Originally Published in The New Yorker.
By Eric Lach
February 12, 2019
On Monday night, in El Paso, Texas, President Trump will hold a rally to press his case for a wall on the southern border. A counter-event, against the wall, is set to take place less than a mile away—Beto O’Rourke, El Paso’s former congressman and a potential 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, will be there, as will Veronica Escobar, O’Rourke’s successor in Congress. Hours before those two events, though, a less widely noted but no less urgent event was hosted by Annunciation House, a migrant shelter that has been, as its executive director, Ruben Garcia, said, “on the front lines,” helping undocumented people navigate the traps and horrors of federal immigration policy.
The event was a chance for the press to hear from migrants themselves. It took place in an Annunciation House building not far from the Paso del Norte bridge, one of the main border crossings connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Garcia sat at folding tables alongside two families of recent migrants and a man who received asylum after fleeing to the U.S. from El Salvador, in the nineteen-eighties. Other migrants stood behind them. “We’re here this morning to talk about the criminalization of refugees,” Garcia said. A reporter asked Garcia, in Spanish, what he thought of Trump’s wall. Garcia answered in Spanish. “Could you say that in English, please?” another reporter asked. Garcia obliged. “The question was whether or not the construction of the wall is designed to correlate the criminalization of the immigrant with the wall,” he said. “And the response was that, obviously, it very much is. There is an incessant mantra coming from the Administration that they are criminal, they are criminal, that they are a threat, that they are a danger—even though that is not the truth.”
The people beside Garcia told their stories. Yeimi, who sat with her two little daughters, arrived in the U.S. on October 7th. Despite the fact that the government has—officially—stopped separating families at the border, following court orders and a public outcry this summer, Yeimi had been separated from her daughters, who are U.S. citizens, since the day that they arrived until last Friday. Hector and Glenda, a married couple from Honduras, sat with their sons. (Garcia asked the press not to use the migrants’ last names so as to avoid unnecessarily complicating their immigration cases.) Beside them was Oscar Vides, who fled El Salvador when he was thirteen, after his parents were killed, and then was granted asylum in the U.S., along with his siblings. He now works for a pharmaceutical company. “I’ve volunteered at my son’s school. I’ve paid lots of taxes. I vote. I consider myself a productive, contributing member of the El Paso community,” he said, in gently accented English. He was wearing a suit and a striped tie.
A reporter asked them for their thoughts on Trump’s visit to El Paso. What would they tell the President? “My message for the President is: Is it too much to ask for an opportunity—an opportunity to be here and work for my family?” Glenda said. Vides spoke last. “As you can see by our stories,” he said, “we didn’t choose to be born in a country; I didn’t choose this color”—he pointed to his own face—“I came here for a better opportunity, and I think I’ve shown you that I am here because of the opportunity that was given. I’m not a criminal. I’m not a rapist. I’m not a drug dealer.”