EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Beatriz Naim sweeps the concrete around half a dozen tiny sleeping tents in the corner of an abandoned structure in Downtown Juarez.
“I do it because no one else will do it. You cannot live in a pig stye. Not when you have children,” she says. “We have no doors, no walls, but we take care of each other. This is just one more test God puts on your way” to something better.
The Venezuelan grandmother, her two daughters, extended family and friends – a total of 15 adults and children – are among a large group of Central and South American migrants occupying abandoned buildings near Juarez Monument Park.
These derelict structures are quickly filling up as space in migrant shelters grows scarce and mistrust of Mexican officials offering assistance is on the rise.
The mistrust stems from a March 27 fire at a detention center that claimed 39 lives. Five guards and Mexican immigration officers are facing charges of injury resulting in death in connection to the fire, which allegedly was started by migrants fearing deportation. Guards at the center allegedly walked away without trying to extinguish the flames or let the migrants out.
Ronald Vargas says he knows what it’s like to be locked up in a Mexican immigration facility. He spent 19 days in a detention center in Piedras Negras, Mexico, earlier this year. He said food was scarce, legal counsel nonexistent and the threat of violence against the migrants ever-present.
“If you complain, they call the ‘Coahuilas’ on you. One person they beat went into convulsions,” said Vargas, referring to a squad of guards in that detention center. “They got scared of someone calling Human Rights and they had all of us clean and paint the cells so they would look nice.”
Vargas, who is also staying at the dilapidated building near Calle Constitucion and Vicente Guerrero in Juarez, said it’s hard for migrants to trust Mexican immigration agents after experiencing theft, beatings and extortion by uniformed officials as soon as they cross the border from Guatemala.
Vargas said he was released from detention in Piedras Negras after the migrants rioted, set fire to a mattress and immigration officers evacuated everyone. “Protests are not unusual; fires are not unusual. But here in Juarez, they did not open the cells. (Migrants) are angry, they are scared, and the Mexicans are telling us things will get even worse soon,” he said.
At Monument Park two blocks away, Christian and Miriam spend the day in the same grass square where they sleep at night.
The cousins from Venezuela, both in their early 20s, said they spent their first few days in Juarez in a shelter. But the small, church-run facility in the Anapra neighborhood became overcrowded, and the operators told them only families with small children could be guaranteed a bed or even a spot on the floor to sleep.
Christian said he knows several migrants are staying in ruined structures around Downtown, but he’s heard drug addicts also frequent them. “The lights are always on (at the park) and buses and cars pass by all night. It is safer,” he said.
Those migrants who can’t find room at shelters, empty buildings or even public parks are sleeping on Juarez streets.
Juan Pavon, from Tachira, Venezuela, said he was sleeping on streets with his two daughters even before the March 27 fatal fire.
“It’s uncomfortable. The floor is hard, it is dirty, and then you have to worry about safety. We’ve slept in places where mice walk over us,” Pavon said. After the fire, he and several dozen other migrant families have found safety in numbers on the sidewalks across the street from the now-closed detention center.
Small tents can be seen on the sidewalk along with bundles of clothes. Pavon said he and his daughters sleep under a concrete bench because they don’t have a tent. He said they have adjusted to the noise of cars driving by at all hours and people walking by inches away from where they sleep.
He blames his situation on failed policies on both sides of the border. “The governments cannot come to an agreement on how to approach immigration. All the (Mexican) border cities are full of migrants, all of them living in the same conditions. It would be good for the President of the United States to look into his heart and make a favorable decision. All we want is an opportunity to work, for our children to go to school,” Pavon said.
By most accounts, migrants continue arriving in Juarez despite warnings from the U.S. government that asylum applications must be started online and that Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who cross between ports of entry or show up at one without appointments could be disqualified from immigration benefits.
Hundreds, like Griselda, an anesthesiologist from Venezuela, are arriving on top of trains from Southern Mexico.
“It’s very uncomfortable. You are very cold (at night) and the sun is on you all day,” Griselda said, adding she saw a young man fall off in a cartwheel after he slipped trying to get on top of a boxcar. She said the trains are an alternative to paying smugglers to go around Mexican army immigration checkpoints. “You get on very quickly and then you get off at the next station. You do this (several) times because no trains come directly to the (border),” she said.
The trains stop south of Juarez, so those migrants who cannot hitch a ride to the city must walk along farmland to avoid being picked up by Mexican immigration officials, she said.