Now or never: Trump's Mexico wall threat encourages migration to US
Catalina Maldonado wanted to flee El Salvador for the US to protect her son from danger. After learning of Donald Trump’s along the border with Mexico, she decided it was now or maybe never.
If the Republican candidate’s supporters might be delighted that some in Central America are treating the prospect of a wall-raising President Trump with high seriousness, in the short term it appears his rhetoric may be encouraging – not dissuading – migrants to head north to escape poverty and violence.
“We heard he wants to build those walls. That’s why we came,” Maldonado said. “A lot of people are talking about it in El Salvador. They say really bad things about him,” the 34-year-old added through a translator in a shelter in Texas’s Rio Grande valley, by families and unaccompanied minors and still the busiest route.
More than half of the lone children and families caught crossing the south-west border this fiscal year have been apprehended in the area, which offers the shortest journey from Central America, has sizable populations on both sides of the frontier, flat terrain and dense scrubland and where the only barrier between the US and is natural: the narrow, serpentine Rio Grande river.
After an initial screening in detention facilities to establish whether they have a plausible asylum case, Central American migrants are typically released to join up with family members already in the US.
Many go to the parish hall of Sacred Heart Catholic church in downtown McAllen. A couple of blocks from the bus station and seven miles from the border, since the summer of 2014 it has offered food, clothes, beds and compassion.
It was supposed to be temporary. In year three, with its neat rows of clothes laid out by size and gender, its children’s play area with toys and teddy bears and its well-honed procedures – migrants are applauded as they enter by volunteers, registered at a desk, and leave to catch their buses wearing black backpacks containing toiletries – it looks all but permanent.
Staff have noticed the families are now typically being detained for a couple of days, rather than weeks or months – a consequence of beefed-up infrastructure since the dramatic influx two years ago overwhelmed the system, and of a court ruling last summer that ordered the Obama administration to speed up their release.
Still, the complaints are much the same: that the facilities are cold, cramped and intimidating, and that the food is inedible.
The shelter is helping 20-30 migrants each day, in contrast with December and January, when 60-100 was the norm. According to Border Patrol figures, 3,048 family members and 3,113 unaccompanied children were caught at the south-west frontier in February –
Those figures subvert expectations that crossings typically slow down during the winter but rise in the spring, making it hard to predict whether another summer surge is imminent.
, Jeh Johnson, the homeland security secretary, referred to the tough stance the government has adopted towards those who arrived since 2014 in a bid to deter more crossings. Measures include and the arrests of 336 people who entered as unaccompanied minors and are now over 18.
Still, more than 23,000 lone children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were encountered in the first five months of fiscal year 2016, and an uptick in the coming months could bring this year’s total close to the 67,339 seen in 2014. That was nearly treble the number in 2012, a rise caused by a , which have become some of the world’s most violent places.
Sitting in the shelter with her son, Luis, a half-eaten cookie in a wrapper on the table in front of him, Maldonado said that they decided to leave when a gang tried to recruit the 17-year-old. She had heard about the January raids and a but felt that making the trip would be the best way to give her son a safer future and that if Trump made good on his promise, an arduous journey might soon become an impossible one.
In she earned $8 a day working from 6am to 4pm selling smoothies. At the end of a two-week trip that cost $2,500 per person, paid to a smuggler, she and Luis crossed from the Mexican city of Reynosa, floating across the Rio Grande on an inner tube at night then walking for miles before her group was picked up by the border patrol.
After three nights in a detention facility, Maldonado and her son were released to join up with her brother in Virginia and await an interview with immigration officials. A tracking device had been strapped to her left ankle at 3am on the day of her release, she said, and she was told she could not leave Virginia. Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began routinely fitting ankle bracelets to adults released from detention.
Their bus was not until the following morning, so they slept in one of two tents in the church’s parking lot, packed tightly with two-dozen camp beds and cribs but mostly empty last Thursday.
Neldis Díaz came with his seven-year-old son, Nelvis, leaving his wife and toddler in Guatemala. He was also bound for Virginia, to link up with his brother-in-law. The pair’s 12-day journey by boat and bus culminated in a stay in a stash house at the border and then a raft across the Rio Grande, he said. The smugglers first sent over a group of elderly people, he said, to distract the border agents and make reaching American soil easier for the rest of the party.
Trump’s message had reached the small settlement where Díaz grew coffee. “I’m not in agreement with what he’s saying,” Díaz said via a translator. “I thought about it a lot – that’s what a lot of people are saying, that as soon as he enters [the White House] they’re going to change everything … I got here as fast as I could because I was afraid of that.”
News of the January raids did not discourage him from coming, he said, but the government’s hardline stance does make him wary of his upcoming court date. “I’m afraid I’ll be immediately sent back. A lot of people are afraid to go to their court appearance,” he said.
As clapping signalled the arrival of a dozen more migrants, including one woman nursing a baby, Manuel Vásquez and his 12-year-old son, Elmer, left for the bus station to embark on a three-day, four-bus voyage to meet family in New Jersey. Vásquez left his wife and four children in Guatemala, where he worked on a coffee plantation.
He was unaware of the real estate tycoon’s utterances and entirely unruffled when informed. “We’re already in,” he said. “Too bad.”