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Dangerous journeys, contentious crossings

Migrant families desperate to flee gang violence and an administration determined to stop illegal immigration are adding up to a crisis on the border

Dangerous journeys, contentious crossings

Central American migrants fleeing gang violence, look for a way to cross the U.S. border fence in Tijuana, Mexico. (Emilio Espejel/AP)

While President Trump in February declared a national emergency at the southern border, another migrant caravan headed north: About 2,000 Central Americans were walking, busing, hitchhiking, and riding trains for 2,800 miles toward the United States. They planned to join tens of thousands more migrants already overfilling shelters at border towns, stretching Border Patrol resources, and clogging a severely backlogged immigration court docket.

Among that caravan were Oscar Munoz and his wife Telma, his 20-year-old daughter Ericka and her husband Jesus, and his 1-year-old grandson Jilar. They left Honduras two months ago after reading announcements on TV, in newspapers, and on social media about the latest migrant caravan: “You don’t want to be the last person remaining. Get out while you can!” So Munoz and his family did. There were no job opportunities in Honduras anyway, Munoz said, and when gangs in his neighborhood forced him to cooperate, he decided the only way out alive was to flee.

Munoz and his family witnessed many deaths during their travels. One evening, while crossing the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, a truck carrying several dozen of their fellow caravaners overturned, killing at least 25 people and injuring 29 others. 

On another leg of the journey, Munoz and his family hauled themselves up on top of running freight trains and clung onto the top, the women taking turns to hold onto the baby. The migrants have a name for this mode of transportation—La Bestia (The Beast)—and Munoz quickly learned why: The winds howled in their ears as the train whooshed at 60 miles per hour, and no layers of clothes could soothe their shivers. Munoz says anyone who couldn’t hold on fell to a gruesome death on the tracks. 

Munoz and his family’s journey put them in the center of a raging debate in the United States. Since last October, U.S. Border Patrol agents have apprehended 268,044 people who illegally crossed the southwest border between ports of entry—and about half of them (136,150) were families, while about 10 percent (26,937) were unaccompanied minors. That’s a 300 percent jump in the number of family apprehensions compared with the same time period during the entire 2018 fiscal year.

Conflicting narratives muddy up what’s actually happening at the border: Humanitarian activists say that asylum-seekers crossing the border to request asylum is in line with international and U.S. asylum laws and that what President Donald Trump's administration has been doing—keeping asylum-seekers in Mexico and returning them there to wait for court hearings—is inhumane. They are challenging him in court. Meanwhile, Trump has mocked the stories of asylum-seekers, calling their pleas for help a “big fat con job.”

The truth is much messier: What’s happening is a collision of a humanitarian crisis, a border security issue, and an immigration court crisis that has been decades in the making.

Sophia Lee

Jilar, Oscar's grandson (Sophia Lee)

MUNOZ AND HIS FAMILY​ finally arrived in Tijuana after taking a bus 110 miles from Mexicali. They were glad their journey was over, and as Munoz sat on the steps at the beach of Tijuana, overlooking the metal border fence that divides Mexico from the United States, he set his gaze toward the possible future, not past trauma.

Pues, me siento bien,” he said, looking at the Pacific Ocean waves crash through the steel bars and over U.S. sands. “I feel good. Even just this glimpse of the other side brings me relief.” His toddler grandson also looked cheerful as he tottered about, his little fingers stained red with hot sauce from the duros (Mexican puffed wheat snack) that someone bought him from a street vendor. 

Like most migrant family heads from Central America, Munoz plans to seek asylum in the United States, but he seemed clueless about how it’s impacting the national debate on immigration. For one, he said he didn’t know that thousands of migrants were stuck in Mexican border cities due to recently changed U.S. policies. 

When asked if he had heard about immigration authorities separating migrant children from their families at the border, his eyes widened: “No, no sabía! (No, I didn’t know!) That’s bad.” Then he added, “But if that’s the required process, I’ll oblige.” It was obvious he didn’t know that authorities had deported hundreds of migrant parents without their children, or that many of them have yet to find their children. But somehow, somewhere, someone had told him that he could seek asylum in the United States if he came with his family and that authorities cannot keep families in detention for longer than 20 days, so here he was.

And what if Munoz and his family cannot gain asylum in the United States? “I cannot ever return to Honduras,” he declared. But neither does he want to stay in Mexico: “I’ll look for other countries that will accept us.” That’s a Plan B for many asylum-seekers: If not America, then Canada?

The majority of migrants such as Munoz do not meet the criteria for asylum, which requires evidence of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Most incoming migrants are not direct targets of death threats or persecution, but are people who say they read the signs as neighbors started disappearing house by house—and decided to run before they were the gangs’ next target.

