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Latin America's Open Borders Encourage Migrants To Travel To The U.S.


So maybe President Trump is not going to close the border here. The White House seemed to back off Trump's threat yesterday. The president has been threatening to close the southern border if Mexico doesn't stop a steady stream of Central American migrants passing through that country on their way to the U.S. The administration is warning of a system-wide meltdown as hundreds of migrant families are released daily into U.S. border towns like El Paso because immigration officials have no room to detain all of them. We are covering this story this morning from two sides of the border. Our colleague John Burnett is in Comitan, Mexico. That is about 2,000 miles to the south of where I am not far from the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Hi there, John.


GREENE: So the president, I guess, is saying that Mexico has acted to his satisfaction - is doing something that makes him feel better backing off this threat to close the border for now. What's Mexico doing?

BURNETT: Well, nothing that I can see on the southern border. I mean, President Trump has called out all of his critics for supporting open borders. But today, I saw what a true open border looks like. In Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, I took a wrong turn, ended up at an official illegal border crossing. You pay $4 to drive into Guatemala, and it's $10 coming the other way if you want to drive into Mexico. Then I went down to this gritty border crossing called Gracias a Dios in Guatemala - thanks to God in Spanish. Anybody can stroll across here. There's absolutely no passport control. We spoke to Ramon Garcia (ph). He's a dispatcher of motorcycle taxis who's working on the Mexican side of the border.

RAMON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So he says, you know, there's no barrier. There's nothing. Anybody can pass here. It's an open border. No one checks the passengers in any of the buses or cars.

GREENE: OK. So no one is stopping these families from beginning this journey. And it seems like the numbers are remaining very high here in El Paso. Can you just start with why this is happening?

BURNETT: You know, I think there are multiple reasons, David. One is they're worried that Trump will close the border and not let families with children in any longer. And they're just generally, you know, hearing from social media, from Facebook, you know, from their relatives and friends in the U.S., come now, don't wait. We met Daleila (ph). She's a 28-year-old Guatemalan in the town of La Democracia.

DALEILA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: (Speaking Spanish).

DALEILA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So she says she's leaving this week and taking her 5-year-old daughter with her. And she said she's heard on the news that if an adult brings a child, U.S. immigration authorities will release them after a few days, and they can continue on into the interior and show up in immigration court.

GREENE: What about the conditions in these Central American countries, John? I mean, the migrants I've talked to in El Paso just keep saying they want a better life. They're fleeing either crime or gangs or just extraordinary poverty. Is that what you hear down there?

BURNETT: Exactly the same thing, David. I met Daniel (ph) from San Salvador. He and his wife and three kids were in a cheap hotel in Gracias a Dios. They were waiting for their smuggler to call them so they could cross into Mexico and then keep going north. Here he is.

DANIEL: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So what he says is that, for us, the United States is like a mother, and a mother watches over these little countries in Central America. He said, we appreciate that the U.S. gives us asylum and an opportunity to better ourselves.

GREENE: We reported so much on caravans arriving at the U.S. border. I don't feel like I've seen what everyone described as caravans recently here in El Paso. Is that something that's still happening?

BURNETT: Yeah. Just accidentally, we saw a caravan of about 400 Central Americans trudging along the shoulder of the Pan-American Highway leaving Tapachula, and they're - but they're not as popular as they once were because several other migrants said we don't want to go with the caravans precisely because they draw too much attention to themselves. They get negative publicity. The Mexican towns have got compassion fatigue, don't want to help them as much. And then they saw how the United States reacts forcefully to stop them, you know, with tear gas and razor wire.

GREENE: You know, U.S. officials here have been talking about the smuggling network and how aggressively they're marketing themselves to people in Central America, I mean, these so-called coyotes and the smugglers who are bringing up migrants. How does that system work? What does that look like down there?

BURNETT: Well, you know, it starts here in Guatemala where smugglers will help the migrants cross. They'll start in, let's say, Gracias a Dios. Then they'll go to a bus station in Comitan, and they'll grab a bus to Mexico City and then grab another bus to Juarez when they'll cross over to where you are, David, in El Paso. And the difference from years past is that these are express buses. The route is quicker and somewhat safer than in the years past when they used to have to stay in safe houses and be at the mercy of the safe house manager who were, you know, often unpredictable and cruel.

GREENE: That is NPR's John Burnett. He's about 2,000 miles south of where I am in El Paso. He's in Comitan, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. John, thank you so much for your reporting.

