If Walls Could Speak: Asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico.

Ada Trillo

2017 - Ongoing

Benito Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico

IF WALLS COULD SPEAK is a glimpse into the besieged hopes, harsh uncertainties, and blunt realities—but also the enduring dignity—of Central American asylum-seekers forced into a cruel and dangerous waiting game by Trump’s "Remain in Mexico" policy. The individuals and families in these photographs have experienced unthinkable traumas and faced impossible decisions. I hope that viewers around the world can begin to understand the odysseys many have undertaken to provide a brighter future for themselves and their children – only to be mistreated and sent back across the US/Mexico border to Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

I a product of the US Mexican border. I was born in El Paso, Texas but my home was in Juarez Mexico where I lived with my parents. As a teenager I traveled back and forth from Juarez to El Paso so I could attend school in America. I was very lucky. During my daily trips that took place over six years (from middle school to high school) I have early memories of watching immigrants travel by inflatable boats to illegally cross the border.

As an American citizen I was able to to make this trip quite easily but I became aware of the difficulties of others trying to cross the same boundary. Today those difficulties are quite extraordinary.

In 2017, I returned to my hometown of Juarez, Mexico to focus on a project about asylum seekers stuck in border towns along the US/Mexico border. In the past 3 years much has changed for those seeking asylum. The Trump administration has drastically cut the number of refugees that the United States will accept and is now requiring anyone seeking asylum to remain in the first country where they land. As a result, many migrants are now trapped in Juarez, Tijuana and Tapachula.

The work that I’ve been making over the past 3 years has touched me in a way that is hard to describe. I learned much about the hope and desperation people have faced in their journey towards a better life. I am aware that borders serve an important purpose but the United States was made great by the immigrants who founded it and it could be made greater still by those who are in need.

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  • Migrants Board a Bus in Navojoa,
    Navajoa, Mexico 2018

    Migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatamala, also known as, “The Northern Triangle,” get on a bus in Navojoa headed for Tijuana. The Mexican government stepped in to provide safe passage across the Narco States of Sonora and Sinaloa after 100 migrants were kidnapped in the state of Puebla.

  • Emi, at the migrant shelter.
    Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Emi is the oldest daughter of Mayda Candi Perez. She was separated from her mother and sister at the US/Mexican Border because she is 18-years-old and must be processed as an adult. Emi was raped after she was left by herself at the border. She is currently held at a detention center in Texas waiting for her asylum case to be processed.

  • Ismael inside the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Ismael is from Michoacán, Mexico and has spent 10 years with his family in the United States. Working as a chef in Seattle he was detained by police for a driving violation, then confined for not having proper documentation. He was sent to Tacoma, Washington for over four months to await a court hearing. He has since been returned to Mexico and is no longer allowed into the US. He is currently attempting to apply for asylum. His original reason for leaving Mexico was to escape the dangers of living in the Narco State of Michoacán.

  • Mayda was raped by 2 men in Guatemala on her way home from work on February 18, 2019. They threatened to rape and murder her 2 young daughters, Azuscena and Emi (15 and 18 years old) if she reported the crime. Then, on May 8th, on her way home from the supermarket, they attempted to kidnap her. They told her they would not rest until they raped and killed them all. The gangs threatened her daughters at school, telling the girls that they must join the gang, or else they would be raped and killed.

    After Mayda and her family fled Guatemala, Mayda was once again threatened with rape- this time by the Mexican police they encountered when they turned themselves in at the US/Mexico border. At the same time, Mayda’s daughter Emi was separated from the family because she was 18 years old and was processed as an adult. Ultimately, the rest of the family was admitted to the US where they were able to reuinte with Mayda’s husband in San Francisco. Emi however, was returned to Mexico and raped while waiting for her asylum hearing in the US. She is currently held at a detention center in Texas for her case to be processed.

  • Delmi and her three children at the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Delmi, a single mother, left Honduras with her three children after being extorted by gangs who threatened to kill her. She traveled north to the US border to apply for asylum and was rejected and returned to Mexico where she feels her life is in danger. Her children are sick after being fed frozen sandwiches and over chlorinated water. They argued that the living conditions in the US detention center were unsanitary, which has been widely reported in the media. Delmi has found refuge at the migrant center and is currently awaiting an asylum hearing.

