Trump’s hard line cuts border cross­ings

Fewer mi­grants at­tempt jour­ney; smug­glers charg­ing higher fees.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Fer­nanda San­tos, Kirk Sem­ple and Caitlin Dick­er­son

Reiner Ríos SONOYTA, MEX­ICO — Gómez, who is from Hon­duras’ cap­i­tal, Tegu­ci­galpa, lifted his shirt to ex­pose a scar about 12 inches long in the mid­dle of his back, where he said a ma­chete hit him as he fled the rob­bers who were try­ing to steal his pay: about $120, for half a month’s work in con­struc­tion.

To es­cape that life, he set out for the United States on Jan. 15, mak­ing it as far as Sonoyta, Mex­ico, a city on the Ari­zona border where road­side stalls sell the cam­ou­flage clothes and back­packs that mi­grants use to cross to the other side. Then he called a cousin in Hous­ton.

“Why are you com­ing?” he said his cousin asked him. “They’re go­ing to send you back.”

So Ríos, 33, set­tled down at a shel­ter in Sonoyta, un­sure of what to do next.

“I have noth­ing to go back to,” he said. “And I don’t know if there’s any­thing for me on the other side.”

Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion re­ported last week that the

num­ber of peo­ple caught try­ing to en­ter the United States il­le­gally from Mex­ico had fallen in Fe­bru­ary to the low­est level in five years. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion said the sharp de­cline was a sign that its prom­ises to hire more en­force­ment agents, de­port more peo­ple and wall off the border are dis­cour­ag­ing peo­ple from even try­ing to cross.

In in­ter­views with mi­grants, their ad­vo­cates, and work­ers at shel­ters and soup kitchens in Mex­ico, the United States and Cen­tral Amer­ica, few quib­bled with the idea that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had al­tered the cli­mate for im­mi­gra­tion.

In­deed, it is clear that the ground has shifted on both sides of the border and that the well-trav­eled route north to a bet­ter life has sud­denly grown qui­eter, riskier and more des­per­ate.

Since Jan­uary, oc­cu­pancy at one shel­ter in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, has fallen by about two-thirds, ac­cord­ing to its di­rec­tor, Aarón Mén­dez Ruiz. Other shel­ters in the United States and Mex­ico re­port sig­nif­i­cant drops as well.

Six Cen­tral Amer­i­cans stay­ing at Mén­dez’s shel­ter vol­un­tar­ily sur­ren­dered to the Mex­i­can au­thor­i­ties so they could be sent back home, he said, and about 40 more chose to re­turn on their own.

“That had never hap­pened,” Mén­dez said. “Peo­ple don’t re­turn.”

Ruben Gar­cia, the di­rec­tor of the An­nun­ci­a­tion House, a shel­ter in El Paso, no­ticed that far fewer Cen­tral Amer­i­cans were ar­riv­ing than he was used to see­ing. He asked those who did show up why that was.

“One hun­dred per­cent ver­bal­ized some ver­sion of, ‘Your pres­i­dent,’” Gar­cia said.

The drop in border cross­ings is en­cour­ag­ing news, Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John Kelly said in a state­ment, “be­cause it means many fewer peo­ple are putting them­selves and their fam­i­lies at risk of ex­ploita­tion, as­sault and in­jury by hu­man traf­fick­ers and the phys­i­cal dan­gers of the treach­er­ous jour­ney north.”

At the same time, though, the dire eco­nomic and safety con­di­tions that drive peo­ple from their homes have not changed.

At Casa del Mi­grante — a shel­ter in Caborca, 80 miles from the Ari­zona border — Mainor José Por­tillo, a soft-spo­ken 17-yearold from Choloma, Hon­duras, was wait­ing ear­lier this month for his arm to heal. He in­jured it in Fe­bru­ary while try­ing to en­ter the United States.

Be­cause he had no money to pay his smug­glers, he had agreed to carry a back­pack filled with 50 pounds of mar­i­juana. But he was spot­ted by the Border Pa­trol as soon as he crossed, he said, so he dropped the back­pack and was able to out­run the agents and make it back to the Mex­i­can side.

Now he was try­ing to de­cide whether to try again. One thing was cer­tain: He did not want to go back to Hon­duras.

“The gangs killed my cousin, and they said I was go­ing to be next,” he said.

At­tempt­ing an il­le­gal cross­ing into the United States has be­come even more of a fi­nan­cial gam­ble than be­fore. Of­fi­cials and im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates in sev­eral coun­tries said the crim­i­nal groups that con­trol smug­gling had been em­pow­ered as they be­gan mar­ket­ing them­selves to mi­grants as the only way to evade the in­creased en­force­ment.

Smug­gling fees from El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Guatemala, the poverty- and vi­o­lence-stricken North­ern Tri­an­gle of Cen­tral Amer­ica, have climbed as high as $15,000, ad­vo­cates and of­fi­cials re­ported, far above the av­er­age yearly in­come in the re­gion.

Some mi­grants who might once have headed to the United States for safety and work are in­stead look­ing else­where, in­clud­ing Mex­ico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama and even South Amer­i­can coun­tries.

“If the United States isn’t a coun­try that will pro­vide the guar­an­tees, they will go some­where else,” said Vini­cio San­doval, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­de­pen­dent Mon­i­tor­ing Group of El Sal­vador, a la­bor and le­gal rights or­ga­ni­za­tion in­volved in mi­gra­tion is­sues.

But a num­ber of mi­grants along the route were hold­ing to the un­re­al­is­tic hope that Trump would change his mind about them.

Gus­tavo Adolfo Gómez, a 34-year-old cab­driver, said he had left Cho­luteca, Hon­duras, on Jan. 15 af­ter gang mem­bers sprayed the taxi stand where he worked with bul­lets, killing two of his col­leagues. He ar­rived on Feb. 27 at the Pue­b­los Sin Fron­teras shel­ter in Sonoyta.

He said he planned to wait there a bit. For what? He was not sure.

“Maybe Trump will close his eyes one night and God will touch his heart,” he said.

CAITLIN O’HARA / NEW YORK TIMES

Javier Ponce of Hon­duras hangs his clothes to dry at a shel­ter in Heroica Caborca, Mex­ico, on March 1. Shel­ters in the United States and Mex­ico have re­ported sig­nif­i­cant drops in oc­cu­pancy re­cently.

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