PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico—Children were hanging onto the fence, peering out of a “shelter” in this town just across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. There had been some 1,800 migrants, including pregnant women and babies, detained in this vacant factory in Piedras Negras that is surrounded by the Mexican army and police.
The numbers were declining amid relocations and forced repatriations, but none were allowed to leave for the U.S. border–especially not to request asylum, which is their right under U.S. and international law. Journalists, almost without exception, were not allowed to enter the factory, see conditions, and interview migrants. So we talked through the fence.
And then, on Tuesday, they were gone, shipped off to places harder for the press to find. Mexican officials, it turns out, are playing Donald Trump's tune, but while it's very noisy on the U.S. side of the border, here it's in the key of silence, and the regional authorities want to keep it that way.
On Feb. 15 when I arrived in Eagle Pass on the U.S. side of the river, Customs and Border Protection, the National Guard, a SWAT Group, Border Patrol and the Texas state police shut down the international bridge to Piedras Negras for 20 minutes in an emergency practice drill that the local newspaper here described as “showing migrants force via a drill.”
As I drove across the bridge on Feb. 16, the air hummed with the sound of helicopters, and Border Patrol cars lined the golf course on the Eagle Pass side of the border.
Ingrid, a 28-year-old Honduran whose hair was swept up in a loose bun, was holding her bright-eyed son Aaron who kept telling me, “I am 3!” through the fence. At that point, Ingrid and Aaron had been detained for 15 days.
They were surrounded by a group of single mothers, one of whom was four months pregnant, and lots of children. The mothers stood near the barrier, their faces weary, as the little kids clung to the chain link fence, climbing up with quiet determination. Kelvin, 8, whose voice was a raspy whisper, pressed his body close to the fence and told me he had traveled here with his mom, just so I'd know.
A few feet away, dozens of Mexican military and federal police stood fully armed, and Ingrid, like many of the migrants I spoke to, was nervous. The situation in the shelter felt tense.
Ingrid had left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with a recent caravan of around 2,000 migrants, most of them Honduran, in January, never imagining that Mexican authorities would summarily detain the group when they arrived in Piedras Negras on Feb. 4.
“It is ugly. I’ve never been locked up. It is like being a prisoner. They have treated us well, but we should be free. We haven’t done anything,” Ingrid said as Aaron’s tiny fist clutched a link in the fence. Ingrid added, “We want to leave. I want to leave but they won’t let me. I want to request asylum but they won’t let us.” She said she wanted a better life for her son, but she didn’t share details about the situation they had fled in Honduras.
Father José Guadalupe Valdez, who has white hair and a soft, meditative voice, runs the “Digna Frontera” migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, and he spent the morning visiting migrants and praying with them at the factory.
He said that initially when the migrants were detained, mothers and children were separated from the men, and families were upset at what they saw as the implementation of a family separation policy. This tension, as well as the fact that migrants were not told when they would be released, created desperation that on Feb. 13 culminated in migrants throwing tables and chairs towards Mexican officers.
Their action may well have played into the hands of the local police, who appear inclined to cooperate with the Trump administration in any case.
José Luis Pliego, public security chief here in the Mexican state of Coahuila, is not sympathetic to the migrants. “Their goal,” he said, “was to reach the border, the bridges, to generate controversy with the United States forces.” He said that it was important to remember that this group of migrants broke the security fence in Chiapas and continued to travel “out of control” through the country.
Pliego said that the migrants had been housed in the factory because they “had a hostile, confrontational energy” and he framed it as a public security issue.
Although the governor of Coahuila initially claimed some migrants detained at the factory were being deported because they were members of the infamous MS-13 organization (Trump's go-to bad guys in countless speeches), when journalists asked Pliego if he had evidence that gang members were among the detained migrants, he was evasive. “We can say,” he said, “that there are people with a different kind of personal, individual and family development. They are people who don’t have empathy in environments where they arrive.”
In terms of working with U.S. agencies, Pliego said, “We are exchanging relevant information for national security. The U.S. has been pleasantly surprised by the work that the governor [of Coahuila] has done on the migrant flow.”
Questions persist about whether the actions taken in Piedras Negras are a part of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and to what degree U.S. authorities are directly involved. For example, moving forward, will U.S. agencies coordinate with Mexican agencies to detain migrants in Mexico in locations like the factory that are not equipped to deal with such populations, and will they do it without telling migrants beforehand and detain them for undisclosed periods of time?
As I traveled the border in the days after President Donald Trump declared the national emergency, I spoke to migrant families from Venezuela, Cuba and West Africa sleeping on the international bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, waiting to request asylum. They didn’t know how long they would have to wait to be able to request asylum.
In Ciudad Juárez, the migrant shelter was so full—520 migrants had arrived including a group of 12 from the LGBTQ community in El Salvador, a family from Pakistan and a dozen Cubans who had walked through the Darién Gap in Panama—that they had to turn migrants away. And yet the reality is that border crossings have been declining for almost two decades.
Denying and limiting the ability of refugees to request asylum and implementing the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy puts many migrants at the risk of violence. That is the humanitarian crisis the Trump administration has manufactured.
In Piedras Negras, a single mother from Honduras traveling with her 9-year-old daughter told me, “We want to cross legally into the United States. We want to request asylum in the United States. We have been here for two weeks. On the 20th they are going to take us somewhere but we don’t know where. This isn’t normal.”
Josué, 28, who had traveled from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, stood at the fence wearing a Michigan State shirt and a baseball cap with a Honduran flag wrapped around his shoulders. “I’m hungry,” he said.
A young man in a red plaid shirt who had wedged himself between a tree and the fence chimed in that he was also hungry, and that he, like almost everyone at the factory, had a cold.
Josué added, “We are desperate. We are locked up. They won’t let us leave. I’d say that this is wrong. They should let us leave.”
On Sunday, Claudio Bres, the mayor of Piedras Negras, announced that the facility will close on Feb. 21 and that the remaining 787 migrants who had not already accepted the offer to return to their country of origin via bus will be bused to other states in Mexico, including Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Nuevo León.
The action was taken on Feb. 19.
Where is Josué with his flag, or Kelvin, the little boy with the raspy voice? Where is Ingrid, and where is Aaron, so quick to tell you he is 3 years old? For the moment, at least, we do not know. Where they are not is in the United States, asking for asylum.