The U.S. Border Patrol has never seen a year like it. In El Paso, Texas alone, 180,000 apprehensions at the border — six times more than a year ago. And in the violent city of Juarez, Mexico, thousands of migrants from all over wait for word on asylum hearings. It is many miles from the prairie to the border, but recently a group from Fargo-Moorhead traveled to the wall to meet with border agents and the migrants trying to get across.
In WDAY's latest documentary, "A River Becomes a Wall," Reporter Kevin Wallevand and Photographer Andrew Nelson travel with that group to bring back an inside look at what is happening there.
EL PASO, Texas — As the sun comes up over Mexico on a crisp, cool desert morning, the Texas town of El Paso awakens along the border. A wall that separates this town from Juarez, Mexico, has brought visitors from the north. Eastern North Dakota Synod Bishop Terry Brandt, along with area Lutheran ministers who are here to learn more about the border, meeting with border patrol agents, who walk them through what has been a tumultuous year. U.S. Border Patrol Agent Sara Cabrera was on her morning shift.
"If you see someone walking from the other side of the river and you see them coming in, that's going to be your obvious ones," said Cabrera, as she patrolled the canals, the wall, the dusty trail of dirt that separates Juarez from El Paso.
"This is the river, right there," she said, pointing out the landscape. "And that's Mexico. Our biggest day was 2,200 in one day," said Cabrera of the number of people apprehended at that El Paso location. "Twenty-two hundred in one day, and you add 1,500 from the day before and 1,700 from previous day."
To highlight the increase, in 2018, the El Paso sector of Border Patrol apprehended 31,000 people for the year. This past May, they apprehended 38,000 for the month.
On this day, riding with Agent Cabrera, there was an all too familiar sight.
"We have an apprehension," she said, getting out of her vehicle to begin speaking Spanish to a lone woman holding a baby.
"They are from the country of Honduras," said Cabrera, holding the documents belonging to the mother and her bright-eyed child. "They are here illegally."
A single-mom, Katy and her 7-month-old son, Owen from Honduras, were walking through water and mud to give themselves up to the agent.
"She says there is no employment in her country, and she needs to provide for her child," said Cabrera, interpreting the woman's answers to her questions.
It no doubt has been dangerous for Katy and her baby Owen. The weekend when the group from Fargo-Moorhead were visiting, there were 22 murders in Juarez.
"We are human beings, and how are we going to protect our country if we don't take them into custody?" said Cabrera. "We have to investigate and check out criminal history so we know who we are letting in and out."
Baby Owen just sat and giggled, quite unaware of the desperation. His mother quietly wept at the hopelessness life had become.
"A lot of people are like, 'Border Patrol is bad,' " said Cabrera. "No, you can see how they are waiting for us because they are safe, now they are in safe hands."
The group of ELCA pastors and others from Fargo-Moorhead listened to the Border Patrol, mindful of their work in an area of the country where this battle is brewing for those wanting to come to America when so many want them out.
"We want them to know that it is not just bad people coming in, we do have good people coming in for the job," said Cabrera. "They are fleeing their country. If they don't work, they don't eat."
"I think what we heard today confirms that most of the people coming to the border are those who are seeking a better life or those who are running for their lives," said Bishop Terry Brandt "And it is rare they see drugs coming through the border, so I think it is different perception than what we hear."
"If I can take away one thing from it, is what they said at the end ... 'We are human,' that 'We are not going to be perfect,' " said Pastor Austin English, another ELCA pastor out of Oakes, N.D., talking about the border patrol agents. "I admire that, the humbleness of saying I'm not always going to get it all right, but looking at the best interest of all families and people, and that we allow them a little grace."
'If we leave this place and we don't say anything, shame on us'
Down the dusty roads and through the busy, cramped streets of this often dangerous border city, a faith group from Fargo-Moorhead arrives at a shelter full of Central American mothers and their children who are making a meal for the visitors who are there to hear the stories of the migrants' survival and hope.
After hearing from U.S. Border Patrol agents the night before, Lutheran pastors and lay leaders hear from migrants who have escaped gangs and cartels trying to kill them in their Central American countries.
WDAY and The Forum are not identifying the women, because they fear they will be killed if they return home.
"She just said it was a really difficult journey from Honduras to Juarez because she supported the protests ... the groups that were protesting. That was her crime. Her children received threats," translated Sister Christina, a woman who helps shelter refugees in Juarez. For her safety, WDAY and The Forum are not fully identifying her either.
"What you want more than anything is to live in your country freely, but she can't," explained Sister Christina. "(It was) a very difficult decision to come here."
Another refugee, a 19-year old from Nicaragua, was photographed taking part in a march to protest government cuts to senior pensions.
"She received a threat for being in marches, and some of her friends were killed as well," Sister Christina explained on the teen's behalf.
