Tracing The Migrant Journey: On The Ground In San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico

By Murphy Woodhouse, Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, August 19, 2019 - 11:25am
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 2:11pm

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Series supported in part by Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust

Aug. 19, 2019

LAUREN GILGER: This week, we're continuing KJZZ's special Fronteras Desk reporting project called "Tracing The Migrant Journey." So far, we've heard dispatches from Honduras, the Mexico-Guatemala border and Guadalajara, Mexico. And now we head to the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, just a 45-minute drive south of Yuma. We've got KJZZ's Murphy Woodhouse on the line from there. Good morning, Murphy.

group of asylum seekers waits near the Port of Entry
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
A group of asylum seekers waits near the Port of Entry in August 2019, making sure that the order of the asylum wait list is respected.

MURPHY WOODHOUSE: Good morning, Lauren.

GILGER: OK, so paint the scene for us a little bit. What what San Luis like, and how does it fit into the migrant journey that you and your colleagues are documenting here?

WOODHOUSE: So, San Luis is a hot, flat and dusty border city of about 200,000 people. It is also one of many cities along the border where there are waitlists for people hoping to cross at ports of entry to request asylum. By the most recent count here, the list here in San Louise's over 1,100. And every day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they contact the main migrant shelter — and they're the folks who manage that list — to say how many asylum requests they'll be allowing in that day. And that is the policy of metering that listeners may have heard about. And there are lists as long or even much longer, elsewhere along the border. I was reading recent reports of as many as 10,000 people on comparable lists in Tijuana. And this, and also the policy of sending some of those who request asylum back to Mexico as their cases proceed, that's known as the "Remain in Mexico" program. That has resulted in thousands of asylum seekers being stuck along the border in places like San Luis.

GILGER: And that list that you mentioned, this is an actual physical list, right? How does this all work?

Carlos Gutierrez and Alisday Palma
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Carlos Gutierrez and Alisday Palma are a Cuban couple hoping to cross in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, and ask for asylum.

WOODHOUSE: Yep, it is a big, handwritten ledger full of hundreds of names, nationalities, phone numbers, family size, etc. Each is assigned a number reflecting the order in which they arrived. And I've actually got some tape of that list in action.

MARTIN SALGADO: "Hijo, no voy a colgar, voy a contestar aquel. No cuelgues ..."

WOODHOUSE: So, that's a Martin Salgado. He runs the — or helps run, rather — than the Divine Providence migrant shelter here in San Luis. That's the biggest, and kind of, principal shelter. That is him literally putting his own son on hold to take a call from someone who is on the list. He is constantly taking calls from one of several phones he has at the ready. Rare is five minutes that will go by without at least one of those phones ringing. And that asylum seeker, he wants to know where things were on the list, what numbers were being called, so he would have an idea of when he'd need to get back from nearby Mexicali. Martin went on to tell him that that things are moving pretty fast, and that he needs to have his phone at the ready. Ready for a call and ready to move to get back to San Luis. The system is simple, if a little cold. If your numbers called, and you aren't on hand, the list moves on without you and onto the hundreds of others that are also waiting.

GILGER: And you went to the border with several people whose numbers were called. Tell us about them.

WOODHOUSE: Yes. So, on Saturday afternoon, U.S. port officials called for a handful of people, and I tagged along with a Mexican woman and her young daughter, as well as a man from Cuba — Marco Enrique Sanchez. And he had — that was the end of about five months of waiting in San Luis before he crossed. He had been hoping to get to his father in Las Vegas, who was in poor health. But his father did sadly die during his nearly yearlong journey, but it wasn't just getting to his father that was motivating him. He was also, as he described, it fed up with restrictions on free speech in his home country of Cuba and also limitations that he ran into trying to get a butcher business off the ground. And we've actually got a bite from him, and there is a little bit of construction noise at the shelter in the background.

Emilio Garcia
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Emilio Garcia is an asylum seeker from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. He spends many days near the port of entry helping to ensure that the asylum wait list is respected.

MARCO ENRIQUE SANCHEZ: "No me siento bien en Cuba. No quiero estar en Cuba. No quiero ir ni de visita a Cuba."

WOODHOUSE: And so what he's saying there is, "I don't feel good in Cuba. I don't want to be in Cuba. I don't even want to visit Cuba." So, not at all mincing words. And then also worth pointing out that his journey was absolutely extraordinary as it is for for many of the Africans who end up in San Luis and other in other cities along the border. He started in French Guiana in South America and made it mostly on foot and bus and another means of transportation all the way to San Luis. And even was on foot through the jungle between Panama and Colombia. That's that's the famous — or perhaps, rather, infamous — Darien Gap that's almost entirely undeveloped.

GILGER: Wow. And I understand Cubans are one of the more sizable groups on the San Luis asylum list, right? And there are other nationalities there that haven't gotten as much attention as Central American asylum seekers we hear a lot about.

WOODHOUSE: Yes. So, as of the most recent tally, which was done over the weekend, Cubans are the fourth largest group on the list and they're at about 46. Any they're also a pretty substantial nationality a border-wide among asylum seekers. The second largest group after Mexican nationals on this list, again, just this list in San Luis, are people from the African country of Cameroon. Asylum seekers from Eritrea are also fairly numerous. And I even spoke with two people from Uganda, both of whom cited political violence and persecution as reasons for leaving.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. That is KJZZ's Murphy Woodhouse joining us from San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. Murphy, thank you again.

WOODHOUSE: I always enjoy it. Thank you.