Even though they might be facing impending danger, such circumstances usually don’t qualify them for asylum. But they’re entitled by law to a court date in an immigration court system that is clogged. Ever since Trump took office, the government has taken a “zero tolerance” approach: One of the first things Trump did as president was issue an executive order to prioritize the deportation of all illegal immigrants in the United States, including individuals with no criminal records. This plus the wave of migrant families has led to a backlog of more than 800,000 cases in the courts.

Meanwhile, the White House during March implemented and expanded a policy dubbed “Remain in Mexico,” which returns asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait while authorities process their claims. These policies, though aimed at discouraging unlawful border crossing, failed to do that very thing. Instead, more people continued crossing, and Trump is threatening to shut down the border with Mexico completely if the Mexican government doesn’t do more to stem the flow of migrants.

Sophia Lee

Border Patrol public affairs officer Fabian Carbajal (Sophia Lee)

THE CARAVANS HAVE “REALLY CHANGED THE GAME,” said San Diego Sector Border Patrol public affairs officer Fabian Carbajal. In the last few years, he’s seen so many kids crossing the border that he's carried toys and stuffed animals in his trunk. “Before, it was a cat-and-mouse game, people trying to hide from Border Patrol. Now families come and just stand there waiting for us—and in groups of 30, 40, 50 families.” 

Whenever that happens, a Border Patrol agent will have to radio in other agents in the field to come help, because he or she doesn’t have enough vehicular space to transport them to the station. If babies or toddlers are among the group, someone has to hurry over to the station to pick up baby car seats, crackers, milk, and juice. By the time everyone has been transported and medically checked, hours have passed, and dozens of Border Patrol agents have been pulled away from their primary duties—to safeguard U.S. borders from dangerous criminals, illicit materials, and illegal crossings.

To understand what Border Patrol agents deal with on a daily basis, I went on a three-hour ride with Carbajal in his mud-splattered Subaru. A Marine Corps veteran who has been a Border Patrol agent for 13 years, the 34-year-old Carbajal has built his entire career on law enforcement, so his perspective about the border is one of law and order—and very pro-wall. Before 1991, no physical barrier existed at the southern border, but over the last two decades, Border Patrol has been gradually walling off the border (see sidebar) as part of an increasing effort to prevent people from illegally crossing the border rather than arresting them within the country. 

The San Diego Sector has one of the most thoroughly barricaded parts of the border, but that hasn’t stopped people from passing through. As we bumped and jostled our way up a steep hill, Carbajal pointed out a spot where a Trump-era 18-foot-high steel bollard fence abruptly ended at the foothills of the rocky, sun-beaten Otay Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness area that peaks at 3,566 feet and stands as a semi-effective natural barrier. 

On the other side in Tijuana, I saw shacks and houses made of concrete blocks and wood panels, clearly a poorer neighborhood. Wild dogs barked somewhere in the Mexican plains. On the U.S. side, construction workers were still building and fortifying the wall, welding the steel plates in place as sparks flew to the ground. One Border Patrol agent stood guard next to her jeep at the end of the wall. As we drove back down, Carbajal nodded over at that agent. “You see that? We’ve been driving for several miles, and she’s the first Border Patrol agent we saw. That’s a problem.”

To Border Patrol, the massive spike of family apprehensions at the border creates plenty of opportunities for criminals to take advantage of the chaos and dysfunction. Many migrants arrive with no birth certificates or ID, so Border Patrol has to call their country’s consulate to procure their biographical information—and at times, the supposed parent has no relations to the child. “That’s scary,” Carbajal said. “Are these kids kidnapped? Rented out? What if drug cartels are taking advantage of these kids and our laws?” 

Sometimes, the children unwittingly put themselves in danger. In one case that Carbajal worked on, a 17-year-old girl from Guatemala showed up with two younger siblings, ages 4 and 7. She said she had a 45-year-old male contact in New York whom she had met on Facebook—and when Border Patrol ran the man’s records, several child molestation charges came up. Out of sheer desperation or foolish naïveté or both, the girl had been willing to travel thousands of miles to seek refuge from a man she had never met. 

“This can’t be the new normal,” Carbajal said. “Something has to change. This is not sustainable. Something drastic needs to happen.”

I witnessed that “new normal” an hour after my interview with Munoz. I heard a commotion going on over at the border fence on the beach. Someone had pried the corroding steel bars open 2 inches wider with a big rock, used a lighter to heat the steel wire blocking the bars, and then cut the wire open with a sharp tool. A Border Patrol agent parked on the other side of the border honked a warning, but the migrants ducked, crawled, and dashed through the fence. 

