Scenes From a Migration Crisis—On Both Sides of the Border

These migrants, asylum seekers, aid workers, and officers are fighting for better lives and stronger communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Photograph by Luján Agusti, National Geographic
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Vanessa (name changed for safety) found refuge and safety at a domestic violence shelter in Laredo, Texas, after her boyfriend threatened her with deportation. “They could deport me without my daughters, because [my daughters] are citizens,” she says.
Photograph by Luján Agusti, National Geographic

Scenes From a Migration Crisis—On Both Sides of the Border

These migrants, asylum seekers, aid workers, and officers are fighting for better lives and stronger communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I am both the mother and the father,” says Rubén España. At 25, he’s a single father, and on the Mexican side of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, he holds his two-year-old son, Dylan Fabricio. The pair had spent two-and-a-half months walking and hitching rides from Honduras to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They’d been sleeping on a square of cardboard along the edge of the bridge with a hundred or so Hondurans, Cubans, and Venezuelans—waiting to cross into the U.S. to request asylum.

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Two children sleep on the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, waiting to be heard on their asylum requests. Migrants often wait days on the bridge to speak with a U.S. officer about their case.

España heard news of President Trump’s separation policy while he was traveling. “I am scared, but I have to take that risk,” he explains. “Imagine if I am separated from my child, after all that I have fought for and suffered. But most of us take that risk, because we have no other option.” He says even if they separated him from his son, he preferred jail in the United States to deportation to Honduras and a likely death.

He’s not alone in his gamble. España is one of tens of thousands of people who come to the U.S. border every month—approximately 50,000 during each of the most recent in 2018—searching for safety and success. Though these numbers were similar to those in 2016, asylum seekers have reported a slow response by officials, claiming only five or ten people are seen each day in some locations, including the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge. The delay means people like España are spending multiple nights sleeping along the side of the bridge, waiting for their turn.

The crawling process is now compounded by a fear of recent Trump administration policies, particularly the decision to separate children from their parents once families reach the border. In recent months, 2,342 children have been separated from 2,206 parents who crossed into the United States. The policy drew criticism from citizens and politicians along much of the political spectrum, and the growing crisis has been at the forefront of a global immigration conversation.

Despite the separation policy, parents—including single fathers like España—are lining up to reach the U.S. border. Young men holding infants are scattered down the long line of hopeful immigrants on the bridge. Alfredo Hernández waits with his two-year-old son, Axel Alfredo. Erik, a 25-year-old from Honduras, cradles his one-year-old daughter, Melanie, saying, “We left five months ago. We came via bus, walking, whatever was cheapest.” Daniel Ríos, with his nine-month-old son, Denis, says tearfully, “We hope that they have mercy and that they won’t separate us from our kids. The only thing I have is him, and the only thing he has is me. If they separate me from him, what will happen? It will be worse. I am fleeing to be together with my family.”

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Four men relax in the living room at the Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna, a shelter created to help migrants before they cross the border into the U.S. Founder José Guadalupe Valdés Alvarado says, "We try to do what we can, nothing more, to help migrants feel safe here in Piedras Negras."

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Luis German Ruiz and his son, Luis Fernando Ruiz, sit on their bed at the Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna. They left Honduras to escape the violence that had already taken three family members and hope to find asylum in the U.S. Valdés Alvarado, the shelter's founder, worries about the pair being separated once they cross the border, saying, "It is heartbreaking. Imagine the trauma of a child who already believes that he will not see his parents again when he was with them the day before."

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On one side of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, immigrants wait in line to request asylum. On the other, U.S. officers guard the border and call people across for appointments.

Farther down the bridge, Venezuelan college students Omar Garillo, his cousin, Yackey Delgado, and Delgado’s wife, Estefany Sánchez, sit and eat fried chicken. In Venezuela, the three students had been part of an anti-government movement at their university. Over the two years they spent protesting the government, they had seen classmates killed by tear-gas grenades, run over by cars, and beaten half to death. They had hidden in classrooms and bathrooms on campus, declaring it a “war zone.”

The students talk about Venezuela’s lack of electricity, food, water, sanitary pads, and medicine. Garillo, pointing to his food, says, “This chicken here is worth more than four months of work.” He pulls out a wad of Venezuelan money, declares it worthless, and offers it as a gift. “In telling you this, we are putting ourselves at risk… If the United States doesn’t want to provide us protection, I will never return to Venezuela. I can never return, because if I return they will put me in jail.”

Garillo’s fear of being denied entry is not unfounded. If the asylum seekers on the bridge aren’t successful, they may end up being deported—a fate met by the busloads of men who arrive back in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, each day.

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A man sits on the edge of the Rio Grande, which migrants sometimes swim across to enter the U.S.

One of these young men points at the expansive cursive tattoo that wraps around his neck. “These are the names of my daughters, Blanca Daniela and Lucía Liliana,” says José Antonio González. A construction worker from Guanajuato, Mexico, González hoped to find work in the U.S. and send money home to his wife and kids. After swimming across the Rio Bravo, he had entered the mountains in the U.S., where he lasted three days without water before being caught and sent to a detention center.

Tattoos mark almost every inch of skin on his arms: dark, tangled lines of eyes and a crown of flowers on one side, the shaded form of a grim reaper on the other, and “La Vida Loca” in cursive on his wrist. Driven from his home and land by poverty and violence, González’s tattoos are a bodily memory, a way of carrying the life he left behind.

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The International Bridge connects Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico.

