EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border, hotel clerk Joe Luis Rubio never thought he’d be trying to communicate in Portuguese on a daily basis.
But with hundreds of Brazilians crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, each week, the Motel 6 by the airport has become a stepping stone for thousands of the Portuguese speakers on a 6,000-mile (9,500 km) journey from Brazil to El Paso to America’s East Coast.
“Thank God for Google Translate or we’d be lost,” says Rubio.
The quiet migration of around 17,000 Brazilians through a single U.S. city in the past year reveals a new frontier in the Trump administration’s effort to shut down the legal immigration pathway for people claiming fear of persecution.
Like hundreds of thousands of families from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, Brazilians have been crossing the border here and applying for asylum.
Nationwide, some 18,000 Brazilians were apprehended in the fiscal year ending in October, a 600% increase from the previous high in 2016. Brazilians crossing in the El Paso Sector, which covers Southern New Mexico and West Texas, accounted for 95% of the apprehensions nationwide, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
On Monday, acting CBP chief Mark Morgan vowed to try to shut down asylum for migrants from outside Spanish-speaking Central America and South America.
“We’re seeing, again, individuals from extraterritorial countries, extra-continental, come in from Brazil, Haiti, Africans,” said Morgan.
He pledged to implement rules to bar migrants from those countries “with the same level of commitment that we came up with initiatives to address the issue with the Northern Triangle families.”
Those initiatives included making families wait in often dangerous Mexican border towns for months to apply for asylum, returning them to Mexico to await court hearings and a recent rule that effectively rejects nearly all asylum claims, regardless of merit . The result has been a mishmash of pseudo deportations to countries where migrants have never lived and where they face barriers to work or access to basic social services.
Brazilian families are not held indefinitely in detention but instead released to Annunciation House, a network of shelters, where they can stay for a few days while they arrange flights to other cities in the U.S.