Q & A with Sally Meisenhelder of La 72

Sally Meisenhelder is a nurse who regularly volunteers at the La 72 shelter.
Boarding La Bestia

Boarding La Bestia

Can you give us a little background about the shelter?

The shelter began in 1995 as a parochial mission, staffed and funded by the Franciscan order. It moved to its new location in 2011 and was renamed La 72 Hogar – Refugio para personas migrantes in honor of the 72 migrants found in a common grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. It is intended to be a home and a refuge where people can receive information and legal services. As the number of people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America increased, the shelter has expanded.

It is probably the most comprehensive shelter in Mexico and the only one I know of where people can stay an unlimited amount of time.

Can you describe how the shelter functions on a regular basis? Who is involved?
Two Franciscan friars are the driving force behind the hogar. A few long term residents are also instrumental in its operation. Recently a couple joined and became volunteer coordinators and operations manager, taking some of the burden off Fray Tomas and Fray Aurelio. The migrants themselves do much of the work of cooking, cleaning and security operations. Doctors without Borders offers the services of a psychologist and a social worker, a worker from the UN provides entertainment and education for the children, Volunteers fill the gaps by staffing a First Aid clinic, an area where migrants can speak with their families and use the internet, receive money sent to migrants from their family, an intake area, a kitchen and the operation of two dormitories, one for men and one for women and children. A lawyer provides representation for those who wish to stay in Mexico and those who qualify for refugee status in Mexico.
It’s located in Tenosique, one of the first stops of La Bestia. How does this affect the shelter?
People arrive there because it is the beginning of the train line north from that part of Mexico.  Trains run on an irregular schedule and are several days apart.  The shelter fills up and empties when a train arrives.  Plan Frontera Sur has changed this dynamic.

What is Plan Fronera Sure and has it been effective? Why or why not?
Plan Frontera Sur was announced in July, 2014 by the President of Mexico about a month after Obama declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” due to the apprehension of 38,833 children “on the run” and alone. At that time Peña Nieto claimed it was a program to protect the human rights of migrants.

To those on the ground the plan is obvious, it closely mirrors U.S. immigration enforcement. The goal appears to be to force migrants into more remote areas and to make passage as difficult as possible. The train now moves rapidly through Tenosique.  If it stops so that people can get on, it probably will stop in an isolated area or a train yard for immigration officials to try to arrest as many migrants as they can.
Plan Frontera Sur seems to be part of the “21st century border” funded by the U.S. government through Plan Merida.  The marines now patrol the rivers between Mexico and Guatemala. I have seen new equipment, identical to that used by U.S. Border Patrol at immigration checkpoints near Tenosique, Palenque and San Cristobal. Changes in Mexican immigration law have made it more difficult for people to receive permission to stay in Mexico if they have been victims of a crime in Mexico. This will make it even more difficult to prosecute corrupt officials and criminal who prey on migrants.

From a human rights standpoint, Plan Frontera Sur has been a disaster. This week there has been much discussion on Frontera list about an article by Valerie Espinosa and Donald Rubin  that documents increased homicide rates in areas where military-style interventions took place. Plan Frontera Sur uses the Army, two branches of federal police, and immigration authorities to enforce immigration law. If this article is predictive, murder rates of migrants will increase.

Each of these agencies has separate checkpoints and everyone, including local people are subjected to scrutiny and extortion along the routes.  There are 3 rings of enforcement, reaching to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. People are now walking into more remote areas to avoid these checkpoints. Forcing migration routes into more remote areas will increase the potential that organized crime will be involved and the cost in human lives and the transit cost to migrants will increase.  This happened in the U.S. as enforcement increased, people were forced into more dangerous routes, cost to the migrants increased and people became merchandise to be moved north.

What Plan Frontera Sur does is move the abuse of migrants away from the view of U.S. citizens. It is an attempt to avoid another public relations disaster like the one that occurred last summer.

You say 90% of those coming to La 72 are Honduran and this is in the wake of more than 70,000 minors crossing the border. What has it been like since then? Has the situation improved at all?

My impression is that the number of children on the run has decreased but this is only one point of entry and if children are coming with a coyote, they may stay in a hotel or safe house instead of in a shelter.  La 72 tries to keep out anyone involved in trafficking of human beings. The U.S. Border Patrol website has confusing information about the numbers of minors.  Always on the lookout for more money, they appear to be saying that they will face another “crisis” this summer.  However, the numbers on the charts show overall the numbers are down compared to last year.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, stated “The federal government has engaged in an aggressive, coordinated response to provide humanitarian care,” and that they have “heightening deterrence, enhancing enforcement, strengthening foreign cooperation and increasing border security.

As a result of these efforts, the number of unaccompanied children attempting to cross the Southwest border has declined precipitously, and the federal government continues to focus its resources prevent a similar situation from developing in the future,” he said.

The large percentage of Hondurans is influenced by the location of Tenosique. Migrants from El Salvador would more likely cross into Tapachula as would most Guatemalans seeking to come north.
Other factors seem to be pushing people out of Honduras.  A fungus, el royo, has decimated the coffee crop, or so many migrants told me.  They had previously been employed on coffee plantations but now there is no work.  I also expect migration out of  the highlands of Chiapas to increase. Lack of rain has ruined the corn crop and there will be no coffee harvest for many due to el royo.  See Christine Eber’s report of a recent trip to Chiapas.

What is the shelter most in need of? Are a majority of the residents families? youths?
It seems to me that donations of money are the most useful and can be used where most needed at the moment. Currently, La 72 is constructing a separate shelter for unaccompanied minors. They now live with the adults in a dormitory setting.  I think money to complete and furnish this is needed.  Also the diet is very unvaried, mostly beans and rice with tortillas.  Some vegetables and fruit are donated by local businesses but not enough.
The majority are men traveling without their families. There are some families and some unaccompanied minors.
What changes need to be made?

As a nurse and a fan of Paul Farmer, I join him in advocating pragmatic solidarity. In other words put your money and your body where your mouth is. Join with La 72 and demand an end to Plan Frontera Sur and by extension, Plan Merida.  Demand a right to migrate. Volunteer with local agencies serving migrants.

Donations can be sent to La 72 through this link

About virginiaisaad

Virginia is a journalist based in Los Angeles who's written for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Upworthy, and Elite Daily. She was born in Argentina and raised in the San Fernando Valley along with her three siblings. Fun fact: She took a Chicanas and Feminism course with Eva Longoria while studying for her master's in mass communication at California State University, Northridge. Follow her on Twitter @virginiaisaad

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