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Estefany Sanchez sits with her husband, Yackney Delgado, and his cousin, Omar Garillo, on the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge waiting to seek asylum in the U.S. The trio were members of an anti-government movement in Venezuela that protested the country's lack of electricity, water, food, and medicine. Garillo explains the danger of their political actions: "Protesting is a lottery. You don't know if you will return alive."

He arrives at Nuevo Laredo’s Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, a center dedicated to helping those deported from the United States, with 25 other deported men, all glistening with sweat on a morning when temperatures had already reached over 100 degrees. The founder and director of the institute, José Martín Carmona Flores, welcomes the men and tells them, “You are here because you were more skilled, more intelligent, more astute, more resistant, wiser. All of those qualities are required for triumph and success at home and in the family, in society.” Carmona Flores tells them the lessons they learned from crossing the border, getting work, and trying to send money home to their families could be applied to a new and successful life in Mexico.

After answering questions from the migrants, he goes back to his office. There, he explains, “They have to value themselves and not think they have arrived here defeated. Why? Because many have died, and the bodies are there to prove it. But they arrived alive and stronger and more resistant, and they should realize what they are capable of, and if they can do it here at home, they are our next leaders, our next bosses.”

To see men like González cross the Rio Bravo and enter the U.S. illegally, one only has to go down to the edge of the river in Nuevo Laredo on a Sunday afternoon, when local families swim in the blue-green waters. At the height of the midday heat, when the border patrol changes guards, a group of eight young men cross the river, holding onto a pile of black plastic bags and kicking furiously. They slide onto the muddy U.S. bank in their underwear, pull clothes out of the black bags, get dressed, and disappear into the bushes.

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Light reflects off the Rio Grande, a natural border between Mexico and the United States, during sunrise. It's not uncommon for migrants to swim across the river into the U.S. to escape violence or economic disaster in their home countries.

Crossing into the U.S. is only the beginning of the obstacles for the men and women who chose this route. Some face a heightened risk of exploitation or abuse due to their lack of documentation.

Sister Rosemary Welsh—a tall, strong woman with short-cropped hair framing her face—works to protect people in these insecure situations at Casa de Misericordia, a domestic violence shelter, in Laredo, Texas. In its 20 years of existence, the shelter has never turned anyone away—and most of the people served today are undocumented. To answer their needs, the organization works in coordination with other city and state agencies.

Welsh parses no words when discussing how she believes the Trump administration has treated immigrants inhumanely. She volunteers in detention centers and has seen firsthand the effects of the new family separation policy. She’d recently been consoling parents who had been separated from their children without any knowledge of where they were or when they would be reunited. Frustrated by the practice and referring to the president, she asks, “What is this he’s got against the immigrant population?” Still, she understands the importance of collaboration.

“We have always worked very, very closely with ICE and Border Patrol,” she says. “You cannot be adversarial with these individuals.”

Soledad Casas stayed at the shelter for two weeks in 2000 and has been a volunteer ever since. She stands in a storage room full of clothing for those who arrive with nothing and talks about her kids—now 18, 15, 13, and 10 years old. Casas was undocumented when she experienced domestic violence. She says she stayed in that relationship for too long for fear of being deported without her children. The goal of Casa de Misericordia is to give women in Casas’ circumstances a way out and a support system to build a safer, more stable life.

About 125 miles to the north in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Father José Guadalupe Valdés Alvarado breaks bread with the migrant community he serves at the shelter he directs. In the early morning, he prays with a group of men over plates of eggs, beans, and tortillas. After the prayer, while the men are eating, he returns to the community kitchen to help the volunteer cooks clean. His main objective at the moment, he says, given the immigration policies of the Trump administration, is to help reunite children separated at the border with their parents.

He describes a Guatemalan father he’d recently helped. Deported without his son, who remains detained in the U.S., the father was on his way back to the border to find his child. Most migrants arriving at the shelter had heard something of the separation policy, but they didn’t believe it would happen to them. They believed they would achieve the American dream, he says. “They always bring that illusion and that dream and that is their hope, right? And we are not going to take away hope.”

That hope sometimes turns to fear once migrants cross into the U.S. Undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived and worked along the border for decades, often fear being targeted by law enforcement. Although Texas is known for SB4, a law that allows local officers to enforce federal immigration regulations on behalf of a requesting federal agency and that the ACLU of Texas says “forces local governments and law enforcement agencies to do the work of federal immigration officers,” not all law enforcement members believe in such policies.

Across the border from Piedras Negras, in the town of Eagle Pass, Texas, the sheriff’s department doesn’t believe asking immigrants on the street for their papers accomplishes their goal of greater security.

Sheriff Tom Schmerber sits behind his desk in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, the American and Texas flags flanking his workspace and a framed AR-15 on the wall. Before becoming sheriff, Schmerber was a teacher and then a border patrol agent for 26 years. “We are their eyes,” he says of border patrol, “but we are not interested in the immigration status of people walking on the street.”

Walking around the jail connected to the police station, Sheriff Schmerber talks about recent national immigration approaches. He voices his disagreement with the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents from children at the border. “It is causing heartache, and the mothers and fathers are somewhere, their kids are somewhere, and it is going to be hard to find the kids,” he says. “How are they going to find those kids? How are they going to get them together?”

As for the border wall, he says ranchers, landowners, and people who love swimming and fishing in the river were opposed to it, both because it would separate the border city from Piedras Negras, Mexico, where many people have family, and because it would be ineffective for improving safety. Eyes down and voice low, he sympathizes with immigrants, “They are desperate. People are desperate. We are here. We have got it made. We have a life. Sometimes we forget lives that are harsher.”

The International Women's Media Foundation provided support for this project.