JUAREZ, Mexico — Javier Calvillo has seen migrants go through countless hardships over the past nine years, but some things still break his heart.
The director of Casa del Migrante shelter recently set up a station stocked with water, food and access to a cell phone for migrants who have just been returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities. He also instructed his staff to ask the migrants a single question: “What can we do for you?”
“They start crying and shouting. They start venting about the bad treatment they received on the other side. They tell us they missed being treated with dignity and respect. They get emotional at finally having someone in front of them who is trying to help,” the Catholic priest said.
The migrants he’s come across during the Cuban and Central American surge of the past nine months not only endured leaving their families behind, spending their meager resources on transportation or smugglers and dealing with crime in Mexico, but have also been met with hostility and oppression on the American side, he says.
“People are coming to us anguished over the treatment they received over there (the United States),” Calvillo said. “They tell us how they were yelled at, how they were punished because their child started crying, because they asked for more food or things like shampoo and soap.
“They come here weak, ill, with all of their belongings having been thrown away. We hear their stories about being confined in the ‘cold rooms,’ about being denied the opportunity to shower, about threats to take away their children,” he added.
Now, as the U.S. pressures Mexico to keep more migrants from coming north and apprehensions plummet north of the Rio Grande, Calvillo warns that the migrant crisis is over. What lies ahead is a deadly, protracted conflict, he says.
“We have the National Guard along the river, we have roadside checkpoints from Chihuahua to Samalayuca. This is forcing people to take more dangerous routes, this is making people die,” he said. “Already we saw a woman die of heatstroke (in southeast Juarez), we saw the rescue of 40 people in the desert south of Santa Teresa. We see (Juarez) television footage of groups of migrants trying to run past the soldiers. They’re still coming and will try to cross any way they can.”
In addition to the new migration from the south, Calvillo points to the rising number of migrants being sent to Mexico by U.S. authorities.
“There are a lot of migrants already in Mexico who will move around until they find a place they feel they can cross. We also have a lot of people on the asylum waiting list and more and more returnees, up to 200 a day from El Paso. Juarez will have to deal with a lot more migrants, so we are in this for the long run, at least all of 2019 and 2020,” he said.
A house of order
Closed-circuit cameras and a gate with an electronic lock guard the entrance to Casa del Migrante a few miles south of the Zaragoza International Bridge. Outside, Juarez municipal police cars and trucks with the markings of Grupo Beta — the Mexican border patrol — come and go.
Inside this, the largest migrant shelter in Juarez, groups of migrants sit under the shade of trees or watch their children play on a large patio. In one large air-conditioned building, some 50 women and children watch cartoons on an elevated large TV monitor.
Everything seems peaceful and in order but, like in any household of 400 people, tension lies under the surface.
“We’re facing a complicated situation,” Calvillo said. “At first we had people whose asylum appointments were only a few days away. Now we have returnees who’re waiting months for their second or third appointment, in addition to new daily arrivals and those who are waiting to be sent back to their countries.”
With accelerated returns from the United States, wait times of up to a year for asylum request resolutions and with Grupo Beta bringing Mexican nationals on top of that, the priest says the situation at the shelter could become critical.
“We’re already seeing conflicts between new arrivals and those who have been here a long time. They know we’re thinking of looking at those who’ve been here for three months. We might give them another three weeks, one to get their papers, health insurance and work permit, one to look for work and one more get their own place so they can leave us a space for someone who just got here,” he said.
Mexico last month decided to allow foreign migrants to get temporary work permits. The process is simple: get an FMM visitor’s permit and then a document called CURP. Maquiladoras (the factories that manufacture parts for U.S. and other foreign companies) are 6,000 workers short and willing to hire.
However, as of Friday, few migrants had obtained a permit. “I think one of the big questions is, can they become independent?” the priest said.
When asked what detonated the migrant surge late last year, Calvillo said it was many factors, from the crime and poverty that is peaking in the Northern Triangle of Central America, to the goading of human traffickers and of politicians who wanted to send their problems north. There was also inexperience on the part of Mexican leaders who took over the government last year.
“It had to do with the president’s discourse. When (Manuel Andres Lopez Obrador) took office, he said Mexico would be a free-transit country, that people from other countries would be welcome. Many took advantage of that; that’s when we saw more migrant caravans form,” he said. “But in the end, it was a confluence of factors that made this happen.”
A shared sense of suffering
Calvillo will be celebrating 16 years as a priest in August, and when asked why he chose the profession, he smiles and says, “I ask myself the same question.”
He started to run in religious circles as a college student, carrying a sense of loss since he was very young.
“I lost my brother when I was 5, my mother at 8 years old and my father at 10. I am an orphan. I’ve carried those scars, that pain since I was very young. I had to work since I was a teenager — as a bagging clerk at stores, as a laborer at the produce markets, as a maquila worker. On top of that I grew up feeling shunned” for being an orphan, he said.
Work and school filled the emotional voids and, unlike many teens, when he grew up he turned to God, instead of away from God. That led to Seminary school. “Many difficult things in my life led to this. God had a plan for me,” he said.
One of the former Juarez bishops, Renato Ascencio Leon, was immersed in migrant issues in Mexico, and he took the young priest under his wing. They traveled the country fine-tuning the church’s policies toward migrants.
That experience wasn’t lost on future bishops, one of whom pulled Calvillo from his parish nine years ago and placed him in charge of Casa del Migrante. “He said, ‘the Dominicans are out, the Scalabrini order is out, we want the Diocese to take over,'” Calvillo said.
The priest said it’s difficult to care for a migrant because it’s usually someone who has experienced traumatic events, from leaving home and kin behind to suffering violence, either where he or she is coming from or encountered along the road.
“All of them carry a big emotional burden. It is complicated to deal with such a human being,” Calvillo said. “But when I see them, I remember the hardships from my childhood. I haven’t left my country like they did, but I have lost a mom, a dad, a brother like many of them have. That helps to understand them, and it helps me close my own personal circle; it explains why God set me on this road.”
‘Better a laborer than a figurehead’
Calvillo says he doesn’t believe a shelter director or anyone in a position of power should be confined to barking out orders. In the case of Casa del Migrante, he couldn’t do that even if he wanted to, he says.
This year, the shelter anticipates expenses of up to $450,000 in addition to thousands of unreimbursed volunteer man-hours that he needs to procure.
“It is a big challenge not only in terms of the human aspect, but also in terms of the logistics of providing care and resources. The director has to always be fund-raising, always be aware of the needs and looking for the resources. That means knocking on people’s doors, going to businesses; it’s not an easy job,” he says.
He credits the generosity of Christians, and in general of the people of Juarez, El Paso and Las Cruces for pulling Casa del Migrante through a financial crisis.
And, as other Juarez shelter operators have found out this year, there were times in which the migrant crisis overwhelmed him.
“We have made errors, we have discovered our limitations,” he said. The shelter shut the doors to new arrivals when its population jumped to 1,100; minors have escaped his shelter; criminals have found ways to harass his charges; he’s still learning when he should trust reporters.
“I am human. I have many fears,” Calvillo said. “But then I see these brothers and sisters and ask ‘how do they survive?’ That is when I realize that my load is not as heavy and nothing compares to helping others.”