PALOMAS, Mexico (Border Report) – A government truck pulls in front of a fenced building. Four young men and a woman walk out and are escorted inside by a Mexican immigration officer.
The lawman promptly leaves the Tierra de Oro shelter and leaves the migrants in the care of Rosalio Sosa. The El Paso, Texas-based Baptist pastor with deep family and cultural ties to Mexico welcomes the migrants – Mixtec Indians from the state of Guerrero. He strikes a casual conversation as his assistant records their arrival.
“Where are you from? Don’t worry, I’m just being nosy. Are you Mixtec? I have traveled to Mixtec lands in the past,” he says. All five wear military-style or workman’s boots and the woman has camouflage pants on.
Mexican police picked up the migrants near Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town opposite Douglas, Arizona. That’s an area where the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department says the Sinaloa cartel often dresses up migrants in fatigues so they can avoid arrest when crossing the border illegally.
The conversation at the shelter remains jovial, but the message is firm.
“You say your relatives are coming?” Sosa asks one in the group. “Tell me the truth. […] If they’re traffickers, we won’t let them in. We have cameras all over. We don’t want any traffickers in here.”
The pastor worries the young men and the woman don’t know what they’re getting into. Just a few days ago, he took in a woman with a small child who was abandoned in the desert by smugglers. There’s also always the risk of a kidnapping.
“Sometimes the trafficker is afraid to invade the other cartel’s territory, so they abandon (the migrants). They don’t care if they’ve got kids or they are families,” he says.
The desire to protect vulnerable migrants from the cartels has prompted Sosa to present a plan to government officials and nonprofits on both sides of the border to build a string of shelters along Mexican Federal Highway 2. That’s a stretch of asphalt running from Nogales to Agua Prieta, Sonora, and on to Palomas and Ascencion in Chihuahua.
“I’m very excited because those are a lot of shelters we would like to open along the border, especially on the Mexican side because of the traffickers and those situations,” he said. “We have some shelters but we need more to avoid chaos. Imagine 300 or 500 people arriving in these towns of little more than 4,000 people. They will be overwhelmed, and we don’t want that.”
Filling a void for vulnerable populations in the desert of Northern Mexico
The shelter in Palomas houses dozens of families and single adults expelled by the United States under the Title 42 public health order as well as groups encountered by Mexican immigration prior to attempting an unauthorized crossing north. The shelter is also starting to see asylum-seekers wanting information about what the Migrant Protection Protocols program is and who qualifies for it.
“We have not gone (to the United States) yet. We want (the shelter) to look over my papers. I have papers to prove what I say,” said Antonio C.N., who fled Guerrero along with his wife, two sons and daughter-in-law. Antonio said criminals in his state – which has become a battleground between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and local criminal gangs – threatened and even took a shot at him, so he left.
The MPP program specifically excludes Mexican nationals, who might have other paths to claim asylum.
Sosa says it’s mostly Mexicans who are coming north right now to attempt a crossing into the United States, but there are plenty of Central Americans and citizens of other countries.
The shelter provides meals, a warm place to sleep in winter and the safety of cinder-block walls and a chain-link fence. Here, Mexican children play soccer and share toys with others from Guatemala and elsewhere. Here, fathers who uprooted their families from troubled communities hear facts about what really goes on at the border before deciding whether to continue; others just take a respite after taking a ride in a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle and finding themselves back in Mexico.
Sosa said he already managed to open a shelter in Ascencion – though he concedes it’s only a room with two cots for now – and last week met with government officials in Sonora to talk about setting up one or more refuges there.
“We are talking about Agua Prieta and maybe San Luis Rio Colorado. Right now, we’re getting migrants expelled from Arizona because there is nothing in between,” he said.
Ivonne De La Hoya, the mayor of Ascencion, said she’s provided some assistance to the Tierra de Oro shelter there, but she points out hers is not a wealthy community.
“We have about 5,000 migrants who obviously have need of food, electricity, trash collection and housing,” she said. “We hope this situation is noticed so we can get more (state and federal) resources.”
Sosa sustains the migrant shelters through donations from his parishioners and “good-hearted people” on both sides of the border. To enquire about the shelter project, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call his church in El Paso at (915) 892-3332.