Migrant families desperate to flee gang violence and an administration determined to stop illegal immigration are adding up to a crisis on the border
Ever since I started reporting on the migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border, there’s a question I’ve been asking: Is somebody funding this mass migration? Is someone paying for these migrants’ travel, food, and shelter—and if so, who? What’s the agenda?
Over the months, I’ve heard many theories—some plausible, some not so much. I’ve heard Border Patrol agents wonder aloud if drug cartels are supporting the caravan movement in order to bombard the U.S. border with chaos, thus making it easier for them to sneak through (if so, it’s working). The U.S. Border Patrol is overwhelmed with the number of families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum between ports of entry, as I report in WORLD’s current issue. One agent who used to process credible-fear claims from apprehended migrants said many of them told him similar stories from the same town: “It just seems coached.”
That seems to be a common view among border security officers, who understandably feel unjustly vilified for simply doing their jobs. It’s interesting being a reporter handing her passport over at the port of entry and having an officer so eager to share his unsolicited opinions on the subject.
One customs officer asked me: “Why do you think these people are coming?”
I replied, “I don’t know. They tell me they’re fleeing violence and poverty, and someone told them there was a way to get asylum here in the U.S.”
“Ah!” the officer exclaimed. “I’m glad you said someone told them—because this is all happening all of a sudden, and someone is behind this.” Another officer in the next stall who overheard our conversation muttered that it was probably a far-left activist group. It reminded me of conspiracy theories I’ve heard about Marxist groups trying to derail our national structures.
I’ve spoken to a leader of one activist group that has faced the brunt of such accusations. Pueblo Sin Fronteras is a leftist group that helped organize at least three U.S.-bound migrant caravans in 2017 and early 2018. I met one leader, Alex Mensing, at the shelter he operates in a rural, hilly part of Tijuana.
Mensing is a lanky 30-year-old from San Francisco with a scraggly beard and flannel shirt, a white guy who could fit into any fancy-coffee hipster town. He speaks Spanish fluently and drives a dusty old brown Prius with the right side mirror held on by orange duct tape. He seems genuinely passionate about the plights of vulnerable populations—enough so that, since 2016, he’s been devoting his time to migrants as a volunteer while picking up odd jobs on the side.
Mensing told me that Pueblo Sin Fronteras has never once promised money or asylum to anyone, but only accompanied people who were already fleeing their countries. Several migrants who traveled with Pueblo also told me the activists had never promised them anything other than accompaniment and advice. These activists did more than travel alongside migrants, though: They taught them about their right to seek asylum, blamed the United States for the dysfunction in their home countries, coached them on team-building exercises to build unity, assigned people chores and responsibilities, and helped lead protests.
But as these caravans grew larger and larger—ballooning from a few hundred migrants in early 2017 to thousands in 2018—Mensing and his buddies seemed to realize they were dealing with something bigger than they could control. Facing vicious criticism even from fellow humanitarian rights activists, Pueblo Sin Fronteras leaders decided to quit mobilizing caravans and stick to helping those already in Tijuana. I haven’t heard anything about them from newer migrants since, so it seems they have stuck to their word.
That leaves me with the same question: Who’s mobilizing the new wave of caravans? Just a week ago, media reported that about 1,000 Hondurans had gathered in San Pedro Sula to kick-start yet another caravan. These activities continue in the midst of President Donald Trump trying to cut off aid payments to Central America, reportedly forcing the resignation of former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and declaring on Twitter, “Our country is FULL!” If this abject news is filtering into the news outlets or social media feeds of Central Americans, they’re preferring instead to listen to anonymous messages encouraging them to leave their country as soon as they can before the borders close for good.
On the other side of conspiracy theories, I’ve heard Mexicans and migrants themselves wonder if Trump is secretly financing the caravans. They suspect he’s doing so to create a national emergency and to garner funds for his big beautiful wall. I remember one 26-year-old Salvadoran migrant scrolling through his smartphone, insisting that the theories make sense. By then he had heard many terrible stories about Trump, and that sort of malicious, cunning plan seemed to fit his image of the U.S. president. His cousins, though, laughed at his ideas. They didn’t really care who funded the migrant caravans—they just wanted to find safety and decent-paying jobs, preferably in the United States.
Every migrant I’ve asked tells me he doesn’t know who’s organizing the very caravan he joined. I ask, “Were there orientations? Legal training? Donations of any kind?” Most of them look blank-faced when I ask these questions, even the ones who are surprisingly honest with me (including one young Honduran who told me he was planning to jump the wall very soon). “No sé,” they all tell me, and they don’t seem very interested in knowing the answers, either.
