On the last day of my trip, I hitched a ride with a caravan of activists and Seventh-Day Adventists to Juarez to deliver supplies to one of the refugee shelters there. Having spent time observing the refugee “facilities” on the US side, I was curious to see the Mexican counterparts. What follows are anecdotal observations and ruminations from a non-expert.
On the Mexican side, I saw refugees kept in shelters and not prisons. There were perhaps only 100 refugees in this one. It was dilapidated and trashy, hot and dusty, and the overall situation in the surrounding neighborhoods was extremely dangerous for women.
No prison walls. Instead there were residential houses, a community center with laughter drifting through the open door.
While the US CPB agents I’d spoken to had defended the reports of imprisoned children without toothbrushes by claiming they had pooled their resources to buy x-boxes for the child detainees, here there were neither child detainees nor x-boxes. Instead there were simple, open-air playgrounds for the children.
On the US side, agents had told me they must put children under what they call “solar blankets” (and what the children describe as ‘not enough to warm up’) because – they explained – there was no way to wash fabric blankets to prevent lice infestations. I had asked them if they were telling me there were no laundry facilities at their site – which, if true, would also explain why inmates reported in June not having changed their clothes since arrival – some up to 40 days. By contrast, this Mexican refugee camp had places to wash and dry laundry.
On the US side, Americans have tried to donate blankets, diapers, toys and other supplies to the detainees. The US government won’t allow donations. On the Mexican side, convoys of supplies from churches and community groups are welcomed and facilitated. The Seventh-Day Adventists off-loaded a shipment of relief supplies with the help of the migrants themselves.
Perhaps the starkest contrast were the dogs – some seen here, resting in the shade of a pick-up truck.
There are dogs at camps on the US side too, but not like these. Previously, as I lurked around the perimeter of the Paso del Norte Detention center on the US side, I had heard packs of dogs barking from within, agitated, as if there were a disturbance in a kennel on the northeast corner of the compound.
The sound was chilling. I had yet to come across a report of dogs being housed along with the detainees, so I was unprepared for the sound. I could only imagine they were working dogs of a sort, likely on site to sniff for drugs coming over the port of entry. What I could discern was there were prisoners inside being treated as criminals, sleeping on the floor in close proximity to these dog cages. Perhaps irrationally, I startled as I heard the dogs clamor beyond the wall, my mind conjuring the worst memories of my goverment and dogs, terrorizing detainees in another place and time.
So by contrast, at the Mexican shelter, the dogs on site caught my attention. They acted like domesticated pets, comfort for the children. They were relaxed, sleepy in the midday heat, not overly-fed, but free and friendly.
The comparison could not be sharper. A wealthy, powerful country, with both resources and goodwill aplenty whose government incarcerates refugees – without laundry, bedding or recreation, while turning away offers of help from do-gooders. A developing country with refugees housed in spare but adequate shelters with the essentials of life, and humanitarians cycling in to provide supplies and succor. Dogs to police versus dogs to comfort. I had passed through a looking-glass, with the lens inverted.
What Mexico cannot provide is safety and security. I was told by some of the activists I carpooled with that this was a relatively luxurious shelter compared to some they had seen on this side, where the overcrowding was dire due to US refusal to process cross-overs. Moreover, the humanity of the Mexican side should not be overstated. Mexico is not running concentration camps, yet their own approach is increasingly militarized as well. Amnesty International reported two days ago a migrant shot to death by Mexican police in Coahuila state, in front of his eight-year-old daughter.
And in conversation with the refugees, it is clear this place is a way-station. Their eyes are cast north, to what they believe will be safety and belonging on the other side. My heart breaks for them, and for the dream of my country.