Asylum Seekers Find Help, Hope on Long Journey to US

Migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States navigate a minefield of dangers and bureaucracy. This week, Courthouse News has been looking at what they face and the people who help them along the way; this is the final installment.

Migrants sleep tucked among junk cars in this shelter in Toluca, Mexico. Women and children sleep in the makeshift tent in the background. (Brad Poole / CNS)

TOLUCA, Mexico (CN) – It’s hard to tell where the auto shop ends and the shelter starts at Armando Vilchis Vargas’ “albergue” an hour west of Mexico City.

The migrant shelter, one of three managed by the Catholic Church of Mexico City, is nestled between junk cars and piles of tires. A corrugated steel door separates the space from a courtyard, where Vargas earns his living repairing cars.

Although he has partnered for seven years with the church to give the migrants food and shelter, Vargas says that’s not their top request.

“Papers,” he said, referring to a registration program Mexico started this past December that allows migrants to register and work as they make their way through the county, most toward the United States.

The embassies check backgrounds of each migrant, then in about a week they are vetted and get identification cards. Vargas has helped more than 4,000 people register since the program launched, he said, showing a foot-tall stack of applications.

As with many shelters throughout Mexico and in the United States, most migrants come from Central America. But Vargas says the past year he has seen more people fleeing political and economic unrest in Venezuela.

“Honduras is the first place, the second place is El Salvador, the third place Guatemala, and Nicaragua is fourth,” he said, adding that the flow of migrants is far lower now than it was seven years ago when he started.

At the migrant shelter Casa San Juan Bosco in Nogales, Mexico, travelers, many seeking asylum in the United States, get soup and bread for dinner. (Brad Poole / CNS)

About 1,200 miles to the north, in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, Casa San Juan Bosco houses about 75 migrants per night. Hilda and Francisco Louiero have offered their large house perched on a steep hill to migrants for decades.

Migrants filter into Casa San Juan through the evening, and at about 8 p.m. each registers their name and country of origin. Many of them are waiting for a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. and stay at the shelter for weeks. The shelter has helped tens of thousands of migrants over the years.

The flow of humanity through Casa San Juan Bosco is relentless.

Tucson, Arizona

Every day in Tucson, Arizona, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement release scores of immigrants caught crossing the Arizona border with Mexico. Under U.S. law, anyone who is already in the country can apply for asylum and must be given a court date to return for a hearing.

Homeland Security buses drop those asylum seekers at a former monastery that is now a 300-bed shelter for people ICE releases.

“If we didn’t take them in, they’d drop them at the bus station,” said Diego Pina Lopez, lead program coordinator for Catholic Community of Southern Arizona’s Casa Alitas Program. The organization is 100 percent volunteer-run, including Lopez.

The donations come in daily – a washing machine from a local appliance store, racks of clothing from a local high school, food and clothes in a steady stream from groups and individuals.

Racks of donated clothing await busloads of asylum-seekers released weekly at a Tucson shelter run by Catholic Social Services of Southern Arizona. (Brad Poole / CNS)

Lopez dismisses the notion that people are seeking asylum just to get jobs. They’re leaving because they were raped, or threatened with machetes by gangs. Most seek safety, he said.

“You’re not going to risk the journey just because you’re going to get a job,” he said.

Most days ICE drops off more than 50, occasionally more than 100 people, most of whom stay one to three days.

Migrants get a snack, receive a quick medical screening by a doctor or physician’s assistant, then an intake interview. There is a clothing room where migrants can have two changes of clothing – many come with only the clothes they’re wearing.

The former monastery, which the owners intend to convert to apartments, has 39 bedrooms of varying capacity. They have overflow beds in the cathedral. One night last week the shelter housed 189 people, and more than 3,400 have stayed since it opened this past October, Lopez said.

The cathedral at a former monastery serves as a makeshift intake area for migrants released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Tucson, Arizona. (Brad Poole / CNS)

Families buy their own tickets to final destinations across the nation. The travel room at the shelter features a destination board rivaling a midsize city airport – more than 40 destinations from Florida to the Eastern Seaboard to the Pacific Northwest.

“Greyhound is making a killing off of this,” Lopez said.

Bartolo, a 23-year-old Guatemalan man with his 5-year-old son, paid $5,000 to enter the U.S. through the Arizona desert. He’s heading for Florida, where his uncle lives. He spent three days in ICE custody before being released with a date for an asylum hearing.

He brought his son for a safer life and better schools, he said.

“I don’t have anything there. It’s dangerous. Here, he can study,” he said, adding he’ll take any work he can find. 

Father Solalinde

Despite being caught literally in the middle between the U.S. and Central America, Mexico is not a victim of the migrant flow, says Father Alejandro Solalinde, an icon in the international migrant rights community.

Solalinde urges people not to think in terms of borders, but to see everyone as one unit.

Food for this migrant shelter in Toluca, Mexico, is donated by a food bank. (Brad Poole / CNS)

“Not in the sense that I’m over here, and you’re over there, with a border between us, but as one human family,” he said recently in Mexico City.

Solalinde has worked for decades to support migrant rights, including oversight of three shelters Ixtapec, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, Mexico City, and Toluca. They are among the roughly 60 shelters the Catholic Church manages across Mexico; about 40 more are managed by others.

The need ebbs and flows, but on one recent day more than 1,000 migrants showed up in Mexico City – so many that volunteers had to move into a soccer stadium to process them.

All of the food at this migrant shelter in Toluca, Mexico, is prepared and cooked in the converted auto shop. (Brad Poole / CNS)

“Right now, it’s growing, because the problems in the countries where the migrants come from, the situations in the countries where migrants come from, are getting worse,” Solalinde said.

He would like to see the U.S. government accept migrants, regardless of where they are coming from or where they are going. Despite the urge among many to lay the problems at President Donald Trump’s feet, we shouldn’t, Solalinde said.

Food at this migrant shelter in Toluca, Mexico, is donated by a food bank. (Brad Poole / CNS)

“The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is that years before, the U.S. created a crisis in Central America with wars, intervention. That is the cause. The United States destroyed the living conditions in Central America, then afterward Central America went to the United States,” he said.

The same thing happened between Africa and Europe, he said. 

Nogales, Mexico

Meanwhile, migrants by the tens of thousands stream toward the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them just looking for a better life and many only vaguely aware of what awaits them in the U.S. They are keenly aware of what they left in their home nations, however.

Anderzon, 24, fled Honduras eight months ago to escape gang threats and corrupt police.

Migrants released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement often need new shoes when they get to the U.S. (Brad Poole / CNS)

He worked his way through Mexico and is now waiting for a chance to apply for asylum at the U.S. border in Nogales, Sonora. He’s staying at Casa San Juan Bosco. He has family in Southern California, so that’s the goal, but he doesn’t want to cross the border illegally and risk detention.

With no one to turn to for protection in Honduras, Anderzon felt he had to leave. He hopes to apply for asylum and find a job when he gets to California.

“Everything in the United States for me will be better,” he said.

Migrants arrive in Toluca on the famed train La Bestia, which carries tens of thousands of migrants across Mexico weekly. They get off the train just a couple blocks from the shelter. (Brad Poole / CNS)
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