[photo by Yolitzma Aguirre]
When I first started reporting on the arrival of Cuban Refugees, I was moved by outpouring of love and compassion from volunteers and citizens; happy that I witnessed the very best in humanity. (For those of you that may have missed parts one and two, you can catch up HERE and here)
What I was surprised to find was that I was also about to witness the very worst as well.
I went along with the Houchen group to pick up refugees at the international port of entry on Monday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe some smiling faces, possibly hugs, some kind of theme music playing in my head, like in countless of feel good Americana movies…
That was not the case.
I first went on a pick up run around 7pm, the sun was setting and it just looked like another regular day at the Stanton Bridge on Sixth and El Paso Street. We walked as close as we could to the entry doors, where there was a group of men sitting, but I thought nothing of it.
I was with Houchen Director, Veronica Roman and she told me to stay back and let the male volunteer continue walking in front of us. I didn’t think anything of it, either.
The male volunteer walks ahead, waiting for new arrivals and there are some words exchanged between he and the men. I see the men stand up – things are getting heated – one of the men begins to yell at our volunteer, and Veronica steps in and tells the volunteer to come back with us we are heading back to the center.
As we rode back, they explained to me that these men, coyotes, have been growing in numbers over the days as they caught word that the refugees were arriving in El Paso. Later I found out that the men have come in from different states and the interior of Texas in order to swindle the refugees.
They prey on the refugees, since they are weak, tired, and scared in a new country, charging them $300 – $500 dollars per head to take them to their final destination. Should you not have the money, then they will contact your family to receive payment.
I’m stunned. Who are these men? Where are they actually taking these people? We have no idea. Dealing with coyotes is not a new thing, the difference is these are Cuban coyotes.
This poses a huge problem.
For starters, some of them are established Cuban Americans and therefore have most likely already become citizens, so the Border Patrol cannot technically intervene, they are citizens freely assembling.
Secondly, the refugees trust and believe in their fellow countrymen. Arriving in a brand new place, confused, scared, not knowing anyone, here are your “paisanos,” apparently ready to help. Couple that with the long-standing cultural feud between Mexicans and Cubans, so it is easy to see how the newly-arrived refugees would be inclined to believe and accept the help of a countryman.
Later, just after midnight, I go out on another pick up run with a married couple who volunteers, we go back to the same bridge, park and begin to walk over, as soon as we turn the corner this one particular man, Cuban coyote, starts screaming (in Spanish) at the us.
He begins to walk our way, shouting profanities at us the entire way, saying we have no right to be there. I begin to yell back at him (in Spanish) that he needs to back up because I’m a member of the press and I have every right to stand on the public street. He continues to yell at us, questioning what are we doing there and to get out of his area.
We shout back that it is public property and we are going to call the cops…he comes within an inch of our faces and yells at us that he is an American citizen and he has every right to offer strangers a ride to Florida or Houston in exchange for money. He continues to shout, so I respond, telling him that I am also an American, resident of El Paso so I can tell police or the public my opinion that he is doing something illegal.
The refugees are standing right there witnessing everything, and the look in their eyes is one they must have had several times on their journey: “who do we trust?“
We turn away from the coyote and explain that the Houchen and other shelters are free of charge, they can eat, shower and sleep, then staff will help get their transportation for them. We show them the pictures we have on our phones, one lady even recognizes a person in photo.
At the same time, someone has gone to call Border Patrol Agents, and in the distance we can hear the police sirens.
Then another coyote walks across the street to join in. He starts eyeballing me and says he hasn’t seen me with the group (Houchen) I tell him coldly that I am with the press covering a story on the illegal coyote activity.
That sets him off. He starts screaming in my face (in Spanish) that what I am trying to do “ruin his reputation” he is trying to help his people. I argue back that if that were the truth he wouldn’t be charging “his people” who have nothing.
I bargain with him sarcastically and offer to ask a police to escort him and the refugees to where he is taking them, if he has nothing to hide.
