PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico (Border Report) – Sister Isabel Turcios inspects the two courtyards of an abandoned school that the Catholic church has turned into a shelter a few blocks from the Rio Grande.
Men line up in front of the table near the entry gate. They give their name, age and nationality and ask for food and a place to rest after a long journey from Central or South America. One asks how long he can stay. “One night,” a clerk responds.
Past the entrance, young couples sit on the concrete floor eating breakfast out of a Styrofoam plate. Some have taken off the worn shoes they will need to put back on when new arrivals come in the afternoon and require the space.
In the inner courtyard, some children laugh and play while one throws herself on the ground and cries for her mother. The mom was summoned to kitchen duty. Women and men on cleaning detail prepare the dormitories for those lucky enough to get a bed that night. The rest will sleep over a blanket in the courtyard.
“The shelter is built for 100, but we have more than 200 now and everything becomes a sleeping space,” Turcios says. Families can stay for up to three days and single adults “can stay until they are well if they come in dehydrated, beaten up or with broken bones.”
That’s not an unusual situation, she said, in a Mexican border city ill-equipped to provide for or protect the sheer number of migrants arriving daily. Such is life inside Frontera Digna, the city’s largest migrant shelter.
The facility every afternoon sees an exodus of tired and financially broke asylum-seekers ousted by the need to serve new arrivals. Most walk straight into the Rio Grande, hoping to evade the river patrols, the buoys and concertina wire the state of Texas has placed to discourage them from coming across. Most had not planned for that when they came to the border.
“I know about the asylum appointments; I cannot wait for an appointment because they stole my documents, my money, everything,” said Johan Gutierrez, a Venezuelan migrant who would get to enjoy the safety and shade of the shelter for a few hours still.
He was referring to a system of online appointments the U.S. government has set up at ports of entry to cut down on irregular migration. Immigration advocates in the U.S. have criticized the system as limited and flawed, and insist the government must hear out asylum-seekers regardless of how and where they show up on U.S. soil.
Gutierrez said he was robbed at gunpoint in Monterrey, a gateway to Northeast Mexico border towns. Four men roughed him up; one struck him hard in the ribs with a firearm when he tried to reach for his ID card.
He trudged on northward, but Mexican immigration stopped him in Matamoros and eventually sent him to Villahermosa, near the Guatemalan border. “They used psycho-terror on us. They showed us videos of the Zetas (drug cartel) dismembering people. They wanted us to feel fear […] so we would leave the country,” he said. “Here, it’s come in, eat, take a shower, sleep a little and go.”
Single mom Yusmani worked out a careful plan when she decided to leave Venezuela and seek U.S. asylum: Travel lawfully to Mexico City, take a bus to the border and wait for an appointment online.
Sitting barefoot on the concrete floor of the migrant shelter in Piedras Negras this week, she was asked what went wrong. “Todo (everything),” she said.
“From the moment you leave Venezuela, they take money from you. They ask why you are traveling with a minor, why you want dollars. They want to extort you,” she said. “They leave you no option but to come through the jungle, and I was scared for my son.”
She came to the shelter with her son, her adult sister, her nephew and some friends. She would have to leave with them the next day.
“Why does it have to be this way? Everybody has you on the run, crossing rivers on a raft, riding on top of trains. It’s not like you want to place yourself in danger, it’s that they give you no other option. This could be done more orderly,” she said.
Crime is another push factor for migrants in this border city. Edwin, a Venezuelan in his 40s who has been in Piedras Negras for a month doing odd jobs and renting sleeping space in a house, said local gangs target migrants.
He mentioned a convenience store a few blocks from the shelter where Mexican and Honduran gang members beat and robbed one of his friends. “You are not safe on the streets, you are not safe out buying food, you are not safe from the police,” he said.