Life in the limbo at Mexican shelter

Cedar Attanasio & Tim Sullivan

JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Long after midnight, when the heat has finally relented and the walled courtyard is scattered with men sleeping in the open, someone begins to sob.

The sound is quiet, muffled. The only light comes from streetlights shimmering above the razor wire. It’s impossible to see who is crying.

Is it the Ugandan bodybuilder who came here fleeing political violence? Or the 27-year-old El Salvadoran who often wears a Cookie Monster T-shirt? Maybe it’s the young Honduran husband who rarely leaves his wife’s side.

It could have been any of them.

This is the cobbled-together community of El Buen Pastor — The Good Pastor — 130 or so migrants from around the world locked into a shelter every evening at 5.30pm, trapped in an immigration purgatory. They are barely three miles from the Paso del Norte Bridge and their goal: the United States (US).

“Everyone cries here,” said Yanisley Estrada Guerrero, a 33-year-old Cuban economist and former bank manager. She’s now working illegally as a housekeeper at a Juarez hotel for USD60 a month, less than half Mexico’s minimum wage. “I still cry almost every day. But I do it in the shower, because I don’t want anyone to see.”

These are turbulent days for the migrants of El Buen Pastor. For the first time since World War II, the US government is turning away thousands of asylum seekers regardless of their need for refuge.

A series of Trump Administration immigration rule changes have effectively sealed the border to the vast majority of asylum seekers, leaving tens of thousands of migrants in limbo, and shifting responsibility for US immigration policy to the Mexican government and dozens of Mexican shelters.

For migrants, El Buen Pastor is both a haven and a prison. It’s a small place — four sleeping rooms, four showers, four toilets and a chapel — that provides each arrival with a mattress, two meals a day, spotty Wi-Fi and protection from gangsters who trawl for targets in migrant enclaves of Juarez. But it’s also a place where the front gate is locked at 5.30pm, and coming in late means facing Marta, the fearsome unpaid staffer who never seems to leave.

The shelter ripples with often-unspoken bigotries, with ribbons of race and class and education in nearly every interaction. Daily life is marked by brutal summer heat, occasional dust storms, crushing boredom and the guilt of mothers who can’t afford dinner for their children.

Alphat, of Uganda runs through a neighbourhood surrounding the El Buen Pastor shelter for migrants in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. PHOTOS: AP
A girl from Africa plays with a girl from Honduras at El Buen Pastor shelter
Evelyn, of El Salvador, eats a shared lunch as her daughter sleeps in an area set up for families among the pews at El Buen Pastor shelter
Migrants hang around the patio at the shelter

But occasionally, it’s also a place of muchene enkoko (Ugandan-style chicken and rice) and arroz a la Valenciano (Nicaraguan-style chicken and rice). It’s a place of children’s games, young romance and Scrabble matches that seem to stretch into eternity. Anything to make the time pass.

It’s home, at least for now, for those 130 or so people. This is how they spend their days. Not in the countries they fled. Not in the country where they want to be. But somewhere else, in between.

The Ugandan bodybuilder wakes early, often before everyone else, and heads out into the streets of Juarez to run.

Alphat runs relentlessly. People stop to stare, surprised to see a black man with huge biceps and impossibly broad shoulders running through this city. Alphat runs to escape the stifling closeness of the shelter, and to forget for a few minutes what happened back home.

A 29-year-old competitive bodybuilder, Alphat also owned a gym and a security company that provided bodyguards. His nightmare began, he said, when he agreed to handle security for a politician who has clashed repeatedly with Yoweri Museveni, the strongman who has run Uganda for over 30 years.

Eventually, he said, he was arrested, beaten and tortured because of his opposition ties. While he was in detention, his wife and two young daughters were shot and killed by military policemen, who had warned him to drop his political client.

He has struggled with depression but he doesn’t weep when he talks about their killings, doesn’t ask for sympathy.

He sold his gym and his car and fled to Kenya. When that didn’t feel far enough he found a murky middleman named Moses. Alphat paid him USD7,000 to arrange a series of flights: Kenya to Ethiopia to Argentina to Mexico City.

At first, he thought he’d find refuge in Mexico. But after being detained, released and then robbed, he took the advice of a Mexican he’d met and rode a bus to Juarez. Here, he’d been told, he could walk to a US border post and ask for asylum.

The bridge linking Juarez and El Paso is one of America’s busiest border crossings, channelling roughly 20,000 pedestrians a day back and forth.

Alphat’s taxi driver, taking pity on him, gave him a five-peso coin, worth 25 cents, to cross the bridge.

“Okay, now I’m settled,” he thought as he dropped the coin into the turnstile and began walking above the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande. “Now I’ll get my freedom.” But halfway across he was stopped by US customs officers.

Little did he know that the Trump administration was turning away more and more asylum seekers with a vague promise to process them later. So many migrants lined up on the bridge waiting to cross that local Mexican authorities started assigning numbers, like a ticket for service at a deli, updating the number every day on Facebook. Alphat’s number: 12,631.

In February, the delay was a few days. When Alphat arrived on April 23, it was two months. In July, processing had virtually stopped, and he had no idea if his asylum interview would ever happen.

But Alphat doesn’t complain. Most people don’t. It’s pointless, and people here are careful not to use up too much energy.

Alphat shrugged, “I’ve been here almost four months, waiting for them to call.”

