A pastor was kidnapped. White tents go up. In Nuevo Laredo, the border crisis is reaching a tipping point

The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is succeeding in limiting the number of people attempting to cross the border. But locals say the policy is failing to ensure humane conditions for asylum-seekers who await their court dates. 


Across a bridge that connects Texas and Mexico over the Rio Grande, a modest shelter sits behind brick pillars and a 15-foot wall. The street is narrow and lined with cars, most of which are either totaled or missing license plates. A tangle of telephone and electrical wires hangs overhead. 

This is Casa del Migrante Amar, a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for those hoping to cross into the United States and claim asylum. Their journey is not as straightforward as it once was because of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Those who are serious about their claims will stay in Mexico for weeks or months awaiting a court date, in a sort of no man’s land between two worlds. 

Pastor Aarón Méndez is known as the director of the shelter. In recent photos, he wears rectangle-rimmed glasses and a gentle smile. 

But on Aug. 3, armed men stormed the shelter threatening to take the Cuban migrants staying there hostage, with the goal of extorting their families for cash. According to local sources, Pastor Méndez offered himself instead, and he has been missing ever since. 

The incident highlights the increasingly complex dynamic along the border over the past seven months as more than 30,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which was implemented here in July and is meant to discourage false asylum claims.

Honduran migrants Cesar Sagastume, 30, (left) and his son Cesar Sagastume, 8, walk across International Bridge No. 2, from Laredo, Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico after being received by Mexican immigration officials from Border Patrol agents, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

It is not known who kidnapped Pastor Mendez. But organized crime is rampant and kidnappings are a daily occurrence in the city, where vulnerable migrants are often targeted.

“The cartels can do whatever they want,” said a source close to Mendez who is currently in hiding for his safety and asked that his identity not be revealed. “They kidnap, they kill people. Nobody can stop them.”

Solutions to the humanitarian crisis on the border remain elusive. On Thursday, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah was in Central America working to negotiate a safe third country agreement that would require asylum seekers who travel through Guatemala to first seek refuge there.

Can Utah Sen. Mike Lee bring us a step closer to solving America’s immigration crisis?

But here along the border, answers are much more urgent and manifest themselves in ways that seem, at best, makeshift and temporary. The most recent example: white plastic tents in front of Laredo’s historic La Posada hotel. The tents, scheduled to open in mid-September, will be used as courtrooms where judges will review asylum cases via remote video conferencing (the migrants will appear from the tents while a judge watches via video stream in a courthouse miles away). The mayor’s public information officer, Rafael Benavides, said that if the tent court operation is a success, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is looking to replicate them across the border, further entrenching the “Remain in Mexico” policy.  

A view of the tents behind La Posada Hotel, to be used as temporary courtrooms in asylum hearings, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Laredo, Texas. ( Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News ) | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

“In my opinion, the issue of migrants is too often turned into a matter of politics where everyone is looking for their own benefits and disregarding the dignity of human beings,” said Pastor Julio Lopez, who manages a shelter called Casa Nazareth in Nuevo Laredo.

Remain in Mexico 

The “Remain in Mexico” policy is succeeding in limiting the number of people attempting to cross the border, says Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz. Since the policy was implemented, the number of apprehensions at the border has dropped 38 percent, according to Border Patrol. However, while shelters on both sides of the border are no longer operating at full capacity, they are still in need of resources. And policy is failing to ensure humane conditions for genuine asylum-seekers who intend to await their court dates. 

The Mexican government funds one shelter in Nuevo Laredo. There are a couple of portable toilets in the courtyard and a washroom where water is dispensed from a hose attached to a pipe, grimy mats are stacked in the large, communal rooms, and a handful of fans are the only escape from searing heat which often reaches more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Migrants say they receive little to eat and are expected to buy their own basic necessities like food and soap. Last week, five women were kidnapped when they went out to go shopping, according to shelter resident Deyli Claros, 17, from Honduras.

Four other shelters in the area are able to house about 100 people each and receive limited government support.  

A view of a sleeping area in the Nuevo Laredo city government shelter, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

“What we do not have is the certainty of where we will get the resources for operating expenses,” said Pastor Lopez with Casa Nazareth, which he said receives less than 20 percent of its funding from the state and municipal government. “The rest of the financing, we have to get it with the support of other people of good heart.” 

Despite prohibitively complicated customs rules and the danger posed by cartels, Texas religious groups including Catholic Charities, the Holding Institute and Sisters of Mercy are trying to fill the gap by transporting supplies like food, clothing and toiletries across the border. 

Benjamin De La Garza from Catholic Charities said that on a weekly basis, volunteers take small loads — a couple of boxes or bags at a time — across the border to migrants in need. It’s risky because people transporting any resources of value could attract attention from criminals who might step in and demand payment from the benefactor, said Pastor Mike Smith with the Holding Institute.

A view of Casa Del Migrante AMAR, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

The Laredo Texas Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is coordinating with these organizations to try to provide additional support, according to stake president Ted Wagner.

“My personal feeling about the whole situation is that it transcends any political issues,” Wagner said. “It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on; it’s a humanitarian crisis.” 

Liz Edwards, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Boston, said she and her family got connected with the Holding Institute and decided to raise money and collect toys and hygiene kits for the Casa del Migrante Amar shelter. Just days after Pastor Méndez was kidnapped, she and two of her daughters visited the Nuevo Laredo shelter to deliver some of the items. Despite safety concerns, they felt it was the right thing to do because personally transporting a small load of donated items in a vehicle is the only way to ensure delivery to the shelter.

