick after crossing without documentation and not receiving proper medical care. The body of Claudia Patricia Gómez, a 20-year-old from San Juan Ostuncalco, in Quetzaltenango, was sent back to be buried by her family after she was killed by a US border patrol officer who shot her in the head. Under Trump’s presidency, reports of “inhuman treatment” at detention centers have been increasing, notes Pedro Pablo Solares, a lawyer from Guatemala who has been analyzing the migration patterns of his fellow countrymen for years. Sowing terror as a deterrent to immigration has been one of the first strategies followed by the US government to erect virtual walls, if not the most effective.
The most efficient wall built by Donald Trump is not made of cement or steel and it is not several meters high. It is an intricate network of executive actions, administrative orders and agreements with third countries that the administration of the 45th president of the US reached through threats, and which has managed to halt legal and illegal immigration.
“Through bold, sweeping changes as well as less-noted technical adjustments, the Trump administration has dramatically reshaped the US immigration system since entering office in January 2017, reads a report by the Migration Policy Institute published in July 2019 that explores over 400 executive actions on immigration carried out by the government.
Besides changes to the asylum processing system at the southern border, a reduction in the number of refugees accepted into the US, a ban on citizens from certain countries, visa restrictions, hurdles for obtaining citizenship and even orders to turn down asylum applications by individuals fleeing domestic and gang violence, the Trump administration has curtailed the powers of immigration judges, filled the appeals courts with judges appointed by his attorney general, and tried to take away protection from the “Dreamers,” thousands of migrants who arrived in the US as children and to whom former president Barack Obama offered protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Many of these measures have been challenged in the courts, which have reverted some of them, while others are still a matter of dispute.
The new anti-immigrant rhetoric at the White House has sown fear in the country’s undocumented communities. Following the recommendations of Stephen Miller, a 35-year-old political adviser from California who has been linked to white nationalism and is viewed as the main architect of the toughest border policies, Trump has also tried to use fear as a deterrent to migration.
“But these actions, added to a climate of cruelty, had no effect in terms of slowing down the migration flow," notes Solares, the Guatemalan lawyer. In fact, during Trump’s presidency, there have been record detentions of undocumented migrants at the border, especially after a rumor took hold in Central America that if you showed up with a child, the Border Patrol would let you through. Between mid-2018 and 2019, thousands of parents began showing up at the US southern border holding children by the hand, and even with babies in their arms. Contrary to what other migrants had done before them, these families were not trying to cross unnoticed at remote locations. They were simply walking in and seeking out Border Patrol officers to turn themselves in.
Once on US territory, the authorities would process and release them with a court date. But since immigration courts were overburdened, the process could take months and even years. During that time, the migrants could start working and sending money back home to their families while their children went to American schools. This was partly possible thanks to two childhood protection laws that prevented underage minors from being imprisoned. Then came the migrant caravans of Central Americans crossing Mexico together to ensure a safer voyage and avoid paying as much as $10,000 to the coyotes (smugglers) for the crossing.
The images of Central American exodus infuriated Trump. In his view, these migrants coming into the country with children were taking advantage of “legal loopholes” in the US system. His response was a zero-tolerance policy: a plan that, among other things, contemplated separating undocumented children from their parents at the border, regardless of how young these children might be, or how traumatic the experience would be for them. The president wanted to send a clear message to Central Americans: if you come with minors, we will take them away from you. But the stories and audio recordings of crying children desperate to see their moms and dads triggered a national outcry and forced Trump to backtrack. By then, though, thousands of families had already been separated, and three years later there are still over 540 children who have not been reunited with their parents because the US government deported them and can no longer locate them.
The walls of the south
A few months after that setback for the government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its new strategy for stemming immigration on the southern border: anyone trying to enter without proper documentation could be returned to the Mexican side and made to wait there while their asylum claim was processed by a US court. The Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program, better known as “Remain in Mexico,” began in January 2019 in Tijuana and slowly extended to other points along the border. But the drop in migrant flows did not take place until June of that year, after the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to get tougher on Central Americans crossing Mexican territory.
