Trump's Wall Idea Has Mexico Pissed — but Immigrants Keep Trying to Cross the Border

Waves of migrants are still traversing Mexico to reach the United States. Even if Trump builds his wall, the immigrants say it won't stop any of them from trying to escape violence and poverty.
April 7, 2016, 7:05pm
Imagen por Mike Nelson/EPA

Sergio González's eyes are bloodshot. His weatherworn skin appears older than his 20 years. This is the fifth time in three years the Honduran has crossed Mexico in an attempt to get to the United States.

"If I stay in my country, I'll have to join a gang and I'll be killed," he said of his latest effort to leave behind his home in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. "If I don't join the gang, they'll kill me too."

The young migrant was huddling under a small awning within the Sagrada Familia — a migrant shelter down a quiet alley in the central Mexican city of Apizaco. Unseasonable bursts of rain and sleet came intermittently as he used a t-shirt to cover his face and protect himself from the cold.

Next to us, dozens of migrants filled a small dormitory of bunk beds. They were allowed two days in the shelter before they had to leave, and hop back on to the top of the infamous cargo train they were using to travel north.

González talked about seeing people falling off the train and having their legs ripped off. He talked about the poverty in Honduras. He talked about the violent gangs that have ravaged the country.

'If I stay in my country, I'll have to join a gang and I'll be killed... If I don't join the gang, they'll kill me too'

He also talked about Donald Trump's promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States if he is elected president.

"How many more of us are they going to bury, imagine, after this wall," González reflected, worried that the dangerous trip north is going to become even more so. "It's madness to me what this man wants to do, but hopefully he doesn't win."

Migrants taking advantage of a break in the rain to eat a free lunch in the courtyard of the Sagrada Familia shelter. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News).

Donald Trump's repeated description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and his insistence that Mexico must pay for his "big beautiful wall", were never going to play well south of the border.

Though they initially seemed nervous of saying anything, in recent weeks Mexican politicians have been falling over themselves to express their disgust.

This began after Felipe Calderón, president from 2006-2012, said Mexico would not pay a "single cent for such a stupid wall." His predecessor, Vicente Fox, then called Trump a "crazy guy." In an interview in English, Fox announced, "I'm not paying for that fucking wall."

Not to be left behind, President Enrique Peña Nieto then compared Trump's campaign to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler.

Trump has given several figures for the cost of the wall, and raised different possibilities for making Mexico pay for it. This week he said he could force Mexico to make a one-time payment of 5 to 10 billion dollars thanks to anti-terrorism legislation that allows him to cut off money sent home by immigrants, called remittances, if he wants to. Remittances sent to Mexico totalled nearly $25 billion in 2015.

Related: Donald Trump Revealed How He'll Force Mexico to Pay for the Wall, and It's Pretty Nuts

"He's a false prophet who will guide the great nation of the United States to the bottom of the ocean, all the way through the shores of ignorance, racism, hunger and despair," former president Fox wrote in response to the latest plan in The Guardian.

According to Salvador Hernández, who has been working as a volunteer at the Sagrada Familia migrant shelter for the last four years, the wall will also fail.

"Donald Trump is a famous, racist person," he said. "One way or another, people are going to continue migrating, they'll search for wherever they can get in."

Hernández said that the shelter has been receiving an increasing number of migrants from Central America and Mexico in the past few months.

He said that most of the roughly 300 migrants passing through the shelter each month come from Honduras, while the rest mainly come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and from within Mexico. On the pacific side of Mexico, it's more common to see Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

'One way or another, people are going to continue migrating, they'll search for wherever they can get in'

Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are known as the Northern Triangle of Central America. All three are suffering from intense levels of gang-related violence that has left many with little option but to run for their lives.

"The figures are staggering," Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told a news briefing this week. "The number of people fleeing violence in Central America, much of it gang-related, has surged to levels not seen since the 1980s, the period when the region was wracked by armed conflicts."

Trump's xenophobic rhetoric draws on the political hysteria that followed the large influx of unaccompanied Central American children and families reaching the US border in 2014.

At the time President Obama called it a "humanitarian crisis." Then his government leaned on Mexico to solve it, or at least keep it hidden from US eyes.

The Mexican government began a program to step up the interception of migrants in transit throughout the country and deport them quickly.

In 2013, 78,733 Central American migrants were deported by Mexican immigration authorities. That number nearly doubled in 2015, to 151,510.

This crackdown led to a large drop in migrants reaching the US border that, however, was short lived. Between October 2015 and the end of February 2016 there was an 89 percent increase in the apprehensions of unaccompanied children compared to the same period in the previous year. There was also an increase of 149 percent increase in family unit apprehensions.

Related: Migrant Activists Distrust Kerry's Promise to Help Central Americans Fleeing Violence

While levels haven't quite hit those of the 2014 "crisis" — which was heaviest between April to July of that year — they are now not far off.

This fall and subsequent rise has been attributed to a period of time when migrants and human traffickers began searching for less-monitored routes north through Mexico.

The recent uptick could indicate that another crisis is on the horizon as the spring and summer months annually receive the highest number of migrants. It could also be partially explained by a rush to get to the border, just in case Trump's wall is built.