It seemed that, to these folks, investigating the caravan organizers wasn’t pertinent or beneficial to their real-life struggles, so why bother? They needed a safe way to travel through the dangerous routes between Central America and the U.S-Mexico border, and they couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees coyotes (smugglers) charge. Besides, the coyotes weren’t trustworthy either—most everyone has heard reports of coyotes working with drug cartels to kidnap and extort and murder migrants, or abandoning them in remote desert places. Joining the caravans gave the migrants autonomy, security, and publicity.
All the migrants described to me a journey that doesn’t sound well-organized or well-funded: They walked for days, sometimes with very little food. They climbed on dangerous freight trains. They brought tents with them and slept sometimes on the streets and sometimes in the shelters and churches in Mexico that cater to migrants.
Border Patrol agents report that when they apprehend these people at the border, the kids look malnourished and the adults look haggard, as though they’ve survived famine and war. Many need immediate medical attention.
Certainly, these caravans don’t sound like the mastermind plan of an organized activist group, but rather a grassroots movement born out of desperation, street smarts, and incomplete information about U.S. border laws.
One 45-year-old Honduran said he and his family merely showed up at the designated caravan location and followed the crowd. A Salvadoran family said it didn’t have much say on where and how it traveled: When the group stopped, the family stopped. When the group traveled on, the family moved on too. When caravan members reached Tijuana, they dispersed into their own family and social groups, suggesting there isn’t much of a collective ideology or agenda that binds these people. They share only a common destination and a sense of insecurity and fear about remaining in their countries.
Another Honduran man, age 40, told me some activists did help him procure money for his bus fare to Tijuana—not out of their own pockets, but by helping him phone family members in the United States who wired him money. He said he didn’t know who these people were, except that to him, they were his angels, his saviors: “God bless them.”
The more I hear the migrants’ stories—one Honduran showed me bullet wounds in his torso and machete scars on his scalp—and the more I hear descriptions of their journeys, the more I wonder if I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the truth is messier and more nuanced than a simple theory that some group or individual is financing these caravans for an unknown agenda.
After all, mankind has been migrating in groups for ages, whether in search of greener pastures or running from disasters, poverty, and bullies. Politicians of all stripes have portrayed these migrations from Central America as some sort of extraordinary phenomenon. But maybe what’s happening is less historic and critical than how we and our leaders will choose to respond to it.
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Sometimes reporting can be lonely work, especially when you’re a print journalist with no companion other than a notebook. Just look at the byline. How many names do you see on there?
But any journalist’s work is only as good as the help he or she finds along the way, and finding that help takes a bit of luck, or in my perspective, God’s providence. Those people who help us journalists—whether it’s through connecting us with sources, feeding us story ideas, or even just listening to us ramble and rant about our latest stories—don’t share the bylines. But they are still there, guiding and inspiring and encouraging the writer behind the words.
God has blessed me with many such helpers in my six years as a full-time journalist, and I’d like to introduce you to the most recent two, Stan Lee and his wife Blanca. Stan and Blanca are missionaries in Tijuana, a Mexican border city near San Diego. They’re in their 60s (both are coy about sharing their exact age) and are founders of Relevant to Cross Ministries, which cooperates with Mexican and U.S. churches to minister to the homeless, deportees, and migrants in Tijuana.
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About a year ago, I received an early morning phone call from Regina, a chaplain who had been ministering to the homeless in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.
“Sophia, I found someone you should meet, and you won’t believe who,” she said. “She’s a supermodel!”
That morning, Regina had woken up at her church in Venice, a beachside neighborhood in LA, to find someone curled up on a tiny grassy spot next to the church’s back door. That wasn’t an uncommon sight for Regina—people know of her and her husband’s homeless ministry and thus show up at their doorstep asking for all sorts of help—so Regina stepped out to invite the person in for coffee. Turns out, it was a woman Regina had helped house years ago, a former supermodel named Ivy Nicholson.
Back in the 1950s, Ivy was one of the most beautiful models of her time, with her dark arched eyebrows, pixie nose, and Mona Lisa pursed lips. Born to a humble working-class Irish family in Queens, New York, Ivy has been modeling since she was 16, and through a combination of luck, natural talents, and forceful personality, she had a successful run in her brief modeling career.
