The scene at the border

Eileen Sullivan, a Times reporter who covers immigration, recently reported on both sides of the US-Mexico border. The number of people crossing the border is the highest it’s been at least two decades. We told her about what she saw.

Eileen, thanks for talking. Why are so many people trying to enter the United States?

Some try to escape violence and life under authoritarian governments, as well as poverty. Many are looking for economic opportunity after the pandemic cut jobs. Two hurricanes in 2020 have also damaged the livelihoods of many people in Guatemala and Honduras, in addition to existing gang violence.

I went to Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas. A mother and daughter I met from Honduras: The daughter is 15 years old. She was leaving class one day when she was kidnapped and raped by a local gang. Once the girls reach their teenage years, they are not really safe; they are considered fair game for these attacks. This mother and daughter, once they arrived in Mexico, were kidnapped again, likely by cartel members, and sexually assaulted for days before escaping. It’s devastating.

Who is trying to cross?

For decades, many Mexicans and northern Central Americans have crossed paths. It’s always true. Lately there are also people from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and, more recently, Peruvians.

There were also many Haitian migrants who had tried to enter the United States but failed. People are leaving Haiti because gangs rule the streets and people there are afraid to leave their homes.

While in Reynosa, I saw Haitians and other migrants standing outside a shelter and trying to get in, trying to talk to a pastor who was in charge. The pastor keeps a list of everyone in his shelter and nearby tent camps. I say tent, but it was more like tarps in a square in a town square. Many regroup before trying to cross again.

What was the mood like?

People didn’t look unhappy or miserable; they just seemed resigned. They had hoped Title 42 would be lifted as pandemic restrictions eased – it was an emergency health rule that closed the border. But a judge blocked the Biden administration from removing it. Their belief that it would end also partly explains why more migrants have recently made their way to the border.

Many Republicans also pointed out that more migrants started coming to the border after President Biden was elected, hoping the United States would let in more people than it did under Donald Trump. Is this another reason for the increase?

Yes absolutely. Biden promised a more welcoming America and asylum seekers hoped he would deliver. Under the Trump administration, policies restricted access to asylum, even before the pandemic.

What happens when people cross the border?

I went to the Rio Grande Valley on the US side after covering a week of hearings in Washington, DC, where I heard a lot of sensationalism, like “the border is broken” or “they’re overwhelmed”. But when I went to the parts of South Texas that they were talking about, I didn’t see that. I did not find chaos.

The border is apparently closed and about half of the migrants who enter are deported under Title 42. Some are sent back home or to Mexico, like the Haitians I saw in Reynosa.

But many migrants are allowed to stay temporarily in the United States for a variety of reasons. Some may stay to face removal proceedings, but wait years for a court date because immigration courts are overwhelmed. Many try to apply for asylum.

How are they progressing? Are they coming to the United States with supplies or money?

Some are, some aren’t. Many people have contacts and plans for where to go when they get here – like staying with relatives already in the US. Someone I met at a shelter was on my flight home from Del Rio, Texas, to Houston.

Others have no money, but when apprehended they are sent to respite centers just across the border – think of these places as staging posts, where people go to get supplies , a Covid test, clean clothes and other necessities.

There are a lot of donations to respite centres: underwear, bras, baby equipment, socks, shoes.

Some bring a change of clothes, while others lose their clothes. At the border itself, at Eagle Pass, Texas, I saw a woman who had just swum across the Rio Grande. She went out without pants.

Almost everyone has a cell phone. People find ways to protect themselves, including water if they cross the Rio Grande. Respite centers often have outlets for chargers. It is their lifeline.

Learn more about Eileen: She began her career as a reporter at the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, NJ In 2012, she was part of an Associated Press team that won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department.

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