BURNETT: You bet, David.

GREENE: All right. So families begin a journey down where John is, and they cross the U.S. border right here.

We're on the Paso del Norte International Bridge where lines of cars and people are crossing the Rio Grande River from Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso, Texas. And this bridge became a flashpoint recently. Underneath this bridge, U.S. border authorities had been holding some of the migrants who'd arrived and surrendered themselves. There were adults and kids penned in by barbed wire sleeping on dirt and stones, in some cases, for several nights. It's quiet there now. They've moved that holding facility to a spot nearby. As for the families who were under this bridge...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Singing in Spanish).

GREENE: ...Some of them are here at a church in El Paso. And this is how it works. You arrive in the U.S. as a family. You're held by border authorities for a few days. And in many cases, you're then released to a charity like this one. One family who traveled from Honduras were held under that bridge for four days, and then they had an unexpected detour. They were released by border authorities at the Greyhound bus station downtown. Maribel Velazquez, the pastor here at the church, says that's where she found them, sleeping outside.

MARIBEL VELAZQUEZ: They were very cold. They said that paramedics were there because there were babies and women out there, and it was very cold. They're right here. They're the ones that were picked up this morning.

GREENE: It's a dad with his son and daughter. The kids, 11 and 12, are immediately curious about our microphones.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Hello, hello, hello.


GREENE: They are in a corner of the church on folding cots under a sign that says, all I need is a little bit of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus. We're not using their names to protect this family. The dad, with bloodshot eyes - he's staring off as he speaks - wanted his family out of Honduras because they're so poor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: The family left Honduras on a bus, and it took them 18 days to reach the U.S. border where they surrendered to authorities and then were held under that bridge.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) When we came, the truth is it was a harrowing experience, for me and for everyone. It's suffering that stays with you. You won't forget. I never imagined to be sleeping under a bridge exposed to the elements on dirt under horrible treatment as if we are not human beings.

GREENE: We ask this father, having gone through this once, would he ever do it again?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I wouldn't. Adults can tolerate it, but children don't. If I knew we would be going through all this, I would have not come.

GREENE: So all over El Paso, there are vans on the roads right now. Inside are migrants whose family members elsewhere in the U.S. have paid to get them bus or plane tickets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: There are vans coming and going all day at a motel that's just off a highway. This is where another shelter organization has rented out some rooms. One van arriving belongs to Border Patrol. An agent steps out. He goes to the back. He unlatches a metal door, and he guides families out in a line. Volunteer Suzanne Tilton greets them.

What did you just see as these families came through? I mean, it looked like there were about six men and six kids.

SUZANNE TILTON: OK. So what - this is what's happening. They have found out that if they bring a child with them, they're not placed in detention. They're let go.

GREENE: So do you think those kids were related to those men?

TILTON: They have to be. They have to be because they have to have proof that they're their child, they have guardianship.

GREENE: Because, you know, some of the accusations have been that people are bringing just children who are not theirs to try and get across.

TILTON: Yes, there is that accusation, and that could possibly be happening, but we don't see that on this side.


GREENE: While we talk, families keep coming by to pick up clothing, food, shoelaces, diapers or baby wipes. There is some laughter here, like when Suzanne tells a mom from El Salvador about her love of Salvadoran food.


GREENE: The mom also recounts her journey. She fled gang violence in El Salvador and trekked through Mexico walking at times in just her socks while carrying her 5-month-old son. She wore tattered clothing, and she didn't have shoes until arriving here at the hotel. She points to her gray sweatpants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: I got these at a police station, she says. She also talks about how sick her son got on the trip. He had diarrhea, vomiting, fever. A doctor, she says, told her her baby was going to die.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

TILTON: Out of the blue, they just break up, and they tell you the most heart-wrenching story. She said that someone said what - how can you do this? How can you bring - how can you bring your baby like this? How can you do that to your baby? And she said, they don't understand that I had to come here to protect my baby.

GREENE: The Salvadoran mom is hoping she can get to Maryland to be with her family. Now, as she is settling into this motel, another group of families is heading out to the bus station. But first, volunteer Javier Paz (ph) gathers them in the lobby of the motel. Everyone is standing, bowing their heads. Only a baby's cough breaks into the quiet moment as Javier prays for them to reach their families safely.

JAVIER PAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: And then these families, who have already traveled so far, board a van waiting outside to continue their journey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.