In a place where outside help is rarely found sisters, Hannah, far left, and Maddie Edwards, far right, play with grateful kids at Casa Migrante Del Amar in Nuevo Laredo.  | Photo by Liz Edwards
Hannah, Maddie and Liz Edwards (shown left to right) outside of Casa Migrante Del Amar after their visit to the Nuevo Laredo shelter last week. | Photo by Paster Ortiz.

“It was heart-wrenching to see these beautiful families and hear their stories along with some of the dangers of the journey they had endured getting to this place, hoping to make a better life for themselves,” Edwards said. 

“At the end of the day, we were able to walk away from the danger, and they were not. It was really hard to see that reality.” 

People in need  

The Casa del Migrante Amar shelter consists of several rooms filled with iron cots that open up to a small concrete courtyard, said Edwards. As of Wednesday, a state police vehicle was stationed outside the shelter providing additional surveillance. A doorman refused to let reporters into the shelter or answer any questions about the kidnapping.

“I know a lot of people are afraid to talk,” said the source close to Pastor Méndez. “They don’t want to say anything, even if they know something.”

Over the past several months, need at the Nuevo Laredo shelters has fluctuated wildly as an initial surge in migrants was met with the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and then the state government in Mexico started busing migrants out of town to distant cities like Monterey and Chiapas. Casa del Migrante Amar officially has room for 100 people, but earlier this summer, it was housing close to 450, shelter worker Erbin Ortiz told the Mexican media. On Wednesday, the doorman said there were fewer than 40 people inside.  

According to Alberto Carrasco, bureau chief at El Mañana de Nuevo Laredo newspaper, word has spread quickly that people are no longer being allowed into the United States and that it is dangerous to stay in Nuevo Laredo. 

People like Cesar Sagastume, 30, from Choloma, Honduras, are giving up on their hope for a new start in the United States and going home. On Wednesday, Sagastume was ushered across one of the international bridges that extends across the greenish waters of the Rio Grande with six other migrants from Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Three days earlier he had attempted to cross into the United States at Piedras Negras with a plan to claim asylum. With one hand, Sagastume held on to his 8-year-old son, and with the other, he clutched a clear plastic bag full of papers that explained the Migration Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” policy. 

Honduran migrants Cesar Sagastume, 30, and his son Cesar Sagastume, 8, pause outside the Mexican Immigration Offices Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

Sagastume, over 6 feet tall and thin, said there were no economic opportunities in Honduras and that he struggled to feed his family working construction jobs. But when asked if he would wait in Nuevo Laredo for his court date to claim asylum, he said, “no way.” When asked if he would try again to come to the United States, he said he didn’t think so. He has been mugged twice on his way to the border, he said. The journey is too perilous. Even the short walk from the immigration office to shelters in Nuevo Laredo can be risky for the migrants, who stand out with their foreign accents and missing shoelaces. 

“I would rather be in jail on the other side than be here.” — Misael Palacio

Still, some migrants are desperate enough that they are willing to risk living in Nuevo Laredo. Misael Palacio, 37, from San Rafael, El Salvador is determined to appear for his court date on Oct. 23. He brought his two sons, ages 3 and 12, to the U.S. border, he said, after he was threatened by gang members at home. The day after he was released back into Nuevo Laredo from the United States under the “Remain in Mexico” policy,” he and his kids were nearly kidnapped by four men who tried to force them into a vehicle. Palacio escaped by holding onto his kids and running into oncoming traffic, he said. 

Palacio’s case will be adjudicated in a tent. The U.S. federal government is spending $75 million to build and operate tent courtrooms at the border in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, according to documents provided to the city of Laredo. 

In the meantime, people like Palacio are left in limbo. At the Nuevo Laredo city government shelter where he is staying, ceiling fans stir the hot air, doing nothing to disperse the smell of urine. Palacio cannot stay at the shelter indefinitely, and eventually he says he will have to find work in Nuevo Laredo in order to survive. Carrasco said migrants like Palacio who are subject to “Remain in Mexico” are given a 180-day permit to work in Mexico, but it is hard enough for Nuevo Laredo locals to find jobs and even harder for migrants.  

“I would rather be in jail on the other side than be here,” Palacio said through tears. 

Honduran migrant Deyli Claros, 17, colors with her brother Kenneth, 5, in the Nuevo Laredo city government shelter, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. | Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

International humanitarian law adopted by the United States says, “No State Party shall expel, return, or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 

But David Almaraz, a federal defense lawyer who lives in Laredo, says that migrants sent to Mexico who are being held hostage, threatened and harmed by cartels seeking ransom payments from their families are experiencing the textbook definition of torture and the United States is not fulfilling its obligation to protect human rights. 

“The phenomenon of migration does not stop building either iron or concrete walls or human walls of armed police at a border.” — Pastor Lopez

Almaraz says the “Remain in Mexico” policy is part of a broader strategy by the Trump administration to discourage Hispanic people from trying to come to the U.S. in the first place.

On Wednesday, The Trump administration unveiled a new regulation that would allow migrant families to be detained indefinitely. Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. said letting asylum-seekers stay in the U.S. pending their asylum hearings and allowing parents with children to be released from detention while they are in removal proceedings will only encourage people to make the dangerous journey to the southern border and put themselves and their children at risk.

Pastor Lopez with Casa Nazareth says solutions have to focus on human dignity. 

“The phenomenon of migration does not stop building either iron or concrete walls or human walls of armed police at a border. The problem of migration is more complex and requires cooperation between countries on policies that are more effective and directly reach the most vulnerable,” he said.