Members of migrant aid organizations in Nogales, Sonora say the number of asylum-seekers at their facilities has dropped dramatically in recent months after a period of severe overcrowding earlier this year.
But they worried that the relative calm could be shattered by the pending local implementation of two measures meant to curb migration to the U.S. border: the expansion of a program that makes asylum-seekers wait out their U.S. claims in Mexico, and the deployment of a new militarized police force to Mexico’s border areas.
Francisco Loureiro of the Albergue San Juan Bosco said his migrant shelter is currently housing approximately 130 people per day after averaging 360 men, women and children during the first few months of the year. He cited the long waits to make a U.S. asylum claim at the Nogales port of entry as a major factor for the change.
“I think that people are passing (to the United States) quicker through other borders like Tijuana and Tamaulipas, so they’re going to those other ports,” Loureiro said, in reference to the Mexican city and state at the far west and east ends of the border with the United States, respectively.
Similarly, education director Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative said the border ministry’s soup kitchen has been tending to an average of 130 people per day, down from the more than 200 she reported in February.
Williams, while pointing to the long wait times for asylum claims, also noted that it’s common for the flow of migrants to diminish during the summer due to the “brutal” weather.
Still, even as they catch their breath, both migrant-aid workers expressed uncertainty and unease about the expected arrival of Mexican National Guard forces and the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy in Nogales – both of which could come as early as this month.
Troops and migrants
Despite the increase in asylum-seekers starting last year and continuing into early 2019 in Nogales, Sonora, the local region hasn’t seen the same overwhelming numbers as areas such as those across from California and Yuma, Ariz. to the west and New Mexico and Texas to the east.
When the United States and Mexico first rolled out “Remain in Mexico,” requiring asylum-seekers to wait out their claims south of the border, Nogales, Sonora wasn’t part of the program. And when the first Mexican National Guard troops were deployed to hot spots at the nation’s southern and northern border last month, they weren’t sent to Nogales.
But that could soon change as both efforts expand.
Nogales, Sonora Mayor Jesús Antonio Pujol Irastorza told the Hermosillo-based newspaper El Imparcial last week that his city is set to receive 250 National Guard troops to tend to migration and security issues in the area. Troops were expected to be deployed to Sonora following Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s official inauguration of the 6,000-member force on July 1, but the planning for their housing in Nogales was likely to delay their deployment there, according to the report in El Imparcial.
“The National Migration Institute is the only government agency that’s supposed to be dedicated to migration enforcement, and that’s why the National Guard mandate is very unclear to us,” Williams said, adding that “the pattern in other parts of the northern and southern borders makes us concerned for their presence.”
López Obrador announced last week that the troops do not have the authority to detain migrants after complaints grew over guardsmen chasing and detaining them.
Loureiro referred back to the violence that broke out between migrants and federal police officers in the southern border state of Chiapas last October, when Central American migrants entered Mexico by storming a border fence. The authorities involved in that incident, Loureiro said, weren’t trained to handle that type of situation.
“The National Guard is meant to defend territory, but here it’s about providing a humanitarian service. It’s about resolving a situation with intelligence, not with violence,” Loureiro said. “I don’t know how they could be of use in the case of the migrants.”
The “Remain in Mexico” policy, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, was first implemented in Tijuana and Mexicali, across from California, and Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas. Under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico agreed to expand the program to San Luis Colorado, Sonora and Nuevo Laredo, across from Texas, according to media reports last week that cited Mexican officials.
One report in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma said the program would next be expanded to Nogales, Sonora.
Loureiro said his migrant shelter is bracing for that possibility.
“The capacity at the shelter is 400 people. In case people were to go through here, that’s the quantity that we will accept,” he said, adding that the shelter’s limited finances wouldn’t allow for more. “We don’t know how long they could stay, just waiting to be called in.”
Pujol Irastorza told El Imparcial that he’s had no official notification that the “Remain in Mexico” policy will be implemented in Nogales. Even so, the municipal government has reportedly been exploring the possibility of housing migrants in unoccupied homes constructed by Infonavit, a federal institute that helps working-class families obtain affordable housing, according to a report by the Hermosillo-based newspaper Expreso.
Loureiro complained that the municipal government hasn’t been granting much help to local migrant shelters like his, which has only received assistance with electric and water bills.
He added that workers at the shelter are brainstorming ideas for a fundraising activity that would create a healthy reserve of resources in case their numbers spike up again.
“Just imagine housing people for three months – providing meals, personal hygiene products, medicine, maintenance for the shelter, everything they need,” he said. “The reserve would run out quickly if the shelter received 400 people.”
The Kino Border Initiative, which in March announced plans to build its own migrant shelter to meet growing demand, is concerned with what it sees as the violation of rights that the “Remain in Mexico” policy implies for migrant families, Williams said.
“(It’s) essentially forcing people into homelessness in Mexico because people are returned without access to jobs, healthcare, education, housing and then it also erodes their right to a fair trial in court,” she said. “It’s designed not to work, and it’s designed to deny people access to the asylum process.”