“Do you know who I am? Look me up,” she would tell any stranger she met, and you’ll see her youthful face pouting on the covers of Vogue and Elle, plus several pictures in which she poses with the famous Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci. When she hit her 30s, her modeling days faded away with her youth, but she landed minor acting roles in Andy Warhol’s films as one of his “Warhol superstars,” a band of eccentric personalities that Warhol used as his muses in return for making them “superstars”—at least for a few minutes, according to his famous quote: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
Ivy’s 15 minutes passed, and her fame wilted beneath the bloom of countless younger stars. In the meantime, she married a French count, divorced him, then married a director half her age, followed by another divorce. She has four children, three sons and one daughter. She experienced bouts of illness and homelessness and living in subsidized housing. And now, on the day I met her, she was homeless again.
When I showed up at Regina’s church, the two ladies were sitting in the church kitchen, drinking cups of Folgers coffee with powdered creamer. Ivy was regaling Regina with tales of her past—how the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí drew a nude portrait of her in reddish-brown charcoal, how Russian-French artist Marc Chagall painted portraits inspired by her, how she traveled all around the world doing high-fashion shoots. And for the rest of the afternoon, all she talked about was the past. One of the first things she said to me was, “Do you know who I am? Look me up!”
Though homeless, Ivy still paid attention to her looks. That day her eyes were lined with kohl, her lips painted pink, her cheeks brushed with rosy powder, her earlobes drooping with heavy dangly earrings, her nails sparkly with glitter, and her chest adorned with two pendant necklaces. She wore a long patterned dress, an orange denim jacket, and strappy sandals, though each article was slightly frayed.
I had looked up earlier pictures of Ivy, and when I met her in person, I recognized the same half-moon eyes and high cheekbones. But those exquisite features were buried under drooping skin, crow’s feet wrinkles, and wispy bleached hair. The once-gorgeous young woman was now an 84-year-old homeless woman, but she still acted as if in the heyday of her 20s, giggling and fixing her hair in her compact mirror. She barely talked about her kids and grandchildren, but bragged how easy it was for her to gain VIP seats at fancy-schmancy bars and hard-to-reserve restaurants.
When Ivy borrowed my cell phone to call one of her sons for help, she spent the first 10 minutes giggling about how good she looked: “I’m 84 but I look like I’m 48!”
Perhaps some people would admire her self-confidence. Under today’s messages of “Love yourself” and “You’re perfect the way you are,” Ivy would be the supermodel of self-confidence and self-love.
But I felt rather sad for the poor woman: She seemed to me to be basing so much of her self-worth and value on her physical appearance and past experiences. I also felt convicted, because as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I also base too much of my own worth and self-confidence in how I look and what I’ve accomplished. A single remark from my mother about how old and tired I look would spiral me into agony about the wrinkles around my eyes. A meeting with someone smarter and more accomplished than I makes me question whether everything I’ve done so far is good enough—or rather, whether it is impressive enough to others. Is this really what I want to boast about 50 years from today?
Later, Ivy suggested we take photos together. Before we did, she reapplied her lipstick, puffed her hair, and then spent about 20 minutes trying to teach me how to pout like a model.
“Go like this,” she said, parting her lips slightly and plumping out her bottom lip. I tried to arrange my lips like hers, but ended up looking like a startled goldfish.
“No, no, like this,” Ivy said impatiently, oh-so-naturally positioning her lips into a subtle, seductive pout. She even added a tilt to her head.
I tried again, but no matter how hard I tried to pout, I just looked like I needed to run to the bathroom.
After several tries, Ivy gave up on me and focused on herself, arching her face into all sorts of supermodel-like angles. Once a model, always a model—and whatever photogenic talent Ivy has, I certainly don’t have it. And I think I am fine with that.
It’s been a long time since I last saw Ivy. She called me once looking for Regina’s number, borrowing a local nightclub’s telephone to do so. It was hard to hear her above the blaring music and chatter of the club, but I did manage to hear her croon about how the club owner had granted her VIP seating. The last time I saw Ivy was while I was volunteering among the homeless in Venice. I saw her, still dressed fashionably, line up for the hot burritos we were passing out. I went over to say hi, and she instantly remembered me, then offered to let me interview her if I took her out for lunch at an expensive, five-dollar-sign café. When I told her I couldn’t afford such a fancy lunch, she said she’d settle for a glass of good wine or cocktail instead. I told her she could call me anytime, but haven’t heard from or seen her since.
I hope Ivy is well. I hope she has found housing and the care she needs. And I really hope wherever she is, she has found true joy and purpose in her life.