Now he turns to the refugees and says that I, and the Houchen group, are human traffickers and that we are going to sell them, “pero nosotros somos tú paisanos, nosotros los cuidamos” (translation: but we are your countrymen, we will protect you.)
He calls me a few bad words, I throw them right back, as the rest of his men continue to fight the rest of the Houchen volunteers; and the refugees – with a toddler – too scared to make a choice, decided to gamble in the dark and not go with us.
We speak to the police, wait a little longer hoping the refugees change their mind, but they don’t so we head back. I have never experienced anything like that in my life. The entire ordeal, shouting, cursing, men in our faces, lasted over an hour. The Houchen group informs me that this is a nightly thing, they are used to it.
20 minutes later the other port of entry, Bridge of Americas gives us a courtesy call, 26 refugees are about to be released; we set out to pick them up, this time with male volunteers.
As we arrive we see three plain, white 15 passenger rental vans, with out of state plates.
We park, slide out of our van and quickly walk towards the brightly-lit office. I see a whole new group of men standing in a corner, waiting. We pick our corner and the group waits.
A short time later, I join the same female volunteer, as she walks into the main office. We speak to the federal agents, they all know who she is, everyone is on friendly terms, they allow us to enter the room where refugees that have completed processing, are waiting. We quickly tell the refugees that we are waiting for them outside and to ignore the group of men that are outside the doors.
We head back to join our group. As we pass the other coyote group, there are things being mumbled here and there but so far nothing major…until the first refugees exit.
They head directly for us, get into the Houchen van and ignore the men standing there. This infuriates the leader of their group. I start to walk over, in an attempt to ask a few questions, but he snaps and begins to go off on the male volunteer standing next to me. Apparently he had already gotten into a verbal fight with our group while we were inside and wasn’t quite done. The men get into each other’s faces and are squaring off.
Someone runs to call the federal agents.
The leader of this Cuban coyote group, stops yelling, turns and heads straight for our van, seemingly locked on target for Veronica Roman, director of Houchen, who is standing at the door of van talking to the refugees sitting inside.
He goes right up to the van and starts screaming to the family that she and Houchen and traffickers and smugglers are going to sell them.
She laughs and tells him to get away from the van, he then turns and gets right in her face and begins to spew all kinds of Spanish cuss words (like the really bad ones that it’s NEVER ok to say to a woman)
Veronica gives it right back to him and ends up making him physically have to take a step back from how intense her energy was, completely without fear, snapped her fingers in his face and fiercely told him he better not even think of touching her and he better get out of her face and stop harassing her.
As I watch the confrontation unfold, it seems like years since I blinked. Suddenly two Houchen men appear, stepping in front of her and in voices that boomed, told the coyote that he better not even look her way or there is going to be hell to pay.
The man continues to mouth off, that Houchen is stealing his “business” and they are going to pay for how much money he is losing.
Federal agents arrive, a whole squad of them. They take the Cuban coyote back to his corner and begin to question him. The other agents stay to question us. We explain the entire situation.
Across the way, the coyote is not letting up, now livid that he is even being questioned. There was nothing anyone could do to legally charge him with anything. The best that could be done was that the agents demanded they leave the premises, we watched the three white 15 passanger rental vans drive off, but they wouldn’t stay gone for long.
Some of the quieter coyotes pretended not to be part of that group and acted as if they were waiting for relatives.
Finally, around 3 in the morning,about 12 of the 26 that were set to be released, exit the building, we load up the vans, the rest won’t be release until later, time to head on back.
We all squish into the van, we begin talking about general things, they ask if there is food, they haven’t eaten. They ask about wifi, to contact their families. I look at everyone, so tired, eyes blood shot, so hungry… I turn and say, “beinvenidos a los Estados Unidos” (translation: Welcome to the United States) finally there are some smiles, some chants, applause, and some woo-hoos!
I took out my phone, which was about to die, in typical fashion I wanted to take a picture for this story, but I thought, haven’t they been through enough, can’t we just enjoy this small victory, these people made it. So I put my phone away and I think I might have even heard music playing…
But the happy moment was short lived. As we passed the light on Paisano, we turned to get on the access road to the highway and saw, in distance hiding in the shadows of a nearby church, white vans…waiting.
