18 • FEBRUARY 2019
Padre Javier with Sister Betty Campbell. (Photos by Morgan Smith) Bismarck from Cuba.
A boy with a number on his arm.
ACROSS THE BORDER • MORGAN SMITH
La Casa del Migrante Coming face to face with asylum seekers
lthough the news has focused on the migrant crisis in Tijuana and now the tragic death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal from Guatemala, hundreds of migrants have also arrived in Juárez in hopes of having an asylum interview with United States officials. Many were sleeping on the pedestrian bridge in the brutal cold until Juárez Mayor Armando Cabado went to the bridge with buses and transported several hundred to La Casa del Migrante, which I’ve now had two opportunities to visit. La Casa was originally founded by the Misioneros de San Carlos, known as Scalabrini priests named after their founder in Italy many years ago. It has always been a shelter for migrants and since 2011 it has been managed by the charismatic Padre Javier Calvillo of the diocese of Juárez. In an emergency, it could provide space for 2,000 migrants. I went with Father Peter Hinde and Sister Betty Campbell, friends of Padre Javier. Security is tight so it would have been difficult without their presence. They have had a ministry – Tabor House – in Juárez for 23 years. Father Peter is now in his 90s, was a pilot in World War II and actually flew over Nagasaki two days after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Sister Betty has several programs for the women in her area. They typify the extraordinary dedication of so many people on the border – Mexican and American. There were roughly 600 migrants at La Casa waiting for their asylum interviews when we first visited and 203 on the second visit. Only 20 to 30 were being processed a day and each person had a number on their forearm to show their place in the line. This is an astonishingly slow process because the number of Border Patrol agents
Sonedi and her son, Santiago, from Venezuela.
more than doubled between 2004 and 2009. The total number of agents now is between 19,000 and 20,000, a slight decline since President Trump’s election. As for the migrants at La Casa del Migrante, I had an opportunity to interview several. First, Sonedi and her baby boy, Santiago who had just arrived. She and her husband (who is waiting for them in Miami) had a construction business in Venezuela but were members of the political opposition. As a result, everything they owned was taken and they had to flee the country. She actually has a permit to enter the United States, but Santiago doesn’t. It would seem like her chances of getting a permit for him were excellent. On the other hand, I spoke with five young Hondurans who were told that they could come to the United States for better employment opportunities. As in the case of Jakelin Caal’s father, they were probably hoodwinked by smugglers who took their money and promised that entering the US would be easy. Rolando from Cuba flew to Guyana, then made the rest of the journey on foot, by boat and in buses. His tales of walking through the jungles in Central America were terrifying – you
can’t help but admire his courage and persistence. Incidentally he spoke excellent English. He is also seeking a better life and improved economic opportunity. On my second visit, I spoke to another young Cuban, Bismark, whose goal is the same. Sadly, these are not asylum issues and I don’t see how the two of them can succeed. In fact, both their cases and those of the five young Hondurans would seem to be easy to resolve in their initial hearing. Thelma and Angela, mother and daughter are fleeing violence in Guatemala, a level of violence that seems incomprehensible to us. The per capita murder rate in Honduras is 15 times higher than in the United States. Guatemala and Salvador have murder rates that are almost as high. Therefore, it is understandable that people would flee and it’s encouraging that the new president of Mexico is committed to working with those Central American countries to resolve the root causes of this violence. These two women as well as two sisters – Guillerma, 20, and Silvia, 22 – who had traveled north from the Oaxaca, Mexico area with their five small children would seem to have good cases. In short, many of these cases
Two sisters from Oaxaca with their children.
are not complicated, especially during the initial asylum hearing where you must show “credible fear” in regard to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinions. The claim of Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security that there is a backlog of 786,000 asylum cases awaiting hearings before a judge also seems outrageous. Compared to the squalid conditions in Tijuana, migrants waiting in Juárez for their initial hearing are extremely lucky to be able to stay in a facility like La Casa del Migrante, but the underlying issue is the same. Are we going to stand up for American values and administer this asylum law with fairness, efficiency and decency? Morgan Smith has been traveling to the border at least monthly for the last eight years in order to document conditions there and assist various humanitarian organizations. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@ comcast.net.
Rolando from Cuba.
Thelma and her daughter Angela from Guatemala.