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As migrants travel to the U.S., the U.S. tries to stop them south of the border


Unauthorized border crossings from Mexico into the U.S. were down in October for the third straight month. Federal authorities announced that decline yesterday and that the number of Haitians crossing plummeted by more than 90%. What this drop in crossings might signal is the effectiveness of efforts to stop migrants before they even reach the U.S. border in places like Tapachula in the south of Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. Maria Hinojosa and Julieta Martinelli of Latino USA and Futuro Media have been on the ground in both Mexico and Colombia for an update to their 2020 series, The Moving Border. They just completed their reporting and joined us from Bogota, Colombia. We started by having Maria tell us what she saw on the ground back in Tapachula.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What we saw there is really this notion of people getting stuck there. The reason why is because in this new Mexico, that is a very different Mexico than the one that I grew up in - right? - than I would visit every year, which was a Mexico that you could travel through by car without immigration checkpoints, that Mexico is gone. So in order to try to move north through Mexico, you need documents. You need permission. If you are Haitian, if you are African, if you are Black, you will be spotted, and so you cannot move without these documents. The problem is that in Tapachula, you are stuck waiting for those documents and waiting for months. It can turn into several months. And for - in particular, for what happened with the Haitian arrivals, is that they're obviously very visible. And so there was an attempt now to make them invisible. So you're dispersing them so that they're all not gathered in the plaza. They're all not in, you know, one place in makeshift shelters.

CHANG: Right.

HINOJOSA: You attempt to disperse them. You attempt to invisibilize (ph) them. But in fact, they're still there. And so what ends up happening is that when they decide that they don't want to be stuck in Tapachula, they end up moving north in numbers, in things like caravans.

CHANG: Right. And Julieta, you actually walked with one of the migrant caravans making its way to the U.S. border. Can you give us a sense of, like, how large was this group and what kinds of stories did you hear from the people you walked with?

JULIETA MARTINELLI: Yeah. We actually met up with the caravan in Oaxaca in a small town called Chahuites. And I think around there, we maybe we estimated to be around a thousand, maybe 1,500 people. You know, and these are mostly Central American. There were some Haitian migrants that had joined the group. But, you know, these are people that are making a strategic decision based on safety. You know, they're scared. People have been victims of crime, abuses of all sorts. And so the caravan sort of offers an opportunity for them to move with a group and be safe.

CHANG: I understand, Julieta, that there was this one point as you were walking. This is, like, well before sunrise. At one point, you bumped into a familiar face. Can you just tell us what happened?

MARTINELLI: Yeah. I mean, that was such an incredible moment. Maria and I had been walking with the group since about 4:30 or 5 a.m. We were at the edge of the town and we were, you know, trying to follow the group into the highway. The highway had been blocked off by National Guard. And someone tapped my shoulder, and I turned around and it was Alejandro (ph), this young migrant. He's my little brother's age, about 21 years old. I had met him three years ago with - when I was walking with another caravan in 2018. Alejandro was someone special because I spent weeks with him at a shelter. And so I feel very connected to him, and we stayed in communication, you know, for about a year after he crossed. He was able to cross into the U.S. undocumented. And then I didn't hear from him again. And so I come to find out he had been detained in Texas and had been held at an immigration facility and deported back to El Salvador.

CHANG: Well, I want to take a step back because I know that one of the reasons for this whole project, Maria, is that you were very interested in just observing the way these caravans operate and travel. And I'm curious, all this time on the road, what has most struck you about how these caravans organize?

HINOJOSA: Thank you for asking that question, Ailsa, because as you know, I've been covering this story for three decades now. Watching people setting up, you know, their makeshift beds with blankets, families, you know, protecting each other, there was a lot of joy, actually. For meals, it was like, wow, this is a caravan of, like, love and solidarity, of hope, of determination, of people helping each other out, of making a strategic decision to be safe by traveling in these numbers. But in fact, because they are so visible, they are also now subject to being militarized by - whether it's the immigration authorities or whether it's the National Guard. And so there's a beauty in their movement, but they also travel in fear.

CHANG: I want to take a moment now to focus on the border between Colombia and Panama because many Haitians in particular are being stopped before they can even enter Central America. Julieta, can you talk about how that is happening?

MARTINELLI: Yeah, Ailsa, I think it's really important to point out that - you know, to remind people that when we speak about Haitian travelers, Haitian asylum-seekers, most of them are actually coming from South America. They're crossing many borders. You know, extortion is common, and it's particularly challenging for Haitians in Necocli, which is the Colombian town where many of the migrants have been getting stuck over the last several months. You know, we were told that people were sometimes held a month or even longer. You know, in order to move forward, to get to the jungle, to get to the Darien, they have to take a boat, they have to take a ferry. And so they were selling - they were being sold tickets a month out. And in that time, people had to spend money to eat. They had to spend money for lodging. So while, you know, there has been a decline over the last month, we also heard from local folks that what's happening is that municipalities south of Colombia were barring them from moving forward.

CHANG: Maria, all of this reporting for this series called The Moving Border - I mean, I want to know from your vantage point now, watching so much of this firsthand, how would you characterize the impact that U.S. border policy has had?

HINOJOSA: Well, Mexico has become a collaborating partner of the United States' attempts to halt migration and people seeking refugee status to keep people stuck in Mexico and contained. So I asked - when we were with the migrant caravan moving north in Oaxaca, I asked a beautiful Haitian family who we met, a familia Felix (ph), if they knew that there was international attention being placed in headlines made because of their travel and what they thought about, you know, having an impact in the geopolitical dynamics of, you know, international relations. And they said, we don't know what you're talking about. We are stateless and we are looking for a home. And so it was such a kind of human, basic reaction. Most people are not thinking about this, that they're being seen as some kind of group that's, you know, challenging U.S. policy or any kind of immigration policy. This is really a caravan of humanity. And frankly, it's not going to stop. And so, you know, I just hang on to the human stories and their hope and determination, which fill both Julieta and myself with a lot of awe as journalists.

CHANG: Maria Hinojosa is host of the public radio show and podcast Latino USA. Julieta Martinelli is senior producer at Futuro Media.

Thank you both so much for your tremendous reporting.

HINOJOSA: Thank you, Ailsa.

MARTINELLI: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.