I like to think I’m pretty good at seeing the complications of issues, of looking at things from a variety of angles. I’ve realized, though, after my first day working in the Migrant Resource Center here in Agua Prieta, Sonora, that my thinking on migration has been missing a huge chunk of the picture. I’ve spent time thinking about the border wall, U.S. immigration policy, drug wars, deportation proceedings and racism. What I’ve really forgotten to think about is what happens to migrants once they’re repatriated to Mexico.
The intricacies of U.S. immigration law are really complicated, and I still don’t fully understand them. Some people who enter the U.S. without papers are legally deported, meaning they’re barred from re-entering the country for a certain number of years (5, 20, life) and will face criminal charges if they disobey. Some people are charged criminally for unauthorized entry to the U.S. and serve jail time before being deported. Some people simply sign a voluntary departure form. Regardless of the method by which they return to Mexico, though, the process is pretty much the same. People spend time in a detention facility, usually run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and then they’re bussed to the border and dropped off, often without their stuff.
This means that Mexican border towns—Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juarez—have had to come up with an entire infrastructure to deal with the busloads of Mexican nationals who come through them. Most Mexican migrants to the U.S. are from central and southern Mexico, and taking care of everyone and getting them home is a huge logistical challenge. There’s a Mexican federal agency, Grupo Beta, which provides assistance to migrants. One of the big things they do is help people pay for bus tickets home. They’ll cover 50% of your bus fare home, and can also provide transportation around the border towns if people need to get to shelters or the hospital. They also run a public service campaign telling people not to try to cross into the U.S. through the desert (No vaya usted—no hay suficiente agua). The Mexican consulate can also buy you a bus ticket home, but this only works once per person in your entire life.
The Migrant Resource Center here tries to provide people with the things they’re most likely to need once they’re repatriated. There’s free food (bean burritos) and drinks, basic medical care, clothes and shoes, free phone calls to both the U.S. and Mexico, assistance locating belongings and family members, and assistance with bus tickets. Phil, the guy who runs the center, said that traffic really varies. From May 2010-December 2011, the center didn’t serve any migrants, because ICE had stopped deporting people through Agua Prieta for whatever reason. Then, in January 2012, they had a trickle which picked up to thousands of people per month by March. It’s started to slow again now, and we might go this week without serving more than a dozen or so people. But the plan is for me and Jeff to work 8 hours a day at the center this entire week, then take Saturday off. (I’m thinking about just taking my camera and a ton of water and walking along the border wall until I get bored.)
I’m looking forward to talking with the center’s regular volunteers, almost all of whom are Mexican. I had a long conversation with Sergio yesterday, a man who volunteers every Sunday. Besides being nice Spanish practice (those parts of my brain are slowly waking up again), it was a great way to learn about Agua Prieta and Mexico. I always have to remember to take conversations like that with a grain of salt, to remember that no one person is speaking gospel truth and that anyone I’m talking to in that context is usually going to be middle or upper middle class.
One thing I’d like to learn more about, though, is why Agua Prieta is a relatively safe town when so many other border towns have become increasingly violent. Not that the media narrative of border violence isn’t overblown, but Agua Prieta in particular is, by all accounts I’ve heard, perfectly safe. Sergio told me that if you want to get into trouble, you can do that, but if you stay out of bad activities, you’ll be fine. Phil and Tommy, another church guy, have dismissed most of my safety questions by telling me it’s fine. Yes, I can walk around Agua Prieta at night by myself. The worst problem they’ve had with female volunteers solo is getting catcalled, and that’s something which is hardly unique to here. I did end up walking through town by myself last night, because we went to a minor league baseball game and I didn’t want to wait in the hour-long car line to cross the border in Tommy’s car, so I just walked about a mile and a half back home (mostly on the U.S. side). And nothing felt sketchy. I know my anecdotal perceptions don’t mean much, but everyone I’ve talked to has consistently told me that violence in Agua Prieta is way, way lower than in Nogales, much less Ciudad Juarez. Anyway, if I do figure that one out, I’ll be sure to write about it.