NOGALES, Mexico—In the 35 years Gilda and Juan Francisco Loureiro have been running a shelter in northern Mexico for undocumented immigrants, they’ve never seen a week like this one.
The shelter, called Albergue San Juan Bosco, is perched on a steep hillside looking over the busy border town of Nogales, Mexico. Its walls are painted bright turquoise and tangerine, and its wide-open double doors look west over low hills and Highway 15. Since they opened it, upward of 1 million people have slept there on their way to the U.S. But on the day I visited, it was almost empty.
It didn’t used to be this way, Gilda and Juan Francisco, known as Paco, explained. In the decades since they opened the space to give migrants a place to shower and sleep before crossing the border, the shelter—with separate rooms full of bunkbeds for men and women—would regularly house 100 migrants per night. Sometimes, that number would hit 300 or more, and Gilda and Paco would pull out thin mattresses to fit everyone on the floor.
But today, those mattresses are neatly stacked in a closet, untouched. And the shelter is almost empty—no women travelers, and fewer than a dozen men. That’s despite the fact that April, with its mild weather, should be the busiest time of year for migrants. The place is all but dead. Gilda and Paco have never seen anything like it.
They can only think of one explanation: President Donald Trump.
Trump hasn’t yet made good on his bombastic campaign trail promises. The wall is still just a twinkle in his eye, and the deportation force hiring sprees haven’t happened yet. ICE agents have conducted raids targeting undocumented immigrants, but they aren’t actually that different in scale from raids that happened during the early years of the Obama administration.
But the symbolism of Trump in the Oval Office and the threat of extended detention has already deterred many migrants. Migrants are scared, explained Jose, a young Honduran man staying at the San Bosco shelter in hopes of getting to the U.S. They might be less scared in the future, he said, but for now they’re waiting.
The Trump administration seems to have figured this out. In a speech on the Arizona side of the border the day before, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that the number of people caught illegally crossing the border had dropped by 72 percent from December 2016 to March 2017.
“This is no accident,” Sessions told an audience of reporters and Customs and Border Protections officials.
He then detailed new priorities for federal prosecutors, including felony prosecutions in certain situations of people who re-enter the U.S. illegally after being deported. According to AllLaw.com, a felony conviction for illegal re-entry typically carries a sentence of up to two years.
The migrants who spoke to The Daily Beast hadn’t heard of Jeff Sessions. But they’d heard about his plans.
"Is it true I’ll go to prison for two years if I get arrested?" a Honduran man named Mynor asked in Spanish.
He said he’d been deported from the U.S. four times already, and that he hadn’t been convicted of any crimes. But he’d spent several months in jails in Nevada, Texas, and Arizona before those deportations, he added, and he didn’t want to go back.
The two-year rumor was correct, I explained. Then I asked why he kept trying to make it in the U.S. instead of returning to his native country.
“La violencia,” he replied.
Still, the threat of two years in federal prison gave him second thoughts about making a fifth trip across the border, he added. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with rampant government corruption and extraordinary levels of cartel violence. Despite this, Trump has him considering going back.
Mynor and a handful of other migrants sat in a small chapel in the shelter waiting for dinner to be ready. A large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe hung on the wall, and a nearly life-size crucifix draped with plastic rosary beads stood beside it. On a table in front, there was a pile of Know Your Rights pamphlets from the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, a Mexican group, and the ACLU.
“Tus derechos humanos viajan contigo,” one pamphlet read. “Porque ningún ser humano es ilegal…”
In English: Your human rights travel with you, because no human being is illegal.
Throughout the border town of Nogales, residents say it’s strangely silent. The men who drive shuttles taking Mexicans who legally cross the border to Tucson and Phoenix have seen their business slow down—likely because many fear that having the legal right to enter the U.S. won’t necessarily protect them from detention or deportation.
And the Kino Border Initiative, a Roman Catholic humanitarian aid group that provides food and clothing to recently deported migrants on the Mexico side, has seen things slow. Joanna Williams, the group’s director of education and advocacy in the U.S., said their Mexican shelter would normally help 500 to 700 people every month. But in March, she added, they only worked with 200—likely because fewer people are being deported to Nogales, because fewer people are crossing the border there in the first place.
But Williams added that though the overall number of migrants crossing the border has dropped, the numbers from some parts of Mexico have risen significantly. Her group asks migrants to share what city and state of Mexico they came from—a valuable data trove—and noticed there’s been an uptick in travelers from the city of Chilpancingo in the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s southwest coast. A conflict between two cartels there has displaced 250,000 people, according to Sky News.
Williams said she expects the number of migrants crossing the border to go back up because Trump hasn’t changed the structural realities that drive migration: He hasn’t made southern Mexico any less poor and violent, and he hasn’t made the cartels any weaker. The changes in the last month are significant, she said, but temporary.
“Mexicans are very stubborn,” he said, “and there is not a wall that can restrain them.”