Eileen Sullivan, a Times reporter who covers immigration, recently reported from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The number of people crossing the border is the highest it’s been in at least two decades. We spoke to her about what she saw.
Eileen, thank you for talking. Why are so many people trying to get into the U.S.?
Some are trying to escape violence and life under authoritarian governments, as well as poverty. A lot are looking for economic opportunities after the pandemic erased jobs. Two hurricanes in 2020 also hurt the livelihoods of many people in Guatemala and Honduras, on top of existing gang violence.
I went to Reynosa, in Mexico across the border from McAllen, Texas. One mother and daughter I met from Honduras: The daughter is 15. She was leaving class one day when she was kidnapped and raped by a local gang. Once girls hit their teens, they’re not really safe; they’re seen as fair game for these attacks. This mother and daughter, once they got to Mexico, were kidnapped again, probably by cartel members, and sexually assaulted for days before they escaped. It’s devastating.
Who is trying to cross?
For decades, many Mexicans and people from northern Central America crossed. That is still true. Lately, there are also people from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and, most recently, Peruvians.
There were also a lot of Haitian migrants who had tried to get into the U.S. but failed. People are leaving Haiti because gangs rule the streets, and people there are afraid to leave their homes.
While I was 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 plaza in a city square. Many are regrouping before trying to cross again.
What was the mood like?
People didn’t look miserable or unhappy; they just seemed resigned. They had been hopeful that Title 42 would lift as pandemic restrictions eased up — it’s an emergency health rule that closed the border. But a judge blocked the Biden administration from removing it. Their belief that it would end is also part of why more migrants have traveled to the border recently.
Many Republicans have also emphasized that more migrants began coming to the border after President Biden’s election, hoping that the U.S. would let more people in than it did under Donald Trump. Is that another reason for the increase?
Yes, absolutely. Biden promised a more welcoming America, and asylum seekers were hopeful he would deliver. During 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 U.S. side after covering a week of hearings in Washington, D.C., where I heard a lot of sensationalism, like “the border is broken” or “they’re overrun.” But when I went to the parts of South Texas they were talking about, I didn’t see that. I didn’t find chaos.
The border is ostensibly closed, and about half of migrants who enter are expelled under Title 42. Some are sent back home or to Mexico, like the Haitians I saw in Reynosa.
But a lot of migrants are allowed to stay in the U.S. temporarily for various reasons. Some can stay to face removal proceedings, but they wait years for a court date because immigration courts are so overloaded. Many are trying to file for asylum.
How do they move forward? Are they coming to the U.S. with supplies or money?
Some are, some aren’t. A lot of people have contacts and plans for where to go when they get here — like staying with relatives already in the U.S. Someone I met in a shelter was on my flight back from Del Rio, Texas, to Houston.
Others have no money, but when they are apprehended they get sent to respite centers right over the border — think of these places as way stations, where people go to get supplies, a Covid test, clean clothes and other necessities.
There are a lot of donations to the respite centers: underwear, bras, baby equipment, socks, shoes.
Some bring a change of clothes, while some people lose their clothes. At the border itself in Eagle Pass, Texas, I saw one woman who had just swum across the Rio Grande — she came out and didn’t have pants on.
Almost everyone has a cellphone. People find ways to protect them, including from water if they’re crossing the Rio Grande. Respite centers often have plugs for chargers. It’s their lifeline.
More about Eileen: She started her journalism career at The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J. In 2012, she was part of an Associated Press team that won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslims.
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