As I watched, 52 individuals—17 of them children ages 1 to 14—ran across the beach and then marched toward the Border Patrol agents. Minutes later, more agents showed up in ATVs and on horseback. Among the migrants, I saw a middle-aged man limping on the sand in a black jacket, black hat, and streaming pink scarf, and I instantly recognized him as Oscar Munoz. I then spotted his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, and grandson. Everyone in that group claimed asylum. Munoz has found his way into the United States after all.

Anatomy of a wall

The San Diego Sector of the border runs for 60 of the 1,933 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border along deserts, shrubby hills, a beach, and heavily populated towns. Currently, about 46 of those 60 miles have some sort of physical barrier between Mexico and the United States.

The first walls were built in 1999—6-foot-high metal panels made up of donated Vietnam War scraps that weren’t meant to prevent people from jumping over but to prevent vehicles from speeding through, cutting down on high-speed vehicular chases that resulted in deaths and accidents. Border Patrol later put barbed wires on top of those panels, but people still managed to push it off the top, throw a thick rug over, and then hop across.

Then in 2007, under the Bush administration, Border Patrol built another set of walls out of steel mesh and barbed wires on top, but people cut giant squares and U-shaped holes out of the mesh with cordless power tools. Almost every section of those walls has distinct square-shaped patches. Border Patrol plastered more barbed wires up and down the mesh walls, but that hasn’t stopped people from crossing through.

Gary Moon/ZUMA/Newscom

A section of the bollard style border wall near Jacumba, Calif. (Gary Moon/ZUMA/Newscom)

Next came the 18-foot-high steel bollard wall built last November under the Trump administration, hardly the concrete blocks Trump had originally envisioned. These steel bollards are far more effective: Inside each hollow bar is cement to prevent people from trying to pry the bars apart, and on the top are large, smooth steel plates to prevent people from climbing up the bars and hopping over. Two inches of space separate each bar, wide enough so border agents can see through, but narrow enough that the average man wouldn’t be able to lop his arms around and climb it. In addition to the physical barriers, Border Patrol has installed stadium lights and cameras and motion sensors in certain areas, as much as its budget allows.

“We learn as we go,” Border Patrol public affairs officer Fabian Carbajal said. One section of the wall jutting into the Pacific Ocean has all the works: steel mesh, steel plates, steel bars, and two sets of barbed wire— each fortification added as people found even more creative ways to sneak through. The walls won’t completely stop someone who’s determined to cross, Carbajal said, but they do help buy agents some time. However, they don’t work as effectively with asylum-seekers who cross with the intention of turning themselves in to Border Patrol. —S.L.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 04/04/2019 04:49 pm

    Great research and writing, Sophia. Thank-you!


    One request to World: I'm wondering if it might be possible to run a series of articles on immigration in other first world countries? Although I would include Japan as a first world country, I think most of these would be European, also Canada. What are their statistics? (geographic and demographic sizes of these countries and numbers of immigrants/year) What are their successes, problems? I just think it might help readers, such as myself, to gain a broader perspective. I doubt that we are the only nation facing immigration difficulties. It would be interesting and perhaps useful to know what our peers around the world are doing, if anything, in similar circumstances. Have other first world countries encountered pitfalls we should avoid or successes, perhaps, that we might want to consider?

    Thanks and blessings,

    West Coast Gramma


  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 04/13/2019 11:30 am

    Yes, it would be helpful to hear about the no-go zones in Europe where the police don’t go and where Sharia Law is practiced!

    We should note too the problems in Sweden and notice how the government officials are downplaying the problem of immigrant crime.



  • N Tyler
    Posted: Fri, 04/12/2019 09:59 am

    Munoz said he and his family came because of announcements on TV, in newspapers and on social media urging Hondurans to leave now.  And that's all the information Sophia Lee gives us about the impetus for hundreds of thousands migrating north from Central America.

    Am I the only one wondering who are the responsible parties for these announcements?

    Someone needs to dig into the genesis of the exodus because it is clearly not spontaneous.

  • charles jandecka
    Posted: Fri, 04/12/2019 12:57 pm

    Plight and fear of death have never been excuses to storm property not one's own. The very 1st example of denied entry flares from the account of Adam's Rebellion wherein God stationed, around the Tree of Life, a wall of fire, making it inaccessible!!

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 04/12/2019 05:29 pm

    I am thankful for World and your attempt to present all sides of this very complicated issue.  Let us all pray for the right solutions (I suspect there won't be just one).

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 04/21/2019 01:13 am

    There must be law and order not law and disorder.

  • bollard
    Posted: Sat, 05/11/2019 12:53 pm

    Fortunately Newsweek posted the clip containing President Trump's "big fat con job" comment. It was clear that he was not mocking the plight of the immigrant families as World's article plainly implied. He was criticizing the campaign by lawyers who are coaching people seeking entry to the U.S. to claim that they fear for their lives and are fleeing persecution, so they can meet the legal requirements for asylum.