As I mentioned in part 2, on Tuesday the City of El Paso began to offer free shuttle rides for the refugees from the hours of 7pm – 6am. I was so happy to hear this news, and in my naivety I thought, “ok the city is involved now, we should be smooth sailing.”
I headed out to the Stanton bridge with one of the male volunteers from Houchen Wednesday night, and my heart dropped when I saw the coyotes standing in front of the buses.
I spoke with the bus drivers, they had not picked up more than 12 people total the entire night, it was now almost midnight. Thinking to myself, how is that possible, the numbers don’t make sense, there were 200 people on Monday night?
Then one of the drivers tells me, “yeah that group of men, I don’t know who they are they seem to be stopping everyone that walks out and before they get to the buses they get to them first, I don’t know what they are telling the refugees.”
I ask the drivers if they are able to tell the refugees, or get involved? They are not. Strict city policy they are not allowed to interfere. I understand. I begin to head towards the main building.
As I am walking in, there are two refugees that pass me, they have barely taken their first steps in the United States when immediately two coyotes approach them, this time with my phone fully charged, I catch the whole thing on video. The two shorter boys with the backpacks are refugees who had just walked out, the taller gentleman tells them “te sale $225, te quedas allá en hotel, puedes comer allí y todo, y mañana a todo se te va” (translation: it comes out to $225, you stay there at the hotel, eat there and everything, and tomorrow you go)
I stopped filming because they saw me, I tell the young men that those buses are from Houchen or the Cuban refugees and that they are able to eat there, sleep there for free and they will get help with the transportation to their final destination. The young men quickly ask me, those buses – pointing to Sun Metro – I reply, yes walk right up to them, they are with the city. They immediately take off.
The coyote is at least civil with me and tells me that he is also helping, that he telling people to go to the churches too. I sarcastically thank him for his civic duty and continue to walk towards the main building…at a much, much faster pace.
I speak with agents and go through the whole story again, I ask if I can just get a message to the refugees still in processing, for them to please go straight to the buses. They call the supervisor on duty at the Stanton Bridge, this time this supervisor is not willing to let us in, she denies my request.
I walk back out, and see that the Houchen male volunteer flagged down a nearby patrol car. Thank God he did, as the minute the coyotes saw the cops, they all split and I was able to walk safely with him back to the buses. We decided to stand there and simply yell out, “aquí los autobúses para los refugiados Cubanos” (translation: buses for the Cuban refugees are here.)
A white 15 passenger pulls up, we recognize it. The male volunteer with me gets some photos, and all of sudden the coyotes start to come back from different streets, everyone beginning to huddle, refugees are exiting.
One coyote begins to go back and forth, talking to us and the group of men. I am annoyed, but at least I feel much safer with the Sun Metro drivers, standing next them the rest of the coyotes keep a short distance. We shout out “Refugees here!” the group quickly gets on the bus not even stopping to hear the coyotes pitch. Small victory.
We head over to the other bridge, no more flights tonight. We head back to Houchen. As we walk in I recognize a young man, refugee from one of the other shelters, he’s looking for his mother she had sent him a message when she had arrived and crossed over, he had been waiting over 6 hours and still could not locate her.
He begins to show her photo around to the last group and ask if they have seen her and his brother. One man did, hours ago during processing, he and the driver from the shelter set to head off to look for her.
We all just look at each other and say a silent prayer.
What can we do about this?
Regarding the coyotes we witnessed, we have been in communication with the Public Information Officers for both Customs and Border Protection and ICE who both got back to us immediately. We are working on getting them the information they need.
As for any more Cuban Refugees, as of Friday afternoon officials in Panama have said the flights will stop, leaving about 1500 refugees stranded in that country. According to some estimates, 30 or so of the refugees will be staying in El Paso, as they have no family or final destination selected.
Where the coyotes took the refugees they were transporting, and how much more they were asked to pay once in their custody, is unknown.