They lock them in an abandoned factory to kill their spirit
The situation unfolding in Piedras Negras provides a chaotic preview of what Remain in Mexico will look like
There are 2,000 men, women and children locked inside a shuttered factory that used to make body bags for the U.S. Army. They are being held there by three layers of Mexican government at the behest of the Trump administration, and none of them know when they will be released.
The factory is in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a few miles from the Eagle Pass port of entry where the migrants tried to reach so they could apply for asylum. For almost all of them, their journey began in Honduras, an incredibly violent country with a murder rate 10 times higher than that of the United States. In Saltillo, outside Monterrey, the migrants were loaded onto buses by regional government officials. The buses took them to Piedras Negras and the factory, where they wait.
“Many of them have said, ‘If I had known that this was the situation I would not have taken that ride,’” says Joe Rivano Barros, a 26-year-old field officer for RAICES Texas, a migrant advocacy organization.
Rivano Barros is gathering information about the situation in Piedras Negras to give to RAICES’ lawyers, who represent migrants in their asylum and other immigration court cases. Like everyone else, Rivano Barros is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
Here is what we know: Almost all of the migrants in the factory at Piedras Negras are from Honduras. When confronted in Saltillo, the migrants told whoever had the buses that they were trying to reach Eagle Pass, likely thinking it would be easier to apply for asylum there because it’s a smaller port of entry, where there are no lines like there are in Tijuana and Juarez. Once they arrived, federal police and INM — that’s Instituto Nacional de Migración, the Mexican version of ICE — told them they’d have to apply for “humanitarian visas.” The migrants would be held in the factory until that was sorted out, which has been going on for almost two weeks now.
“We have been talking to people through the fence a lot,” Rivano Barros says. “Mostly there’s just extreme frustration about the lack of clarity. They wonder, How long will we have to wait here for the visas and to apply for asylum? They haven’t been told anything about the [asylum] application process or how it works and because we can’t get inside there’s no third party to tell them what that process [is supposed to look] like.”
The short answer is: not like this. You are supposed to be able to walk up to a port of entry and tell a U.S. official that you want to apply for asylum, then given the chance to pass an initial screening and taken into custody by immigration authorities. The Trump administration hasn’t increased the ability to process the ever-growing number of Central American migrants arriving at ports of entry from California to Texas, so often the migrants are told to wait.
At Eagle Pass, they’re not even making it to the waiting part. That’s because Mexican officials are intercepting them and sending them to the shelter in Piedras Negras, where they’re told they must first obtain a humanitarian visa in order to walk to the port of entry to apply for asylum. Sometimes even then they are turned away.
Some migrants have told advocates that Mexican police officers have ripped up their visas, believing they’re fake, forcing the migrants to return to the shelter to get new ones.
As far as Rivano Barros can tell, the main thing the visas get you is the ability to leave the shelter and walk down the street to get something to eat. On Wednesday, some migrants tried to do just that, but the authorities at the shelter wouldn’t let them leave, so they tried to push their way out.
The humanitarian visas are part of a new initiative launched a few months back by Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador. Instead of allowing migrants to travel freely through Mexico to the U.S. border, AMLO would require them to submit to a background check and fingerprinting — thus obtaining the humanitarian visas. That’s what the migrants in Piedras Negras are doing now, waiting in lines in a courtyard to go through this process.
Some are becoming impatient, as you might expect. In addition to the altercation on Wednesday, there have been other scuffles inside the facility. RAICES obtained audio from a migrant being held there who asked for warmer clothes to be donated because of the cold temperatures inside the factory, or maquiladora.
Yesterday, Rivano Barros saw a woman sitting in the courtyard holding up a sign: Retorno voluntario. She has given up on claiming asylum, and just wants to go home. The Trump administration will be pleased to hear this.
Although the migrants in Piedras Negras have not yet been able to apply for asylum, their growing frustrations provide a preview of what a large-scale rollout of Remain in Mexico will look like. Those sent back to Mexico under the program — now called Migrant Protection Protocols — may find themselves in a similar situation, living in government-run shelters under strict supervision, perhaps unable to come and go as they please.
Of equal concern is migrants’ access to attorneys and advocates. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited the factory yesterday to document conditions there, but reporters, attorneys and advocates have not been allowed in.
When reporters, attorneys and advocates have entered Mexico to speak with migrants, they’ve been detained and questioned by U.S. authorities. One advocate in Texas told me she was grilled on whether she had “coached” migrants on how to apply for asylum — as if there’s something wrong or illegal about informing migrants of their rights under U.S. and international law. I haven’t had any such issues returning from Juarez, but more than a dozen journalists and activists described increasing harassment and questioning by U.S. immigration officials to the Intercept.
“Our goal was to go inside today but that didn’t happen. They just tell us to come back tomorrow and talk to their bosses,” Rivano Barros said of officers at the factory. “So now we’re here to just keep telling stories, to be here, to assess the situation and figure out what we can do going forward.”
All photos on this post are courtesy of Rivano Barros. The first was taken outside the factory, where Captain America was sent in to entertain children being held there. The second is of Coahuila state police, one of three Mexican law enforcement agencies guarding the facility.