  • “Dinner at The Migrant Shelter”
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Lucinda and her children eat dinner with other migrants at Casa del Migrante in Juarez, Mexico.
    Lucinda left San Pedro Sula, Honduras and to escape extortion from the
    MS-13 gang. She said the gang was responsible for the murder of several members of
    her family and multiple deaths in her community. Out of fear for her life, Lucinda crossed the Rio Grande with her two young children and surrendered herself to ICE when she made it onto US soil. She was held at the El Paso Texas immigration facility and remarks that it was so crowded that people could not lay down and they had no access to a shower. The U.S. sent Lucinda and her kids back to Mexico to wait for her asylum hearing.

    Migrants staying at the shelter are fed beans and rice two times a day during their stay and a doughnut, coffee or milk for breakfast. The Mexican Government takes no part in
    maintaining La Casa Del Migrante. The shelter which can only hold 400 migrants at a time, is run by the Catholic Church which limits their stay to 3 months at a time.

  • La Princessa, at the Benito Juarez Shelter
    November 21st, 2018 - Tijuana Baja California.

    I met Diana, 8 years old, on November 21st, in Tijuana at the Benito Juarez shelter. The Benito Juarez shelter is now closed because of health issues and poor sanitation. The migrants are now scattered in multiple other shelters and scared of being displaced even further. Diana had been traveling with her family from Honduras. When they left home to join the caravan they only traveled with a backpack and relied on donations of clothes and shoes. That day, the clothing donations came in and Diana managed to get the princess dress, despite the fact that other girls wanted it. "Lo agarre." (I got it.) “Hoy me toca a mi.” (Today is my turn.) Despite all of the filth and hunger I had witnessed during my journey with the migrant caravan, an 8-year-old girl was able to be a princess for a day.

  • Laura and Her Daughter
    October 20, 2018, Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico

    After a nearly 500-mile trek, Laura and her daughter, Erika, crossed to Mexico via the Suchiate River. Physically exhausted, Laura told me her story: "I'm escaping poverty and violence. I want to work but there are no jobs." In Honduras Laura, age 19, lived in a neighborhood plagued by gang tyranny. The Barrio 18 gang controlled the police and terrorized locals. Travelling without a stroller, Laura was forced to carry her baby for the duration of the migration. Out of desperation, Laura would give Erika sugar-water to fill the toddler’s empty stomach. I was curious if she would stay in Mexico, or travel to the U.S., despite Trump’s strict laws. She told me that God will change the president's heart. “America is my dream.”

  • Seeking Asylum, San Ysidro Bridge.
    November 22nd, 2018. Tijuana, Mexico.

    Taken at the San Ysidro border, this picture depicts a mother and her child who were prevented from seeking asylum in the US by Mexican police blocking the pedestrian walkway. After travelling over 2,700 miles from Honduras, migrants had been placed by Mexican officials into a makeshift shelter in a converted open-air sports arena. They awoke hungry on Thanksgiving Day, as rain worsened the unsanitary conditions in the already-packed shelter. Migrants then walked to the border, attempting to present themselves as asylum seekers to the US immigration authorities, but were blocked. Municipal authorities in Tijuana have said they are unequipped to handle the growing numbers of refugees seeking asylum, both in the United States and Mexico. The latest numbers have 6,219 migrants based in Tijuana with an additional 1,669 migrants trekking toward Baja California from the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Sinaloa. According to the local newspapers, there’s an estimated 18,000 asylum seekers and migrants waiting for their asylum trials in the city of Juarez alone.

  • Loss Of Hope, Sandra inside the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Sandra, 12 years old, is from Guatemala and hopes to be reunited with her father in Alabama. Along with her mom and her two sisters (ages 8 and 4) they were taken into custody by the US Border Patrol and released in Mexico.
    Sandra says their imprisonment was terrifying. They were mistreated by guards, under fed and held in a detention facility that migrants call “Hielera,” which means ice box.

  • Maria Fernanda
    2018, On the Road in Chiapas

    Maria Fernanda, age 15, is dressed as boy to protect herself during her journey from Honduras to Tijuana. As many as three out of five women and girls are raped during migrant journeys according to Amnesty International. Maria disguised herself as a boy for her safety.

  • Maria and her son.
    Tapachula, Chiapas Mexico, 2018

    Maria and her son fled Honduras to escape the M13 gang when she was unable to pay her monthly extortion fees. As a result, gang members robbed her house and attempted to recruit her son. Immediately after, they joined the migrant caravan.

  • Waiting for “La Bestia.”
    Apiazco Tlazcala, Mexico, 2017

    Alberto 17, Alejandro 21 and Christian 17 (from left to right) wait to board La Bestia, known as “the train on death.” La Bestia is a Mexican freight network that is utilized by migrants and asylum seekers to traverse Mexico without a coyote (smuggler) which can charge thousands of dollars. The three hope to get a job in the U.S. because the economic crisis in their country is out of hand and they feel there is no hope if they stay in Honduras.