Migrants hop off and on the train that travels just above the Sagrada, Familia, in Apizaco, Tlaxcala. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News).

The idea of a wall isn't new, and, in fact, nearly one-third of the 1,954-mile-long border between the two nations is already fenced.

The US Border Patrol began erecting a 10-foot-high barrier known as the "primary fence" in 1990 between San Diego and Tijuana, which was completed three years later on the first 14 miles of the border beginning at the Pacific Ocean.

In 1996 construction began on another fence parallel to the existing fence, referred to as double-layer fencing. Over nine years, only 9.5 miles were completed due to concerns about both a ballooning budget and the environmental effects of the remaining miles.

Not to be deterred by the incomplete project, US President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in October 2006, which called for an additional 652 miles along the border of double-layer fencing — the same two-fence system attempted between San Diego and Tijuana.

By 2011, at a cost of $2.9 billion, according to a United States Government Accountability Office report, 649 miles of fencing had been built. However, only 36.3 miles of the double-layered fence were completed. More than half of the fence is single-layered, and the remaining 299 miles is a barrier aimed to deter vehicles which any human can easily walk past.

'We have fences, vehicle barriers, and walls today, that are a mishmash of expensive, ineffective, and harmful infrastructure, that does not work, that doesn't serve the purpose that it is intended to serve'

The Fence act also called for the building of a virtual wall — a network of cameras, ground sensors, and radars — designed to monitor border incursions. After a cost of roughly 1 billion dollars, only 53 miles of the virtual wall had been built. President Obama scrapped the plan in 2011.

Activists have been up in arms over the previous fence for years, not only for its high cost and reputed ineffectiveness, but also its environmental impacts.

"Most of (the existing border-fence) was built without regard for environmental and public health protections," said Dan Millis, the Borderlands Campaign Organizer for the Sierra Club.

He said that to accomplish the previous construction 37 laws were waved by the Bush administration, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Related: What Obama's Immigration Crackdown Means for Central American Migrants

"We have fences, vehicle barriers, and walls today, that are a mishmash of expensive, ineffective, and harmful infrastructure, that does not work, that doesn't serve the purpose that it is intended to serve."

According to Millis, a wide variety of species are being affected by the current wall.

"Wildlife is being blocked by existing border walls in their migrations, their habitats severed and fragmented," he said, listing everything from endangered species, to small birds and snakes that have been seriously impacted by the fence. He was concerned an additional wall could be even worse for their habitats.

Trump's wall has also brought spiritual disdain from Pope Francis

"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," he told reporters at the end of his visit to Mexico in February. Trump, who claims to be a Presbyterian, countered by saying the pope was being used "as a pawn" by the Mexican government.

Josh Stallings, a 21-year-old Lutheran missionary from Texas volunteering at the Sagrada Familia shelter, said he also sees the wall in terms of his faith.

"A lot of Christians, what we consider sin is anything that separates people from one another, from creation, and from God," he said, standing in the shelter's concrete courtyard.

"Being on the border, and looking at this wall, it's one of the most stark and obvious examples you can see of sin where's it's just this very trivial separation of people from one another."

A fence separates Juarez from El Paso. On the embankment, someone wrote in large letters, "Berlin Wall". (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News).

Stallings added that, despite growing up three hours from the border, he only realized just how much migrants go through when he spent time at the shelter.

Well-known Mexican migrant rights activist Rubén Figueroa, has helped countless migrants make the trek through Mexico, and studied how ineffective the current fence is at stopping both them and the trafficking of drugs. He is based in the south of Mexico where the crackdown on Central Americans has been most intense and forced migrants to use ever more dangerous and expensive routes.

'Being on the border, and looking at this wall, it's one of the most stark and obvious examples you can see of sin where's it's just this very trivial separation of people from one another'

Figueroa sees Trump's promised wall primarily as political opportunism and believes it will probably never be built. If it were constructed, he said, it would mean yet more dangers for migrants.

"Migration continues, only that now, it costs a lot more, it's more difficult, more dangerous, and there's more money for human traffickers," said Figueroa. "And the same is going to happen if he puts up his wall."

Back in the Sagrada Familia, Lucio Lara, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Oaxaca, said he will continue to try to get to the US, with or without a wall.

"Immigrants are always going to try. The places where they're from, there's no future, there's no way to progress," he said. "Every immigrant is searching for a future for their family, to better their lives, they're not trying to harm anyone."

Sergio González and Lucio Lara had never met before arriving at the Sagrada Familia. They both plan to make it into the United States, wall or no wall. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News).

Lara had already spent three and a half years living in New Jersey and was working to bring his two children to the US as well. He said his last deportation followed a false accusation of sexual assault by the family of a woman he'd only spoken to once. He alleged the cops had beat him, put him in jail without an investigation, then kicked him out of the country.

"You can stop the land, but what happens with the ocean? They're going to row by the ocean, going to construct tunnels," he said of the determination of migrants like him to keep trying. "If Trump constructs this, the only thing that it's going to provoke is death, destruction, chaos. Because the immigrants are not going to stop."

Related: Some Mexicans Celebrated Easter by Burning Effigies of Donald Trump

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz