Nogales, Mexico – A towering wall of rusted metal climbs the desert hillsides separating Nogales, Mexico from its American neighbour city of the same name.
Nogales is a major crossing point for migrants entering the United States. The border wall notwithstanding, tens of thousands of people make the journey every year. In recent months, an unusually large number of children, teenagers and mothers with babies and young children have made the crossing. The vast majority of these migrants are from three violence-prone and severely impoverished Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The US media often refers to these women and children as a “flood” or a “surge”, as though they are undifferentiated elements or inanimate objects. But spend some time in the migrants’ shelters and way-stations in Nogales, and you will find individuals, each with their own story.
Lydia is a shy, soft-spoken 35-year-old woman from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She and her seven-year-old son, Lester, had just made the gruelling and dangerous weeks-long journey to this last stop before the promised land of the US. Mother and child hopped a ride on a freight train part of the way, and did the rest in buses and on foot.
“It was very difficult going in the train, standing in the cold, the sun, staying awake because you don’t dare to fall asleep,” Lydia said. “There was a time in which we didn’t have much food. We were only eating mangoes on the way.”
Lester, a small boy with enormous brown eyes, gazed up at his mother. He never let go of her hand. Lydia explained why she is taking the risk of immigrating illegally to the US. “Because in my country there‘s no jobs, lots of crimes, the gangs don‘t let us live in peace, they even take away our homes. The worst thing about life in Honduras is waking up, hearing your children ask for something to eat and not have anything to give them. That‘s what makes you want to come here.”
‘Human cattle pen’
In Mexican border towns and Central American slums, migrants are spreading the word about a provision of US law that they believe will allow them to stay indefinitely. The US Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaus cannot immediately deport migrants from countries that do not share a border with the US.
So, minors and women with children from Central America are usually permitted to stay while their cases are reviewed in immigration courts – and that process can take months or even years.
|A large warehouse maintained by the Border Patrol is housing about 1,000 migrant children [Rob Reynolds/Al Jazeera]
Jose Chacon, the Salvadoran consul in Tucson, Arizona, said these rumours have been deliberately planted in impoverished districts in his country and other Central American nations to lure would-be migrants.
“Human smugglers, otherwise known as ‘coyotes’, are leading people to believe that just by being here it will be enough for them to have the possibility of getting an immigration benefit,” Chacon told Al Jazeera. “This has been a boom for a well-planned rumour by the immigrant smugglers.”
Forty-seven thousand child migrants have entered the US since October and 75 percent of them are from Central America. US officials predict that 60,000 or more may arrive by the end of 2014. Once on US soil, the migrants give themselves up to Border Patrol officers or local police. The influx has totally overwhelmed the system set up to process them.
In recent weeks, hundreds of women and young children from Central America were essentially dumped by Border Patrol officials at bus stations in Arizona and left to fend for themselves. Human rights groups have alleged that some migrants have been abused by Border Patrol officers, and Central American diplomats say conditions in holding centres are appalling.
In Nogales, Arizona, just a few kilometres from the border, a large warehouse maintained by the Border Patrol was built to store supplies. Now it’s a warehouse full of migrant children – approximately 1,000 of them.
The press has not been allowed to see what’s inside the warehouse, but a group of local clergy who toured the building said the conditions are squalid.
“It looks like a prison in there. These are not prisoners – these are minors, these are children,” said Reverend Jarrett Maupin of the Phoenix-based Progressive Christian Coalition. “They anticipate another 3,500 to 4,000 young people in the next three to four days just in this facility. I’m going to tell you, half of that warehouse over there has been turned into some kind of human cattle pen,” Maupin said.
Photos obtained by Al Jazeera show conditions inside the warehouse where children ranging from infants to 17-year-olds sleep on thin foam pads with foil-lined plastic blankets. A handful of portable toilets are available.
The clergy delegation were discouraged from speaking with the children. “You can see the anxiety in their faces: There’s no hope, they are dirty, they haven’t showered in I don’t know how many days,” said Reverend John Torres of New Life Community Church.
The US government is opening additional emergency shelters for migrant children on military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma. They are supposed to be processed and released to the custody of child welfare agencies under the auspices of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many, however, have been detained for more than a week.
Jeh Johnson, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, said all of the migrants caught entering the US illegally, including minors, will be deported. “Those who cross our borders today, including children, are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship pursuant to that legislation,” he said at a press conference in Washington. “I also wish to make clear that those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age.”
But back in Nogales, Lydia said that despite the uncertainty and hardships that lie ahead, she’s had enough of hunger, violence and poverty. “I‘m thinking of how I can cross to the other side and get caught by immigration, so they give me a permit. They give you a permit and they say you can stay, and you just have to show up at court,“ she said.
Then Lydia turned, holding Lester’s hand, and walked off into the growing darkness. A mother, willing to risk everything, to give her child a different future.