News World Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric leaves migrants in limbo at US-Mexico border

Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric leaves migrants in limbo at US-Mexico border

Friendship Park, Tijuana
A border fence separates San Diego, left, from Tijuana, right. People from both sides come to talk through the fence on weekends. Photo: ABC
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On the US-Mexico border, President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against illegal immigration is having a profound effect.

The number of people caught trying to illegally cross into the US has dropped by 70 per cent since November.

That has pleased US border patrol agents but has left thousands of migrants in the Mexican border city of Tijuana in limbo as they weigh up whether to risk everything trying to enter Trump’s America.

The migrants

On the dusty, rubbish-strewn outskirts of Tijuana, Jean Suprena spends his days hanging out at the church where he and 170 fellow Haitian migrants have been sleeping on the floor for months.

Their mattresses are lined up neatly around the edges of the nave. Their meagre possessions are stacked in compact piles. The smell of raw sewage from the open drains outside is inescapable.

“My situation could be more difficult,” he says optimistically.

“But to be all day laying in the floor of the church one on top of the other … to me that is not a good life.”

Haitian migrant Jean Suprena
Haitian migrant Jean Suprena. Photo: ABC

After the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, tens of thousands of migrants fled. There are 3000 of them in Tijuana alone.

Months ago, his pregnant wife and two-year-old son left for the US on temporary visas. He wasn’t granted one.

“Sometimes she calls me crying and I don’t know what to tell her. I cannot tell her to come back here and neither that I would go there because they could deport me all the way to Haiti,” he says.

For him the Trump presidency has produced uncertainty, but he refuses to give up hope.

“These days he [Mr Trump] says he does not want migrants in the country, but tomorrow he might change his mind, and that is why I am here, waiting.”

A few blocks away from Tijuana’s red light district, El Salvadoran Herbert Zometa is staying in a tent, surrounded by dozens of other migrants from all over the world.

He left everything behind when he fled gang violence in his homeland, hoping to join relatives in Texas and find a job.

“I have seen how a lot of my people that have been able to stay in the US have reached a better life,” he says.

But Mr Zometa says his US relatives have told him they are now fearful of getting deported themselves, and have urged him not to come.

“[Mr Trump] is acting in a racist way and now my fear is that all my effort, all the suffering I have gone through to get to this point could be useless because of all the new rules he has established.”

The fence separating the US from Mexico juts into the Pacific Ocean
The border fence separating the US from Mexico juts into the Pacific Ocean. Photo: ABC

The border agent

For the American men and women who patrol the US-Mexico border, Mr Trump’s election has brought long-awaited relief.

“Certainly when he was elected, people were pleased,” says Chris Harris, a San Diego representative for the National Border Patrol Council – the agents’ union – which has long been pushing for more support from Washington.

They were in favour of Mr Trump’s promises and can see changes happening.

“The rhetoric was so strong from the President,” Mr Harris says.

“The numbers have plummeted.”

Chris Harris
National Border Patrol Council San Diego representative Chris Harris. Photo: ABC

Just 16,000 people were caught trying to jump the border in June, down from 50,000 the month Mr Trump was elected.

But so far, Congress hasn’t fully passed legislation to increase criminal penalties for people who repeatedly enter the US illegally. Mr Trump hasn’t secured funding to build his border wall nor to hire thousands of new customs and border agents.

“If you draw a red line in the sand … and don’t follow through, then people realise it was not true and it will change, but for right now it is holding,” Mr Harris says.

The priest

“The worst possible scenario is that he begins to deport thousands of people just on a whim,” says Father Patrick Murphy at Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter.

He is used to housing Mexicans deported from the US, but fears it’s only a matter of time before Mr Trump starts expelling the tens of thousands of people being held in immigration detention.

Father Patrick Murphy
Father Patrick Murphy talks to a recently arrived Honduran migrant at the Casa De Migrante shelter. Photo: ABC

“This is kind of in my mantra to the Mexican government – be prepared,” he says.

He says he is increasingly meeting migrants from all over the world who are abandoning their plans to keep heading north to the US and are instead trying to find work in Tijuana.

“Life will never be the same again for anyone who is a migrant or a refugee under the Trump administration, so I think from our perspective at the border, we are buckling down, to fight the good fight, to do the best we can to take care of the people who arrive at our house,” he says.

The lawyer

Immigration lawyer Nicole Ramos is furious at the experience she says her clients are having when they seek asylum at the border.

“We have seen an increase in the hostility of the rhetoric and the kind of talk that they are hearing from CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officers, and border patrol officers,” she says.

Immigration lawyer Nicole Ramos
US born, Tijuana-based immigration lawyer Nicole Ramos. Photo: ABC

“Things like, ‘There is no asylum anymore, Obama is not in the White House’. Or, ‘We are only taking Christians from Muslim-majority countries where they are being persecuted’. Or, my personal favourite, ‘There is no asylum for Mexicans, it has been cancelled for the entire nationality’,” she says.

Human rights advocates claim some officers are also turning asylum seekers away in violation of federal and international law.

In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.

“I don’t know why our Congress and Senate have not yet gotten it together to hold hearings on these violations,” Ms Ramos says.

“If we can hold public hearings on doping in sports, certainly we can hold a public hearing for when people’s lives are at stake.”