Uncertain Future in a Border Tent City

by Rob Rutland-Brown
Executive Director, National Justice for Our Neighbors

Standing among the asylum seekers in makeshift tents in Juárez, Mexico, I was cold after just 10 minutes. It was 40 degrees and rainy here at the Paso del Norte border crossing, but I, of course, could not complain. The migrant families who lived in these tents had been stranded for months, without access to any showers, and only minimal access to bathrooms or medical care.

You might mistake this as a photo of nothing but garbage, but there are real human beings—men, women, and children— living in these makeshift tents on the streets of Juárez, a border town near El Paso, Texas.  Meanwhile, a few hundred miles down the border, in Matamoros, Mexico, similarly brutal conditions are now driving desperate parents to send their freezing children across the border bridge on their own as unaccompanied minors, not knowing if they will ever see them again. 

To make matters worse, none of these people I was seeing knew what would happen when their number was finally called to cross the border.  Would they be placed in detention?  Would they be separated from their children?

Would their claims of persecution be immediately rejected by an asylum officer, forcing them back to Juárez to fend for themselves?  Or would their initial claim be accepted, but they would then be sent back into Mexico anyway to await their immigration hearing months later through the process known as MPP (Migration Protection Protocols)?

None of these possibilities seemed fair for people who only sought safety.

Rob and Nicole outside of El Buen Samaritano, a United Methodist shelter for migrants in Juárez, Mexico.

These migrants were on my mind as I visited the team forming a JFON site in El Paso, Texas. Spearheaded by Nicole Crouch, who serves as Director of Missional Ministries in the El Paso District of the New Mexico Annual Conference, the group is well aware of the overwhelming need for free immigration legal services.

The El Paso- Juárez area, with a population over 2.5 million, is the largest binational region in the world. Over 16,000 asylum seekers are stranded in Juárez under the MPP program.

Only a handful of these asylum seekers have access to an attorney.

My visit to this region revealed two undeniable truths: First, it is vital that the Justice for Our Neighbors network has a presence in this community. I’m grateful for the hard work our team is undertaking and for the partnerships they’ve already formed.

Our work may be just a drop in the proverbial bucket, but it will save lives.

Second, a JFON site in El Paso cannot solve the enormous, horrifying conditions experienced by migrants along this border.  That will require steady, long-term advocacy and resources that address root causes, including recognition that the U.S. has contributed to the political and economic instability in Central America and also—by our demand for illegal drugs—to the violence that is prompting families to flee.

In the meantime, asylum seekers will continue to wait…cold, anxious, and yearning to be welcomed.

A young asylum seeker bundles up against the cold. Photo credit: El Paso Times.

National JFON is currently working to develop and open four prospective JFON sites—in El Paso, Kentucky, the Delaware Valley and North Carolina. We also continue to strengthen our existing 18 JFON sites, providing them with the resources they need to serve more of our immigrant neighbors.

If you would like to support our efforts, please consider making a tax-deductible donation. 

National Justice for Our Neighbors is Advance #901285 of the United Methodist Church.


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Immigration Issues