What Happens On The Other Side Of the U.S. Border In Mexico

Aug 1, 2018
Originally published on August 6, 2018 5:02 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Borders are two-sided. And to tell the full story of what's happening on the U.S.-Mexico border, it helps to look at both sides. So during a reporting trip to South Texas this week, our co-host Ari Shapiro visited the Mexico border town of Matamoros, where people stream into the U.S. every day legally and illegally.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's 7 a.m. at the Casa Del Migrante, the House of the Migrants. Men wash laundry in the sink. Women cook breakfast - scrambled eggs with salsa, black beans, bread and coffee. This shelter is a respite from a violent city. The green courtyard is full of banana trees and flowering plants. Every bed here was full last night, almost 50 migrants. Most of them are heading south because they were recently deported. A few are going north hoping to enter the U.S. After breakfast, everyone gathers in the courtyard.

JUAN ANTONIO SIERRA VARGAS: (Through interpreter) Welcome to the House of Migrants. I hope you had a good night.

SHAPIRO: Juan Antonio Sierra Vargas is an engineer by training. And he's one of the volunteers who helps operate this shelter. He's dressed smartly with a crisp collared shirt and slacks.

VARGAS: (Through interpreter) We come here to serve you with a lot of care and love.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Vargas explains where people can pick up buses. He gives tips on getting the best price. When he finishes speaking, we sit down, and I ask him what increased immigration enforcement looks like from this side of the border.

VARGAS: (Through interpreter) The enforcement effort works in the sense that people don't cross alone like they used to. Now they have to use organized crime to help them at least get to the border. And the cost for helping them get into the United States has just exploded. It used to cost a thousand dollars to take someone to Houston. Now it costs $10,000.

SHAPIRO: There are people in the United States who will say you are helping people break the law.

VARGAS: (Through interpreter) No, it's not breaking the law. It's asking for asylum.

SHAPIRO: You're an engineer, and engineers like to solve problems. This is a problem that will never be solved.

VARGAS: (Through interpreter) But over the course of a day we do resolve it. Here we've learned to guide people so whoever is crossing the border gets oriented. And more than a thousand people who've passed through here have entered the United States.

SHAPIRO: When President Trump won the election, Vargas saw a flood of people come through this shelter trying to enter the U.S. before Inauguration Day. Vargas says the numbers fell on January 20 last year, and they've stayed low ever since. The people who are going north rely more heavily on the cartels, so they tend to be in stash houses these days instead of shelters like this one. But there are a few northbound people here.

JULIO SANCHEZ PACAYO: Julio Sanchez. I'm 43.

SHAPIRO: Julio Sanchez Pacayo is a small, wiry man from El Salvador with black eyes and black hair. He spent 12 years in the U.S. and has three kids there. He says four years ago, he got deported when police in Houston caught him driving without a license. Now he hopes to cross back into the U.S. again. And with President Trump in office, he plans to keep his head down if he makes it.

SANCHEZ: (Through interpreter) I would only go from work to my house, from work to my house. You have to be a lot stricter now. Things are more repressive than they were under Obama. It was more free before.

SHAPIRO: Different groups arrive at the shelter to help out over the course of the day. Barbers in training give free haircuts. Four people show up in matching white vests. They're from Doctors Without Borders. Psychologist Anneli Droste has worked with survivors of war, and she sees many of the same symptoms among these migrants.

ANNELI DROSTE: You see a lot of them are very tense. We have people who show that they are trembling also. They have sleeping problems, concentration problems.

SHAPIRO: If you have only one consultation with them, give me an example of something you can tell them or show them that might help.

DROSTE: For example, relaxation exercises. There are different ones. There are breathing exercises to calm them down, to just - to help them in this stressful situation to relax a bit.

SHAPIRO: By midday, many people have left the shelter. Most are catching buses farther into Mexico. The rest are headed north. The U.S. border is 4 miles from here. We drive to one of the bridges connecting Matamoros with Brownsville, Texas, and take our place in the slow crawl of vehicles. Even though it's a hundred degrees out, it's faster to walk.

Cars were lined up for at least an hour to cross the bridge back into the U.S. And all along the line people are selling crickets, ice cream, whatever you're - whatever you could want to buy.

We spot about a dozen people in their 20s and 30s sitting under a tarp. None of them will give us their names or do a one-on-one interview, but my producer Christina Cala asks them a few basic questions.

Why is everybody waiting to present?

CHRISTINA CALA, BYLINE: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CALA: There's no capacity for them to pass.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

CALA: (Speaking Spanish). They've been right here for four days.

SHAPIRO: Four days.

CALA: Or longer.

SHAPIRO: They're waiting to claim asylum. But when they try to present themselves, they get turned back by officials who say they can't process the claim right now. We asked several agencies involved with different parts of this process and couldn't get a clear answer on why there's a backlog. As we approach the midpoint of the bridge over the Rio Grande, we meet Alfonso Garcia. He arrived here on his 30th birthday a few days ago. And now he's sitting in the shade of a big umbrella writing names in a notebook. This is an ad hoc waiting list of people who want to claim asylum. Even though it's unofficial, people seem to take it seriously.

ALFONSO GARCIA: (Through interpreter) The American police don't care, so it's better for me to keep this organized. That way there's some order.

SHAPIRO: How many people right now are on your list?

GARCIA: Twenty-three maybe.

SHAPIRO: He says his wife is already in the U.S., and he's hoping to join her. A family of four arrives, and they put their names in the notebook. The father is William Moreno from Cuba.

WILLIAM MORENO: (Through interpreter) There's nothing as important as freedom. And if there's one country that understands the importance of liberty, it's the United States.

SHAPIRO: Did they tell you how long you might have to wait?

MORENO: (Through interpreter) Two, three, four days. But it's very hot, and I have a small daughter. I don't know if she can wait that long.

SHAPIRO: And if you are given an opportunity to claim asylum, most people are rejected. What will you do then?

MORENO: (Through interpreter) I can't even think about the possibility that it won't happen. I have to believe that it will happen. After this long journey, I can't imagine that things would go wrong in the last inning.

SHAPIRO: They turn back towards Mexico, and we walk in the other direction.

There's a sign that says boundary of the United States of America. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The border guard just glanced at our U.S. passport and waved us on through. That was it. And now we're in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC MOULIN'S "HUMPTY DUMPTY")

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow we'll look at the business of immigration enforcement and who's making money off detaining immigrants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: But the prisons, when they came into town, it really was a boost as far as the economy. It helped quite a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC MOULIN'S "HUMPTY DUMPTY")

CORNISH: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from the Texas-Mexico border this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC MOULIN'S "HUMPTY DUMPTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.