Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts featuring a border sheriff and a migrant advocate addressing the immigration crisis on the Arizona-Sonora border from different vantage points.
AGUA PRIETA, Mexico (Border Report) – Beto Ramos was very young when he paid a smuggler $2,000 to take him to the United States. Back then, the so-called “guides” could be trusted, and the expectation was to work a couple of years, save money and return home to family.
But things have changed since the year 2000.
“Before you didn’t have a wall. The wall forces you to walk through dangerous places or risk a fall,” Ramos said. “And now you see immigration policies being applied as punishment. Migrants say (U.S. authorities) deport them through a different border; they tell us they’re kept in detention in very cold rooms and served undercooked food.”
Above all, the director of Agua Prieta’s Migrant Resource Center says smugglers have grown cold-blooded.
“They see you as merchandise. They lie to you from the moment you leave your community to the moment you arrive” at the border, Ramos said.
The chain of lies begins with recruiters that sell the American dream in poor communities in Southern Mexico or crime-ridden cities in Central America. The pitch often includes the promise that traveling with small children will be their ticket in.
The lies continue as migrants are asked for a “reasonable” fee of $1,000 to $2,000 that turns out to be a down payment. If the individual migrant or migrant family wants to go past the Mexico-Guatemala border, or a National Guard checkpoint in Mexico or find a way around the U.S. border wall, their families back home must fork over more money.
“They ask them for money all along the route. They tell the relatives that it’s for their family members’ expenses, but they pocket all of it,” Ramos said. When the money doesn’t come, the migrant accrues unplanned debt.
“Organized crime controls the movement of people today. Migrants must have money they don’t have, a minimum of $7,000 to $8,000. That forces them to stay for longer periods (in the U.S.). I met one person who thought he would pay off his debt in five years, but he’s been there seven years now and figures he’s got another three to go,” Ramos said. “He told me he hasn’t seen his parents, and that he didn’t get to see his 1-year-old brother grow up.”
But for many, the journey ends a short distance away from the border wall after an uncomfortable stay in Mexican border stash houses.
“I just talked to a Guatemalan who said his group was kept locked up for many days in a safe house. It was a single room with so many people they couldn’t move,” Ramos said.
And when it’s time to make the run for the border, the smuggler will be the first to cut out at the first sign of trouble and the migrants can end up lost in the desert of Southeast Arizona for weeks. A Border Patrol rescue is often followed by detention and deportation.
The latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection states that 111,714 of the 178,622 unauthorized migrants its agents encountered in April were promptly expelled from the country under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 public health order. That’s roughly two out of three who came over.
A place of rest and introspection
The Migrant Resource Center stands less than a block from the Douglas-Agua Prieta port of entry. A green metal fence guards the white two-story building where oft confused and hungry migrants come in for a respite and guidance.
Inside, volunteers prepare sandwiches and refer those who need a roof over their heads to a shelter called CAME. Ramos runs both and said his desire to serve stems from that early experience as a migrant and his faith in God.
“Like them, I was a migrant. I know what it is to cross the desert into the United States. That and my Catholic faith are my motivation,” he said. “I feel a lot of solidarity toward a population that finds it increasingly difficult to achieve their dream. They are very vulnerable people. Organized crime, authorities and ordinary people take advantage of them because they are migrants. Here, we try to lend a hand.”
The volunteers share information but don’t try to influence a migrant’s decision on whether to try crossing into the U.S. or cut his or her losses and return home to family. Some who get expelled from the U.S. bear the stress of the journey, often in the form of sunburn, foot blisters and emotional distress.
The shelter can house up to 80 people at a time and more, if need be. It has showers, a dining area and a landscaped patio.
Ramos said he’s heard back from Guatemalans who returned home and wanted to thank him for the help in getting back to their loved ones. But others remain uncertain and considering another try. At the shelter, they have time to ponder their next move.
Agua Prieta, which means Dark Water, isn’t a wealthy community. It has a handful of U.S.-run manufacturing plants and outlying agribusinesses. Ramos said the Migrant Resource Center and the CAME shelter depend on contributions, many coming from Douglas, Arizona.
Those wishing to donate can email email@example.com in Douglas and specify they want to help the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta. They can also leave a message for Ramos at (011-52) 633-338-1529.