    It’s estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 migrants, the majority from the northern triangle, ride at the top of the trains every year. The train is meant to transports goods not people. The migrants who ride the train risk their lives as they ride on top the cars and often physically tie themselves down with rope. Many deaths and severe injures have occurred. Beyond the dangers of the train, migrants are also subject to extortion and violence at the hands of the police and organized crime groups who see them as a easy and vulnerable target.

  • Bridge of the Americas
    Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    A bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez, to El Paso, Texas bares the direct effects of “metering” and other oppressive US immigration policies. Metering is the practice by which the US Customs and Border Protection Agency limits the number of asylum-seekers who can be processed at designated ports of entry each day. Recent figures reveal that there are approximately 19,000 asylum-seekers who have been turned away at the border, forced to wait in Mexico. A class action lawsuit filed against CBP in 2018 states, “that asylum seekers are subject to dangerous conditions of rampant crime and violence by gangs and cartels on the Mexican side of the border.” Furthermore, CBP’s metering system “creates unreasonable and life-threatening delays in processing asylum seekers. The lawsuit also alleged that CBP officials have discouraged aliens from pursuing asylum by forcibly removing them from ports of entry, threatening them with prolonged detention or separation from their children, and falsely telling them that they can no longer pursue asylum due to changes in U.S. law. “ Source: The Department of Homeland Security’s Reported “Metering” Policy: Legal Issues Hillel R. Smith Legislative Attorney August 13, 2019.

  • Olga and her son at migrant shelter
    Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Olga was pregnant when she left El Salvador, giving birth in Tapachula, Mexico near the border with Guatemala. They made it to the US border and hired a coyote to get them across. Her baby was too small to cross by river or desert so they traveled through a tunnel. Everyone talks of Trumps Wall but tunnels illegally constructed by cartels are widely used by migrants. The price can be steep, upwards of 5,000 USD, half of which is due in advance.

    Olga and her son were arrested soon after they reached the United States by US Border Patrol and returned to Mexico without explanation, just a number to show up at the border to apply for asylum.

    Olga fled domestic violence fearing her alcoholic husband would kill her and her child. She wants to give her son a better future.

  • Napoliano, in the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Napolinario and his mother were kidnapped and held for 3 months by gang members in their hometown of Guatemala City, before fleeing north. Napolinario is 12 years old and has not seen his father in 9 years, who is currently in Seattle, Washington. Napolinario and his mother were apprehended trying to cross the US border and sent back to Mexico to wait for their asylum hearing.

  • Azuscena’s Quinceañera at the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Azuscena, the daughter of Mayda Candi Perez celebrates her quinceañera at a migrant shleter in Juarez, Mexico. She and her family barely escaped being kidnapped by the Mexican police before finding safety at the shelter. Thanks to some assistance, she was able to have a Quinceañera and donned a princess gown for the event. Everyone could feel her joy during this special moment. At the time this photo was taken their asylum claim had not yet been processed. It was an unconventional Quinceañera because the guests were all other migrants and asylum seekers, living in the shelter, brought together by their quest for a safer life.

  • Jackeline and Cintia, the migrant shelter.
    Casa del Migrante - Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    Jackeline and Cintia, a lesbian couple, fled Honduras in fear for their lives as a result of their sexual orentation. The journey north was treacherous. For four days they went without food. When they finally arrived at the US border the women were denied the right to an asylum number.

    The couple found temporary refuge at the migrant shelter in Juarez but they had to conceal their relationship because the shelter is run by the Catholic Church. Days after this photograph was taken, with the help of OIM, (Organismo de Naciones Unidas Para La Migración) Jackeline and Cintia managed to find their way back to Honduras to an uncertain future.

  • Boy Crossing the Rio Grande
    Juarez, Mexico, 2019

    A boy braves the Rio Grande trying to reach the U.S. Hundreds of migrants die at the southern U.S. border every year. The group Border Angels estimates that since 1994, about 10,000 people have died in their attempt to cross border. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 7,216 people have died crossing the U.S–Mexico border between 1998 and 2017 but this number only reflects known deaths, not missing persons.

  • Miguel
    Arriaga Chiapas, Mexico 2017.

    Miguel, 25 years old, was kidnapped by the Zetas Cartel while getting off the La Bestia train in Arriaga Chiapas. The Cartel demanded Miguel give them his families phone number so they could attempt to extort ransom for his life. Miguel refused and the Cartel cut off his hands to send a message to others.