A Special Report to the Valley Voice by Martin Velsaco-Ramos
In the wake of the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s demands for a wall to address the “migrant crisis” threatening the U.S. border, I traveled to the border city of El Paso, Texas on New Year’s Eve to witness this crisis first hand.
The recent surge of migrants crossing the U.S. border has fallen, according to Ruben Garcia, the director of a migrant shelter in El Paso. He explained in a press conference on January 9 that the drop in migrants crossing is a pattern they’ve seen before and not a response to anything in particular.
If the pattern holds true, then there should be another increase in the number of crossings within the coming months, but the numbers should continue to decrease for now, said Garcia.
Conversely, on January 10, Trump broadcasted a more dire narrative from another border city along the Rio Grande, at the Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, where a round table with Trump was held. In the foreground weapons, drugs, and bags of cash seized by border patrol were on display. A woman spoke of her son’s murder at the hands of an illegal. The message was clear: Illegals are coming. And they are drug dealers and killers.
During Christmas week news surfaced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was unexpectedly releasing hundreds of migrants at El Paso Greyhound stations and airports. Numbers totaled nearly 3,000 a week.
But when I arrived December 31 at the El Paso airport there were hardly any migrants to be found. ICE agents stood next to TSA at the security checkpoints, while a separate line along one of the walls contained a handful of migrants patiently awaiting their turn to be processed.
At the Greyhound station, the migrant presence was larger, but nothing like the chaos described in the news. About half of the ticketed passengers were migrants, many of them families with small children. When approached, they were hesitant to speak of their journey. A migrant mother of four nervously pointed at her foot where a bulky monitor was clamped to her ankle.
“I can’t talk to anyone,” she said.
The migrant releases, coupled with the ankle monitors, have been a response to growing concerns regarding holding cell capacity and conditions in migrant detainment centers. Two migrant children have died while in ICE custody, Jakelin Caal, age 7, on December 8, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, age 8, on December 24, likely caused in part by holding cells ill-suited for families.
“What that does is,” Garcia said, “it creates pressure on the part of CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) and on ICE to try and release these families for whom they have no detention space.”
According to ICE officials, the ankle monitors allow them to free up space in detainment centers and make it more likely for the released migrant to show up to their court dates with immigration judges. However, there have been reports of migrants complaining of rashes, burns, and even electrocution caused by the monitors. Some migrants claim the ankle monitors make it difficult to find work, something that wasn’t an issue for Kevin and his son in their home country.
Kevin is from Honduras, so is his teenage son, Ilario. They traveled together across three different countries in a caravan of around 200 people. After nearly a month of battling thirst and hunger, their dangerous journey came to an end at a U.S.port of entry where they turned themselves in to border patrol. Two days later, they were released, their case pending until their next immigration court date. When and where that would take place is unclear because the government shutdown has caused federal judges and staff to be laid off until further notice.
Kevin, who was awaiting a flight to New Jersey at the El Paso airport at the time, explained that work in Honduras was not difficult to find. In fact, according the Central Intelligence Agency, Honduras is not far behind the United States in employment. So if work is so abundant in Kevin’s country, why flee?
To give his son an education, but more importantly, to save him from the maras.
“They’re gangs that recruit young boys,” the father said. “They make them do bad things like kill and sell drugs. Lots of violence.”
Academics, like Dr. Howard Campbell of the University of El Paso, believe the gang violence in countries like Honduras have roots in the United States. One of the largest and more powerful gangs in Central America, The 18th Street Gang or Calles 18, was born in the streets of Los Angeles by recruiting migrant youth.
“You have the deportation of a lot of gangsters that were Guatemalan descent and El Salvadoran descent and so on, going back to the home countries of their parents. And then you have the expansion of the maras and Calles 18 and the explosion of these horrible criminal gangs that started in L.A., essentially in the United States, that brought that gang culture into Central America and created havoc.”
The notorious MS 13 are a rival gang to the 18th street gang. The recent deportations of MS 13 members has sent Central American countries into a vicious gang war and forced local governments into a frenzy.
The most striking feature of these gangs is that the average age ranges between 16-19. As large as these gangs are, the majority of their members are young and unorganized. Their drug trade is petty at a local level and non-existent at the international level. But there’s no mistaking the violence. Between the government, law enforcement, and the rival gangs, death tolls have risen. Families are forced to leave their homes.
According to the Council of Foreign Relations, in recent years over 100,000 asylum seekers fled the Northern Triangle in Central America, which consists of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Asylum seekers said extortion, forced gang recruitment, and poverty were reasons for feeling.
Dr. Campbell has written extensively on border issues and drug trafficking, authoring and editing six academic volumes including a book called the The Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. One of his areas of expertise is in Latin American Studies.
He claims the poverty and corruption in Central America is a result of U.S. “political domination” and “resource exploitation.”
“If you take a long view of history, the United States has a huge responsibility for this migration from Central America…United Fruit Company (in the 1950’s) was an American company that owned much of Guatemala and part of Honduras and El Salvador and treated Central America basically as a banana plantation, a place to make a lot of money growing tropical crops and exploiting local labor.”
Politically, the United States also had a heavy hand in elections during the “red scare” by backing right-wing governments during the 1980’s in Central America, resulting in oligarchies controlling most of the wealth in these countries. Consequently, Central America has become a historically poor place.
Mexico has pledged billions of dollars towards developing its southern states and aiding Central America in hopes of discouraging further migrations north. The U.S. made a similar pledge in December, a commitment unlikely to manifest while the U.S. government remains shut down over the morality of funding a southern border wall.
When asked what he thought about the “migrant crisis,” Dr. Campbell believes it’s been blown out of proportion, stating that Mexicans and Latin American’s are not to be feared. The scale of migrants crossing the border are nowhere near the numbers seen in Europe. Furthermore, large-scale immigration border cities like El Paso are considered some of the safest cities in the nation.
With word of another caravan forming and the government at a standstill, it seems local organizations like Garcia’s shelter will be forced to take on the incoming burden. He believes last month’s surge demonstrates the city’s ability to harbor families and seems confident in assisting the next wave of migrants.
“I think that it has been demonstrated that it is possible to receive families. It is possible to put them in proceedings. It is possible to schedule them for their date in court, so they can go before immigration judges.”