The agreement was reached after Trump threatened Mexico with imposing tariffs on its products if it did not act against immigration; the deal included the deployment of the recently created Mexican National Guard along the border and an increase in the number of people returned to Mexico under the MPP program. “They threatened to impose tariffs that would have had a terrible impact on the national economy, and Mexico decided to become the wall, externalizing the US border to our own southern border,” says Soraya Vázquez, deputy director of the binational organization Al Otro Lado, which provides assistance to asylum seekers in Tijuana. “Trump mockingly and sarcastically says, ‘They already have 25,000 guards watching the border, they are paying for the wall.’ And certainly, it is not a physical construction but it is a wall made of National Guard officers, the army and several corporations, and this has prevented newly formed migrant caravans from getting to their destination,” she adds.
The images of the National Guard acting against the caravans caused surprise in Mexico, where President López Obrador had won the presidency on a platform that included a humanitarian approach to Central American migrants. This rhetoric underwent a gradual transformation as pressure from Washington increased. But he was not the only one to pledge cooperation in slowing down the northward-bound migrant transit: the president of Guatemala first, then the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras, also agreed to take in migrants from other countries following negotiations that were not devoid of threats.
In practice, the Central American country where the effects have been most visible is Guatemala, which took in hundreds of Hondurans and Salvadorans sent back by the US before the coronavirus pandemic. This country also played an important role in breaking up the last migrant caravan formed in early October in Honduras. But the Guatemalan lawyer Pedro Pablo Solares believes that “mass deportation” was not the main goal of the agreement, but rather sending the message to migrant populations that “going to the US to request asylum was no longer going to be an option.”
Solares also suspects that the annexes to the agreement reached between both countries, and which have not been made public, could contain conditions allowing Washington to conduct illegal operations such as the ones recently revealed by a US Senate report, in which CBP officers allegedly participated in the deportation of Honduran migrants on Guatemalan territory without authorization.
Locked on the outside
Every time he walks into a business establishment, Josué [who asks not to have his surname published for security reasons] says he feels like he has a life again. For one year and three months, this 29-year-old from Honduras has been living inside a tent with his wife and their three children who are seven, 10 and 14, surrounded by hundreds of other migrants in the Mexican border town of Matamoros. Just standing between four walls, if only for a few minutes, makes him dream of a normal life again.
“In the time that I have been here, I have seen many things: people who have lost their minds, women giving birth with help from other migrants, criminals, cartels beating people up, and nobody does anything about it,” he says, describing life at a refugee camp on the banks of the Río Grande, a spot just meters from the US, yet also light years away. “I have seen children with a different kind of mind, not like normal children, because they are here without access to any distractions or to education. And we are living in a small tent that is not like a house, and we don’t have electricity. For over a year I have not had access to a toilet that wasn’t shared."
Josué left Colonia López Arellano, in the Honduras department of Cortés, on May 17, 2019, two days after a mara (a gang) called Barrio 18 killed one of his aunts and her husband. His family thinks that they were killed in retaliation for the fact that the father worked at an Evangelical church doing rehab activities for young gang members. Josué and his family decided to leave because they felt their lives could be in danger if they stayed. He says it was never their intention to go to the US. In fact, he filed the paperwork to apply for a humanitarian visa in Tapachula, in southern Mexico. But one day he ran into two members of the gang that killed his aunt and uncle, and he was forced to flee again with his wife and three kids, this time further north. After several weeks in transit, hitching rides and seeking all kinds of temporary jobs to survive, on July 29 all five of them crossed the Rio Grande from Reynosa (Tamaulipas) to Hidalgo (Texas) to request asylum. “I told officials, ‘Please help us. We cannot go back because we are afraid,’” recalls Josué. “And they told me that I was on a program called MPP and that we were going back to Mexico.”
The acronym that this Honduran family came across, MPP, stands for Migrant Protection Protocols and it represents another one of the virtual walls that the Trump government has used to stop the flow of immigrants and asylum seekers. Ever since the program went into effect in January 2019, the US has returned more than 67,000 people, most of them from Central America, to dangerous Mexican border towns while they wait for a US court to process their asylum claims. Once in Mexico, these people cannot devote their time to much more than surviving. For most, hiring a lawyer to help defend and translate their case is nearly impossible.
