Posted by Katie Schlechter – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU
At this point in my research/reporting trip, I’ve visited five different migrant shelters in four different states. I’ve spent time in shelters just a few hours drive from the US-Mexico border and I’ve been in casas 45 minutes from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. One thing I’ve found at every single shelter is boredom, and the occasional wave of desperation that comes with being stuck in one place for a long period of time.
The boredom hits different people for different reasons. In the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo, for example, migrants are not allowed to leave the shelter during the day except for work. This is for security reasons, as the northern region of the country is full of Zeta operatives and scammers who specialize in tricking migrants into letting them be their “guide.” The rule is supposed to limit the daily traffic of people in and out of the casa.
Some people are also staying at the shelter in Saltillo long term, so not only are they unable to leave during the day, but they may be stuck there for weeks or months. The longer-term residents generally have set jobs to help run the shelter, like working as a cook in the kitchen or operating the phones where families of migrants call in to speak with their loved ones. A few of the guys work the “guardia,” and are responsible for attending to the front gate 24-hours a day. Most of the people I talked to with set jobs like these share the same philosophy of, “Well, if I’m going to be stuck here, I might as well make myself useful.”
Working in the shelters is a way to stave off boredom and make a contribution to the shelter for the services received. The migrants who work seem to carry themselves with a bit more confidence. They have important responsibilities, and the staff and other migrants rely on them. Their jobs satisfy that inherent human desire to be needed. It also takes the edge off of that gnawing feeling that they are just watching their lives go by as they wait for more money to come in from family or plan their next move.
At the La 72 shelter in Tenosique, migrants are allowed to leave during the day. Yet the desperation of time passing by is still present. Many of the individuals who travel through Tenosique decide to apply for asylum or safe passage. Women and LGBTQ migrants often have good cases for asylum, and others become convinced to apply after simply hearing too many stories of the horrors that await them once they cross into the contiguous state of Veracruz. Asylum enables them to stay in Mexico and eventually regularize their status here, and safe passage at least gives them the legal permission to travel to the US-Mexico border with a diminished fear of deportation during the journey.
While their asylum application is being processed by COMAR, the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees, migrants have to stay in the same state where they first applied. Every Monday for six weeks they have to trek over to the COMAR office to sign a paper proving that they are still there, waiting patiently on their case. But for migrants who are staying in a shelter, often with over a hundred other people, this can be a lot to ask. It’s a long time to go sleeping in a bunk bed in a room with 30 other people, waiting in line to shower every day, eating the same rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and having to follow the rules of the shelter, no matter how justified they may be.
All of this waiting around means people have to find creative ways to entertain themselves. While some choose to work, there are only a certain number of regular jobs at the shelters to go around. At the casa in Saltillo, some people played checkers or worked out on rusty weightlifting equipment during the cooler morning hours. Others sat around and just smoked, joked, talked and stared.
To my surprise, a number of the guys spent their days immersed in personal grooming rituals. The shelter has an electric razor and a lot of the young men know how to cut hair. So by day, the common area turns into a hair salon. A clear plastic trash bag with “Casa del Migrante Saltillo” scrawled across it in permanent marker serves as the cape to protect the stylee from their falling locks. For finishing touches and precision lines around the ears, forehead and neck, the stylist wields a small, bent razor blade. The results are impressive. These guys are walking around with sharper cuts than ones I’ve seen in Brooklyn.
One day in casa in Saltillo I happened upon two friends sprawled out on the couch in the common area. One of the men was seated and the other was lying down with his head in his friend’s lap. The seated guy was bent over him with a look of intense concentration, plucking his friend’s eyebrows. I was struck by the tenderness of the moment, as well as the vanity. They were both from Honduras and traveling together.
The proximity of Tenosique to the border with Guatemala means that there is plenty of wildlife to be found. On one of my last days at La 72 shelter, I noticed a small crowd gathered around Carolina, a woman who has been at the casa for about eight months. She’s currently waiting for her asylum application to go through so that she can move to Mexico City to live with her cousin who is already settled there.
I walked over to them and saw that she had a bright green lizard cupped in her hands. Everyone was ooing and awing over it’s striking color and long scaly tail. Carolina had found it just outside of the casa while she was passing the day there with her friends. Somehow it was decided that the lizard was a lady lizard, though I’m not sure who among the crowd had the biological expertise to determine this. Esperanza, as she was christened, was clearly the entertainment for the next few days. Carolina prepared a little home for her out of an old box and fed her rice from her bowl at meals. It became another way to pass the time. This week Carolina hopes to finally be granted asylum after her long wait, but she doesn’t plan to bring her new companion with her to the big city.