And so, the teenager, alone in Juarez, waits, while her family worries about her across the border in the U.S.
"They separated the siblings," said Sister Christina. "They let the sister go through, and then they sent her (the 19-year-old) back (to Juarez)."
The process to get asylum for those trying to get in the U.S. can be confusing. The process can take months or years, and the answer may still be no.
The Fargo-Moorhead group was in tears listening to these stories ... and angry.
"I don't know of anyone seeing and hearing this, would think this is OK," said Lutheran Pastor Paula Mehmel, one of the members of the group. "To ignore this and think this doesn't matter means you are complicit in what is happening in the name of your government."
"And I heard those stories, it wasn't even hearing them from the ears of a pastor or even as a Bishop, but as a dad," said Bishop Terry Brandt, who has three children. "As we heard today about children that were being taken from their parents ... I began to think as a dad as the tears ran from my eyes ... what would that be like to have others take my children away from me? I just cannot begin to imagine what that would be like."
"And you have to ask yourself, would I have the courage to leave?" said Deb Elhard, a Lutheran Church member in the group. "Would I have the courage to leave?" she repeated slowly.
But U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota has been to the border a number of times and says people in his state want the U.S. to remain tough on immigration.
"If I was to look at all the issues that played out in the campaign that made me a senator, the issue of border security, sanctuary cities and rule of law, probably were the biggest issues and maybe the biggest reason I am a senator because North Dakotans, while we are very compassionate people, we are also people who believe in rule of law and law and order, and I think they (North Dakotans) are offended when people's first instinct is to criticize law enforcement officers rather than our own laws which create the problems in the first place."
Those who witnessed firsthand the stories of the migrants think otherwise.
"You see so much and hear so many awful stories and mistreatment of people that you can't prepare for it," said Nancy Farnham, another Lutheran Church member in the group.
As the sun set, the border lit up. Migrants continued to arrive and agents apprehend, and a group from Fargo-Moorhead is wrestling with how to tell the story from the desert to the prairie back home.
"If we leave this place and we don't say anything, shame on us," said Pastor Austin English, an ELCA pastor out of Oakes, N.D.
The death threats
On a windswept afternoon in El Paso, the group from Fargo-Moorhead makes a solemn visit to the site of the August mass shooting at a Walmart. The temporary memorial is full of names, pictures, posters and letters from around the world.
“It is still raw, says Father Robert Moser, a priest at a church in El Paso. “We are still dealing with it, so many Mexican Americans and Central Americans feel vulnerable now, they feel targeted.
The grandchildren of Maria and Raul Flores, who were killed in the massacre, gathered to mark their grandpa's 85th birthday.
“They were loving people,” says granddaughter Veronica Flores. “They were always loving and happy and always together.”
They come here often, as do hundreds of families. It’s pain that won't go away and a hate that shook the border town to its core.
“It feels good because they are not forgotten,” said Jackie Flores. “Something so ugly didn't make people forget about them — people still care.”
Back on the border, Border Patrol agent Sarah Cabrera points out that Mexican National Guard troops are now patrolling the wall as well, a new way to keep people from crossing the border.
“They are there as a deterrent; they cannot apprehend,” she said. “(But) they can observe and report, (and) it has helped a lot.”
El Paso is the Border Patrol's original station, dating back to the 1920s. Today there are 1,900 agents covering 270 miles of border.
Cabera pointed out some of the signs of an illegal crossing. “If you see clothes and shoes, you know someone came illegally and left a trace,” she explains.
Some have risked it all and died while attempting to get into the U.S. while trying to cross the border by getting into a canal, she says.
On many radio and TV talk shows, guests and hosts ask why don't people use the “right” or “legal” way to get into the United States. Along the border, its a question immigration lawyers and migrants laugh at.
“When people say the 'right way,' they typically are talking about the family-based immigration system,” says Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of the El Paso Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services. “If I am a U.S. Citizen and I have a brother from Mexico I want to get to the United States — and he is over 21 — my brother will wait 25 years.”
Even North Dakota border patrol agents came to assist at the most chaotic point of the border crisis, where smugglers took advantage of the situation to get drugs across the border.
“Our checkpoints (were) wide open and all those narcotics and felons (got) in the U.S.,” Cabrera said. “We don't know how many, we don't know what got through.”
While WDAY was in El Paso, acting Border Control Commissioner Mark Morgan visited and said his agency has witnessed a 68% increase in the number of apprehensions at the southern border. Nearly a million people this past year have tried to get into the United States, yet, the director says, over 100,000 were missed.
“It is not just about drugs and overdoses, criminal aliens and gang members make their way to and past our borders every single day,” he said during a speech at the border. “These bad actors and drugs make their way into every town and city and state in this nation.
Many who are not allowed into the U.S. wait for asylum hearings and are stuck in dangerous Juarez, where churches and catholic sisters are often left caring for and feeding them.