“They’re called Migrant Protection Protocols but they have nothing to do with protecting migrants. In fact, it places them in great danger and makes it much harder for them to seek protection and asylum in the US," says Kennji Kizuka, a researcher who specializes in the rights of refugees at the non-profit group Human Rights First. As of May 2020, this organization had recorded at least 1,114 cases of murder, rape, kidnapping, torture and other kinds of violent attacks targeting migrants on the MPP program, and the real figure is probably much higher, as many victims are afraid to report the crime.
According to an analysis of immigration court cases by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in New York, barely 7.3% of asylum seekers reach their court hearings with legal representation, while only 585 of the more than 43,250 closed cases (1.3%) obtained refugee status or some other form of migrant relief. “The US government is placing all the obstacles it can and making people suffer inhumanly with the goal of getting them to stop coming. It’s a way of closing the border,” says Jodi Goodwill, a veteran immigration lawyer from Harlingen (Texas). She is one of the few people who dares to cross the border bridge to Matamoros to provide legal assistance to people affected by the program in Tamaulipas, to which the US government recommends that citizens do not travel because of the rise in criminal activity, violence and the risk of kidnappings.
The pandemic, an unexpected ally for Trump
Despite all of this, none of the measures adopted by the Trump administration seem to have had such a powerful effect as the coronavirus, which has effectively closed the southern border to new asylum seekers. In order to battle the pandemic, on March 21 the US reached an agreement with Mexico and Canada to ban non-essential travel across their land borders. Invoking Title 42 of the US immigration law, the Border Patrol has carried out the immediate expulsion of over 197,000 migrants with the excuse of preserving public health. And thousands of asylum seekers who had been sent to Mexico in the last year to await a US court hearing have had their court dates postponed on numerous occasions, and now live with the uncertainty of not knowing when their next hearing will be.
That’s the case for Josué. He and his family had already been twice to the improvised canopy tents on the border where migrants returned to Mexico appear before a judge via video link. “The first time was one of the ugliest days of my life. They asked us, ‘Why did you come here? Who gave you permission?’ They treated us like terrorists, it was a terrible humiliation,” he recalls. The third hearing, at which they were supposed to defend their asylum claim, was programmed for March, but when they walked to the bridge they found that the border was closed. After several postponements, they have now been told to show up on January 19, 2021, although the courts will not see cases again until coronavirus cases drop considerably in both countries.
With the border closed and a pandemic paralyzing the world, migrants were suddenly faced with even greater uncertainty. The limbo became a little deeper. Desperation made some return home or seek safer places to live within Mexico, while others asked friends and relatives already in the US to lend them thousands of dollars to pay coyotes to take them illegally across the river or through the more remote and dangerous parts of the desert. EL PAÍS has been able to confirm how in one case, a smuggler had around 50 migrants dressed in camouflage and waiting for the designated crossing time inside a safe house located around three kilometers from the border between Naco (Arizona) and Naco (Sonora). The population of the Matamoros encampment, where Josué and his family are living, dropped from over 2,000 to around 500, according to estimates provided by several migrants and by the organizations that assist them.
And for those who remain, the situation is getting worse. The first coronavirus cases were detected in June. In July, the migrants were affected by Hurricane Hanna, which flooded part of the camp and led to the relocation of a few canopies and even the field hospital that had been set up by an organization to address the health crisis. With the flooding came an invasion of rodents and snakes. Then, in August, the 20-year-old leader of the Guatemalan migrants, Rodrigo Castro de la Parra, was found drowned in the Río Grande. To top it all off, because of the pandemic, Mexican authorities restricted access to the camp by volunteers who were bringing in food and other types of aid such as programs for children living without access to formal education.
“The pandemic has heightened the precarious situation in which they live. There is also a very delicate situation in terms of mental health: there is a generalized crisis of acute anxiety, depression, uncertainty... And that generalized state of emotional health does not help them make good decisions," notes Soraya Vázquez, from Al Otro Lado.
