NOGALES, Sonora (CN) — Next to a long line of pedestrians slowly streaming into Nogales, Ariz., dozens of men wait in a makeshift migrant camp at the border crossing for a chance to follow north.
The migrants, mostly Haitians, arrive in this border town after weeks of traveling thousands of miles by land and water with an eye toward the United States. Brazilians, Africans and Asians join them in pilgrimages to the United States’ Southwest border. Some 5,000 Haitians have arrived this year, and thousands more are believed to be on the way, prompting U.S. immigration to tighten the rules of admission.
More than 50 immigrants came and went from the campsite one day recently. They rest on blankets and backpacks thrown on the floor, seemingly oblivious to the curious stares of passersby.
Nearby sit food boxes, sodas and water bottles that good Samaritans from both sides of the border drop by daily.
The newcomers nap, eat and wait for their turn to meet with U.S. immigration agents who will decide their fate. It’s a slow process.
“Some days they only take two people,” Wilgin Fenelon said in English, glancing toward the north side of the metal turnstiles that turn so easily for pedestrians with visas and passports.
Fenelon, who is in his mid-20s, left Haiti for Brazil early this year. He was still struggling to recover from losses suffered in the 2010 earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation, and hoped the South American country that opened its doors to Haitians would offer better economic opportunities.
“But I didn’t find no job,” he said. “That’s what made me come here.”
Since Brazil’s economic downturn, many Haitians who migrated there in recent years are choosing to leave.
In September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana told Congress that while she was in Central America she learned some 40,000 Haitians could be headed north.
That prompted the United States to stop granting Haitians humanitarian parole, which allowed them to stay in the country. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the immigrants now will be detained and deported.
In Arizona, immigrants are being processed on “a case by case basis,” Customs and Border Protection said in a statement. Those who are denied permission to enter are turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigrants who fear persecution in their homeland because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group are eligible for asylum under U.S. law. But gaining that legal status is difficult.
Fenelon said he doesn’t know much about U.S. immigration policy. If he’s allowed to enter and live in the U.S., he wants to join a sister in Florida.
After his arduous, 10-week trek through several countries, Fenelon said, he won’t even allow himself to think about being sent back to Haiti.
“It was very, very hard,” he said. “Walking very, very long, sleeping in the bush. In each country you cross into, you spend some days: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico.”
Like so many others, when Fenelon reached Mexico’s southern border on Oct. 12, he received a 20-day permit to stay in the country. He made it to Nogales about a week later, and wants to keep going north. He’s heard that good-paying jobs are the norm in the U.S.
“I just want to work there,” he said.
On Sunday he left the camp with others for an afternoon Mass celebrated on both sides of the tall metal fence between the twin cities.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis’ ambassador in the U.S., led the Mass to bring attention to the struggles of immigrants and refugees all over the world.
The newly arrived migrants from Haiti — and at least two from the Congo — received a warm welcome. They stood quietly under a tent with some 200 people on the Mexican side near an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Back at the camp, Junior Richmond fiddled with a cellphone. The four men ahead of him also stayed put. They didn’t want to miss being called for an interview with immigration agents.
Richmond, 30, left Haiti for Brazil in 2014. He’s been at the campsite since he arrived in Nogales on Aug. 17. Like Fenelon, he traveled for 10 weeks. He’s reluctant to go to a migrant shelter, as some have, to sleep or get a hot meal, for fear of losing his place in line.
“Every person who’s here wants to go in there to work,” Richmond said in Spanish.
He left Haiti after his job with a nongovernmental organization ended. He wanted to further his education and work in Brazil, but it didn’t pan out.
“Life in Brazil right now is very hard,” Richmond said in Spanish. “There are very few jobs.”
He said a pervading atmosphere of racism against Haitians makes daily living even more challenging in Brazil.
He wants to live and work in the United States and earn a master’s degree. Someday he’d like to do international work helping impoverished countries such as his homeland.
Like Fenelon, Richmond is staying positive about his chances of coming to the United States.
“People are praying,” he said. “Not just for me — for all of us.”
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