Mornings are the worst, when another heat-blasted day stretches out before them and the courtyard is scattered with half-asleep people blinking at the sun.

Mattresses are taken in, folding metal chairs are dragged out, clanging across the concrete. Parents snap at their children. A handful of people have jobs, many working illegally as housekeepers or construction workers, though Mexican officials have been more generous recently with work permits — recognition that the migrants are here for a while.

The man who makes all this work is a retired high school math teacher with jet black hair and the thin moustache of a bygone movie star. Juan Fierro is a 70-year-old lapsed Catholic and recovering alcoholic who eventually found direction in the Methodist church. He’s also a preacher who can lay a hand gently on believers and watch them slump to the floor unconscious.

But at the shelter, Fierro is simply “El Pastor”.

“The pastor, he sees everything,” said Esquivel, pointing to the shelter’s security cameras.

El Pastor is the lawgiver and the genial benefactor who supplies everything from food to bus fare to toilet paper. He’s an unrepentant optimist — the good cop to Esquivel’s bad cop. But he’s also astonished that in a place full of disparate, frustrated people, there’s so little trouble.

“I don’t understand why they’re not at odds with each other,” he said.

In the spring, trouble appeared ready to explode when a Mexican aid organisation brought a group of African migrants to the shelter.

“Everyone stood still, watching them,” Fierro said.

“Are they going to stay with us?” the stunned residents asked him.

A few weeks later, a Central American teenager hurled racial slurs at the Africans and Fierro stepped in. He called all the Latinos together and said talk like that had to stop immediately. Then he took a group of Africans out for ice cream and a drive around town.

For the most part the migrants have learnt to get along. Why bother fighting in a place where everyone is sleeping on the same cheap sponge mattresses, and lining up every morning for the same off-brand corn flakes smothered in sugar?

Prejudices melt most quickly among the children, who play together in a tangle of languages and ethnicities and races. The 16-year-old Congolese girl watches the Honduran baby. Sometimes, the adults laugh as they try to learn a few words of someone else’s language.

In the evening, when the heat is fading and no one has to hide anymore from the sun, the shelter comes alive.

An eight-year-old Congolese girl is playing in the courtyard when she suddenly asks for her mother. A Cuban walking back from the shower area overhears her. “Your mother is far from here,” he told her. They’re speaking Portuguese, a language they share because he once lived in Portuguese-speaking Brazil and she was born in a village in Congo near the border with Portuguese-speaking Angola.

“Where?” the girl asked.

The girl’s mother is dead, killed in political violence in 2016. The woman she calls her mother is the aunt who helped raise her, and who stayed behind when the girl’s family left, hoping to reach America.

“Far,” the Cuban told her. “In Africa”.

Long after sunset the Congolese girls’ father sits silently on a bench near a row of power outlets, charging his phone as he scrolls through the news, messages friends and watches videos to work on his English skills.

He’s a distinguished-looking man with close-cropped hair and a beard going gray. He speaks three languages fluently and a smattering of others. He studied to work on large-scale electrical projects, but in the chaos of Congo, where the economy barely functions in many regions, he survived as an electrician.

Shelter life weighs heavily on him. He worries what it’s doing to his children. He’s known among the migrants for agonising about what he should do.

He spends his days sifting among the rumours that filter through migrant discussions on Facebook and WhatsApp: Try a border crossing into New Mexico, someone said. Try near San Antonio said another. Just go illegally, some said, arguing there are plenty of places to cross.

One day, he takes his children to a Juarez park that runs along the border. El Paso is right in front of them, just a few steps away. Migrants sometimes slip through the park and cross the border in broad daylight, though most are grabbed as soon as they reach US soil.

He insists he wasn’t thinking of crossing illegally.

“I was just going into town,” he grumbled. “I like to get my kids out of here. I can’t stay here all the time.”

A few weeks later, he is gone.

Just before he disappeared with his family, the Congolese man told Fierro they had to leave. They’d cross illegally.

“Pastor, I’m out of hope,” he told the pastor. “I can’t wait anymore.”

Fierro doesn’t know what happened to them. It’s unclear if they turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents, or if they made it to Maine.

Some other changes have come to El Buen Pastor.

Alphat made it to the US. He slipped through a narrow loophole in the ever-tightening US immigration policies. Although he didn’t request asylum until after the July 16 ruling requiring migrants to first ask for asylum in another country, his claims of torture meant the US had to admit him under international treaty obligations. He is currently being held in detention while his asylum case is reviewed, according to lawyers who have been in touch with him.

The Nicaraguan teenager and the Ugandan man broke up. The teenager’s family, still waiting for their number to be called to legally ask for asylum in the US, will likely be deported back home or to another country they passed through — regardless of the merits of their claims.

For those who remain at El Buen Pastor, each day is just another in limbo.

By 11pm the courtyard is crowded with mattresses. Nearly everyone is asleep. It’s quiet, except for the gentle rumble of snoring and the occasional dog barking in the neighbourhood.

A half-hour or so later, a little girl emerges from the chapel where the families sleep, and where the clock on the wall has stopped at 10.14pm. She begins dancing in the courtyard under a streetlight, swinging a thin blanket around her like a dancer twirling her skirt. Her face is filled with joy.

Her mother is one of the few people still awake, sitting on a wooden bench staring absently at her phone. Five minutes later the girl is lying across her mother’s lap, sound asleep. Her mother, face bathed the phone’s electric glow, barely notices.