GILGER: And we'll hear more from Murphy tomorrow in San Luis, and then "Tracing The Migrant Journey" heads north of the border. You can learn more about the series at Our correspondents are also sharing the reporting on Twitter with the hashtag #MigrantJourney.

Aug. 20, 2019

LAUREN GILGER: And now let's continue our Fronteras Desk series, "Tracing The Migrant Journey." This morning, we're back on the Mexican side of the border in San Luis Rio Colorado with KJZZ's Murphy Woodhouse. Good morning, Murphy.

MURPHY WOODHOUSE: Good morning, Lauren.

GILGER: OK, so you're in this Mexican border town where thousands of migrants are waiting on a list to ask for asylum. And yesterday when we spoke, I was really struck by just how long many of them are having to wait. You told us about a Cuban man you met who is in San Luis for five months before he was able to cross and then ask for asylum. What do people do to make it through these long waits?

WOODHOUSE: It's really tough. The shelter gives you about three days, and only a portion of the beds at the shelter are actually set aside for those who are seeking asylum. And, with some exceptions, when those days are up — you are out. So, Marco Enrique Sanchez, the Cuban that you that you just mentioned, he was able to find work washing cars in San Luis. And that was obviously not a lot of money, but it was enough to cover rent and other expenses. Some had to other cities in the region, like Tijuana, to find work, or Mexicali. I also spoke to a man from Guerrero, in southern Mexico, and his family was was splitting an extraordinarily cramped apartment with another family. There were eight young children and four adults. They had been there for about two months and had about a month left to go in their wait. And another apartment in that complex was, you know, it had a similar arrangement. And they actually had family in the United States helping cover about $125 in monthly rent. And then the Ugandans that I spoke with, they had just arrived and had literally no plan about how they were going to make it for the next several months.

cheap apartments
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Some asylum seekers, like these families from Guerrero, find cheap apartments while they wait for their numbers to get called.

GILGER: And what happens if asylum or immigration policy changes in some dramatic way during these long waits? Which seems possible at this point.

WOODHOUSE: Yes, that is very much on the minds of the asylum seekers that I spoke with. And we actually got a glimpse of this pretty recently when when a federal court ruling allowed pretty heavy asylum restrictions to go into effect — but ... just along the New Mexico and Texas border, not on the Arizona and California border. There are thousands of people in similar lists in border cities along that part of the border. And just, you know, think about what that might feel like a months into a wait with just a few numbers away from from being called in, and then a sudden change like that. And I spoke with a Cuban couple and they had some pretty eloquent thoughts about exactly that sort of anxiety. And we'll hear from Carlos Gutierrez.

WOODHOUSE: He says he feels like they're in a game of Russian roulette. They're constantly in fear that Trump will impose some new rule or change that could affect them.

GILGER: Yeah. And as we learned yesterday, San Luis is getting an extraordinarily diverse group of asylum seekers. How are local residents receiving all of these people?

WOODHOUSE: So, the growth in Central American migration through Mexico — and of course some of the high-profile caravans — those did provoke some pretty ugly, xenophobic reactions around the country. But here in San Luis, the community, by all accounts, has responded quite well. Though, I think it's probably worth pointing out, the numbers here have certainly been much lower than that in some other border cities. But just spending time at the shelter, I saw people regularly dropping off donations. I overheard a number of calls offering food — the pantry and free freezers were brimming. And whenever there's a shortage, that quickly spurs a community response. I sat down with San Luis's Mayor Santos Gonzalez Yescas. And he had a pretty interesting explanation for those sorts of attitudes.

SANTOS GONZALEZ YESCAS: Como la historia de nosotros ha sido también de trabajo en Estados Unidos, con gente que vive aquí en San Luis, entonces, tenemos el conocimiento de que tenemos que ayudar a esa gente.

WOODHOUSE: He's saying that the history of his city is one of many crossing to the United States for work. And that common experience of wanting to get to the U.S. compels some to feel that they have some sort of obligation to help the new arrivals.

GILGER: So, Murphy, I mean, at this point you've spent about four days there on the border. What are some of the biggest takeaways? What's really left an impression on you?

Several families of asylum seekers
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Several families of asylum seekers from Guerrero are splitting a few cramped apartments near the border.

WOODHOUSE: So, I've spent a lot of time speaking with migrants in shelters, but I was really just blown away by the hardship many faced on their way to San Luis — especially the Cubans and Africans that I spoke with. And also just the willingness to endure very long, very uncertain waits along the border. That was quite striking to me. Some do give up for certain, or at least turn around when they're are no is ultimately called. But many do figure out one way or another to stick it out. And, again, this is just to ask for asylum. This is not the asylum process itself. And so these people have gone through quite, and their journeys are very much far from over. But. nevertheless. there were quite a number of moments of levity while I was at the shelter. And that the children really seem to be having quite a lot of fun. They were playing with balloons and kicking around soccer balls. Lots of laughing, screaming. And at one point, a number of them made a bunch of paper airplanes, and they were trying — mostly failing — to throw them at the ceiling fan, of course. I figured, why not end up on an upbeat note?

GILGER: We appreciate that. All right, that's KJZZ's Murphy Woodhouse reporting from San Luis Rio Colorado. Murphy, thank you for your reporting there this week.

WOODHOUSE: Thank you, Lauren.

GILGER: And next, "Tracing The Migrant Journey" heads north of the line along Arizona's shared border with the Mexican state of Sonora, where we'll hear from KJZZ's Michel Marizco. You can learn more about this four-country reporting project at And all of our reporters are sharing their reporting on Twitter using the hashtag #MigrantJourney where you can follow along.

For more, follow KJZZ reporters on Twitter using the hashtag #MigrantJourney. 

Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
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