Kennji Kizuka, of Human Rights First, says that the situation in places like Matamoros is turning more violent: “We hear that migrants are increasingly being targeted by the cartels. A few months ago, a man in the MPP program was abducted and his finger was cut off because the family could not pay the ransom. When he was freed he went to the port of entry to ask to be released from the program because of what had happened to him, and the border agents did not so much as grant him an interview; they told him the border was closed because of Covid.”
Human rights groups and immigration lawyers have warned that the Trump administration is using the health crisis to deliver a final blow to asylum legislation. “Once again the president is trying to exploit the ongoing global crisis to pursue an anti-immigrant agenda by using the CDC to further an ideological agenda,” wrote Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, in a May statement.
But the reasons pushing migrants to flee their countries are difficult to stop, and even though fear of the disease caused a drop in border traffic for two months after its closure, by June the number of apprehensions at the border returned to pre-pandemic levels and has not stopped growing since.
Migrants are still being pushed out of their countries, with the economies of Mexico and Central America now very hard hit by the pandemic. “If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that regardless of any coercion measures established by governments, migration flows answer two main questions: how many people need to leave the expelling countries, and how many workers the US economy needs to stay afloat,” says the Guatemalan lawyer Pedro Pablo Solares. “I think that regardless of who wins the election on November 3, the answer to those two questions is going to determine how much migration flows increase or decrease."
Immigration and the wall, the two topics that grabbed headlines during Trump’s race to the presidency and which he has often resorted to during his term in office, have been practically absent from this year’s election campaign, which has been marked by the health crisis and the economic debacle. At the last debate, when he was asked about the more than 500 children separated from their parents at the border that the government had still not managed to reunite, the president said that they are “working on it” and he defended his immigration policies: according to him, the practice of releasing migrants on US soil while their claims were being processed was “a disaster” that allowed murderers, rapists and bad people in general to enter the country, in the kind of rhetoric that was reminiscent of his 2016 campaign.
Joe Biden accused Trump of being “the first president in the history of the United States of America” to require those seeking asylum to do so in another country, “sitting in squalor on the other side of the river.” The Democratic candidate, who has promised to rescind MPP on his first day in office if he wins the election, knows the conditions that the MPP migrants are living in after his wife Jill visited the Matamoros encampment in December.
Experts in immigration and asylum law feel that even if Biden wins, some of the changes introduced by Trump could take a long time to revert and will have long-term effects on the US system. “Some things can be changed very quickly because they’ve been done through executive orders or internal regulations. Others will take longer, like the ones involving judges who were hired, and there will be some longer-term changes such as adjusting immigration and asylum status to clarify what the law says and avoid a repetition of this in the future,” says Kennji Kizuka, who nevertheless feels that because of the pressing crisis caused by the coronavirus, some things will probably never be changed.
A recent New York Times editorial titled ‘Trump’s Overhaul Of Immigration Is Worse Than You Think’ held that “rejecting, by law and action, the Trump administration’s racism, cruelty and xenophobia would reaffirm that America is a nation of immigrants who help revitalize the country.”
When Jill Biden visited Matamoros, Josué was able to speak with her. She told him that if her husband wins, they will help the migrants at the camp. “Let’s pray to God that the words she told me will come true,” he says. Josué says he feels no grudge against Trump, but that he prays every day so he will have “a change of heart” and for the next president of the United States to “end the suffering” they are going through. “What I want is to see my children studying, to work for them, to see them sleeping in a bed. That is what I am asking, to be allowed in so we can fight for our family. The US is a country where the laws are respected, and that is the most important thing," he says, repeating an idea that Central American migrants often bring up.
That is why, no matter how many hurdles are placed in their way, they will keep waiting for an opportunity. They still believe in the famous American Dream, in the notion that anyone, through work and personal effort, can get ahead regardless of where they come from. In the part of the Americas where they were born, on the poorest and most violent fringes of the hardest-hit countries, it is a dream that is well out of reach.
|Text by Lorena Arroyo (English version by Susana Urra)|
|Video by Héctor Guerrero and Teresa de Miguel|
|Editing by Eliezer Budasoff|
|Video editing by Montserrat Lemus|
|Animation by Carolina Mejía|
|Design and layout by Alfredo García|