JUÁREZ, Mexico — A park in this border town sits on land that was once disputed between the U.S. and Mexico. The two countries eventually reached a settlement on the path of the borderline that now bisects Juarez and El Paso, Texas. In 1999, 25 years after the border resolution, monuments were erected in honor of the “united circle of love and companionship” between the Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Today, the salute to the “brotherhood” between the two cities is covered in rust, and the border once again feels like disputed territory.
The dual forces of a migrant surge from Central America and President Trump’s harsh tactics around illegal immigration have converged here and brought tensions to the brink.
On the Mexican side, there are troops carrying machine guns and signs warning would-be migrants that they will face “a lonely life” in America. It’s part of a crackdown on migrants that the Mexican government began last month to avoid stiff tariffs threatened by President Trump.
Thousands of migrants have flooded Juárez, including many who have been turned away from the U.S. while they wait for asylum claims to be processed. Churches run by local shelters are crowded and the migrants say they face dangers in the city, which is ranked as one of the world’s most violent.
Those who do make it to the U.S. fear being rounded up, deported or detained. On Monday, a man and a woman were rushing through downtown El Paso. The man, who had tattoos on his face and arms, stopped to ask this reporter a question in Spanish.
“Where are they grabbing people?” he asked.
I told him I had just arrived in the city. He ran off after the woman, who had already rushed past, before I could ask any questions.
El Paso has several shelters to hold migrants who are taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since Trump began implementing a zero tolerance policy at the border last April, growing numbers of children have been separated from their families in U.S. custody and there have been extensive reports of dangerous and unhealthy conditions at these facilities.
On Monday, NBC News reported on a review the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, conducted on a Border Patrol station in El Paso in May. The inspector general described “dangerous overcrowding,” with some detainees being “held in standing room only conditions for days or weeks.” Hours after that article was published, a delegation of congressional Democrats toured multiple migrant detention facilities around El Paso and claimed they witnessed “inhumane” conditions, including cells without running water. These claims were echoed by reports submitted to the Office of Refugee Resettlement that were obtained by Yahoo News and outlined allegations that children in CBP custody have faced unsanitary conditions and verbal abuse.
The Democrats’ visit provided a vivid example of just how inflamed the immigration debate has become in the U.S. On Monday afternoon, protesters disrupted the delegation’s press conference outside a Border Patrol station in Clint, a town in a hot stretch of desert about 20 miles outside of El Paso.
The protesters included some who wore President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats and said they were there to support law enforcement agencies on the border. They engaged in heated shouting matches with another group calling for the shelters to be closed and for migrant children to be reunited with their families.
“All children matter! All children matter!” the group opposed to the shelters chanted.
Many of the supporters of the shelters espoused conspiracy theories about the migrant crisis, suggesting that the children had not actually been taken from their family members and were actually being used by human traffickers.
“These aren’t kids separated from their families,” said Richard Madrid, who was wearing a “MAGA” hat and waving a “TRUMP 2020” flag. “They’re kids that are being recycled by people coming across and leaving them here. They send them back three weeks later.“
The shelter supporters also accused the opposing protesters and the congressional Democrats of being so-called crisis actors who were role-playing on behalf of some unknown entity.
“I don’t support [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.] coming to El Paso. She doesn’t represent me. … She has no business here. She’s a crisis actor,” said a man who said his name was Peter.
The group opposed to the shelters carried signs comparing them to concentration camps. An El Paso teacher named Carmen Rubio waved a placard that read “No More Child Abuse in Our Name.”
“The Trump supporters have been brainwashed to think that the illegals are these terrible people, rapists and murderers coming in, but they’re actually families that are fleeing ... hunger, violence and poverty,” Rubio said,
“I think it’s child abuse if a child doesn’t have clothes to change, cannot bathe and does not have access to basic hygiene products like toothbrushes and soap,” she added.
A farmer named Suzie Brown offered a counterpoint.
“These children were not here with their families. These children were used. It’s like somebody said, they’re recycled. ... What kind of child abuse is that?” Brown asked.
When the Democrats came outside to speak, the protesters stopped screaming at each other and the shelter supporters began hurling sexual and Islamophobic insults at the members of Congress. The shouting crowd surrounded the politicians, who refused to back down.
“Keep yelling, this is really appropriate,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. “Racist words and venom for racist policies.”
Soon after the groups left, a woman showed up at the Border Patrol station. She said she was a U.S. citizen who had her car seized while driving with undocumented immigrants. The woman, who did not want to give her name, claimed she was taken into custody.
“I’ll tell you this, you get three meals a day in there, but you won’t shower for nine days,” the woman said.
The spectacle of migrants facing dangerous conditions in the hope of reaching a tense and angry nation brings to mind one of the posters along the Mexican side of the border. It features a warning from a woman who supposedly returned after trying to live in the U.S. urging prospective migrants to “think about it very well” before trying to cross over.
“The United States is not an easy country,” the woman said.
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