The Fargo-Moorhead group spent a day cooking a meal and later serving it to those just apprehended at the border, and now sheltered in El Paso. Many are children.
In Juarez, a woman from El Salvador who remains anonymous for fear of retaliation from a gang in her home county, explains she was forced to leave her country with her sick daughter after getting death threats.
“They were pushing her to get into a gang, and said they would kill her daughter if she did not become part of the gang,” a translator explains. “She has a lot of fear. She cannot go back.”
Some families at the shelter from Central America say agents separated their teenage daughters from them. When the families went into El Paso to a shelter, their teen daughters were sent to Juarez, the dangerous streets, where 25,000 others are waiting for asylum.
Molly Malloy of New Mexico has spent her life working on immigrants issues on the border.
“We seem unable to put ourselves into the shoes of another person,” she says “What would you do if your child was starving, would you just sit there or would you move or walk?”
But Arizona Sheriff Mark Dannels of Cochise County, a national expert on border security, says his county had enough with the chaos at his border.
“Cochise county has always been on the front line of border issues — from human smuggling, and drug smuggling,” Dannels explains. “The violence from within my county has taken a huge impact over the last three decades, as far as what is going on at the southern border, so what we did is we took it in our own hands to make a difference.”
There may be dangers law enforcement must consider, but the Catholic Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, helped lead an effort to have churches in his city protect, house and feed the thousands who have been arriving. Observers say the whole experience has transformed the bishop.
Seitz says helping is migrants a simple choice when you put it in everyday terms, but many lose sight when the question is posed in terms of political borders.
“If someone is in a burning building, and they are your neighbor, would you let them in or not?” he asks. “Most of us would, but that is happening at the level of nations right now and we are saying, 'no, go away, sorry.' ”
A call to action
Not long after dawn in the heart of Juarez, a Fargo-Moorhead faith group meets thousands of migrants who are in limbo, some waiting in tent cities for asylum hearings in the United States and others hoping to just get a number that may lead to a hearing.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bishop Terry Brandt, along with ministers and lay leaders of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, distribute things the migrants all needed, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and hygiene products. In the camps along the border, there are concerns about overcrowding and disease.
One young mother from Central Mexico, Flor, has a 9-year-old and 3-year-old. They are sleeping through freezing temperatures at night in tents hoping for a chance to get on the other side.
“They could not even take their kids to school, it was that bad,” a translator explains of Flor’s situation. “They are afraid; that is why they are asking for asylum, there is no doubt about that.”
Flor and her two children wait with about 300 others in a city park in Juarez, one of the world's most dangerous cities.
As these immigrants sit in extreme poverty and danger, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has also made trips to the border to talk with border patrol agents and has thoughts on why this is happening.
"Our asylum laws are very liberal, as are all our immigration laws, and they're very generous; they're the most generous of any country in the world," Cramer said. "Consequently, that creates a magnet, and it creates an opportunity for mischief. So, what you see is, you see some legitimate asylum seekers, and you see many that are not."
Meanwhile, the mother and baby from Honduras that border agents apprehended — Katy and Owen — were fitted with ID wrist bands, put in a van and sent to detention near El Paso, Texas.
Molly Malloy, who has spent her life working with immigrants on the border, doesn't have high hopes for the two. She said there is a good chance the mother and child will sit for months in detention and get sent back to Honduras.
When asked if she can sympathize, Border Patrol agent Sara Cabera thinks of her 9-month-old nephew.
“You can see him smiling — he does not know what is happening,” she said. “You want what is best for him; these kids don’t have a fault in any of this.”
From all this, Lutheran ministers from Oakes, N.D., to Enderlin and Fargo hope to bring home a message to their congregations who may feel disconnected to the situation.
“I think this is a call to action, for the church — not just the Lutheran church or the Catholic church — but the church as a whole to step up and say . . . we can't let this happen; we can't let this tragedy continue,” said Austin English, a pastor out of Oakes, N.D.
“All we can do is speak from our experience, what I've seen, what I've heard, what I've felt,” said Taryn Montgomery, an ELCA clergy member. “I am holding that as I go home.”
“It's on them how they receive this story, not on me," said Vicki Schmidt of Opening Borders in West Fargo. "I can do nothing less but to share this . . . what I saw, heard and felt.”
As the team from Fargo-Moorhead wrapped up its week of discovery along the border, there was a meaningful, rare event. The Lutheran group attended a Catholic Mass along the border where Mexico and U.S. residents worshiped together on both sides of the border.
“It hurts, and now we are passing the peace and we cannot cross the water,” said Noreen Stevens, ELCA-deaconess. “It's hard.”
During the Mass, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz posed a big question to all in attendance: “If we cannot care for those who are fleeing situations that threaten their lives and their families, how can we expect God to open the door of his house for us?”