When Veronica crossed the border from Juárez to El Paso last spring to turn herself in to Border Patrol agents, she was nine months pregnant and already having contractions.
“(An agent) asked me if I was OK, and I told him that it hurt a lot,” she said during an interview in Juárez months later. “Then he asked if I wanted them to take me to the hospital.”
But Veronica, traveling alone with her three children, was afraid to accept that offer.
“I told him no,” she said, “because my other children would be left alone. I said, ‘No, the pain will go away.’”
U.S. officials sent Veronica — who asked that her real name not be used because she is fleeing violence — and her children back to Juárez.
“They told me to look for the shelter Pan de Vida,” she said. “I went out in a taxi, but that night they brought me to the hotel filtro, and there they helped me.”
Veronica delivered her baby girl six days later. “They kept me there for another two weeks, and then Karina (Breceda) brought me here,” she said.
“Here” is San Juan Apóstolo Catholic Church, the site of a shelter that attends specifically to migrants who are single or expectant mothers. Father Francisco Garcia, pastor of the parish, said that he first began discussing a response to the migrant crisis during the “caravans” of 2018.
Initially, the community provided support such as donating food or hiring migrants who were in need of work. Soon they began to focus on the need for a dedicated space to house the most vulnerable: children and pregnant women.
Under the coordination of Karina Breceda, a volunteer from El Paso, San Juan transformed its campus from church offices and storage to dormitories and a cafeteria for migrants. As far as they know, Breceda and Father Francisco coordinate the only shelter of its kind along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pregnancy is a challenge for migrant women for several reasons. The journey from mainly Central American countries to our border is often long and arduous, lacking in security and even in adequate basic nutrition.
Women in the late stages of their pregnancy, like Veronica, need a place where they can prepare for, and then recover from, the delivery — especially important in a population that has often received little to no prenatal care, leading to higher risk of complications, delivery by cesarean, and postpartum complications. Furthermore, the pregnancy itself typically makes the woman migrant doubly vulnerable to stigmatization and judgment at the border.
“I believe that many people think that ‘she’s pregnant because she wants to take advantage,’” Patricia Galarza, a psychologist at the shelter, said. “She faces a double stigma being pregnant, as in, ‘How, if you’re pregnant, you still dare to come, to be a migrant, to want to cross?’”
Pregnant migrants, including those who became pregnant through rape, often are accused of wanting to deliver an “anchor baby” on American soil or of wanting to take advantage of the U.S. welfare system. They face the prejudice of officials who see not one but two applicants for entry to the United States.
“You know the term that is used there, the ‘anchor babies,’” Breceda said. “(Officials) see the possibility that it is a life that is going to be born there, that is going to be an American with all rights. I believe that consciously or subconsciously, they see that.”
Accessing care in unfamiliar surroundings
For pregnant migrants at the border in Juárez, their immediate challenge is accessing the prenatal and delivery services they need. Many migrant women do not know where to go for care or are unsure whether they are allowed to access medical treatment in Mexico.
While there are technically no formal barriers to migrants receiving prenatal care or arriving at a Mexican hospital to give birth, in practice their access to treatment depends on their own knowledge of how to defend their rights and how to enter the system.
“As soon as they step into Mexico, (migrants) already have the right to receive care in any institution, but due to their lack of knowledge, they don’t turn to those institutions,” Galarza said.
The humanitarian visa that Mexico has offered many migrants in the “Remain in Mexico” program is not legally required in order for migrants to receive medical attention, but misinformed hospital staff often turn away migrants without that visa who do not know their rights.
“Sometimes the women are already seven, eight months pregnant,” Breceda said. “Sometimes they have even called me saying, ‘I’m at the hospital and they won’t let me in.’ Until that point, they don’t know how the baby is, what condition it is in, and that sometimes means many c-sections or health problems for the women or the babies.”
Personal contacts within the health care system are sometimes key to gaining entry for migrants to places such as Juárez’s Hospital de la Mujer.
“The institutional level is a huge monster that at the end erases the name and face,” Galarza said. “So the thing that has been helpful and that has worked for us is in ‘lower’ part, with direct contacts that we have between the director of the hospital and the social workers.”
The importance of accompaniment
Their network of contacts and their presence alongside the women as they seek care is what sets them apart from other migrant shelters and programs, according to Breceda.
“We go personally to accompany them,” Breceda said. “We have that experience, that contact there, and thank God they have accepted the women and they haven’t been left without that care.”
The concept of accompaniment, a “being with” the migrant in a comprehensive manner that goes beyond providing a meal or dropping her off at a clinic, is vital to San Juan’s mission to provide personal and dignified treatment to each woman.
The shelter often takes financial responsibility by signing for migrants and vouching for their identity as they are admitted to the hospital. More than that, though, accompaniment is the idea of standing with the migrant, in her defense but also in solidarity with her, with social and emotional support.
Women who have migrated alone enter the hospital wondering, “‘Who will I tell that the baby has been born?’” Galarza said. Volunteers from San Juan fill that support role through “solidarity and comprehensive accompaniment.”
A full range of care
In addition to the material goals of the shelter — a place to sleep, an appointment with a doctor, a safe delivery in the hospital — San Juan and the people who run it also have more abstract goals. Primary among these is the desire to treat migrants with dignity and not judgment.
For Father Francisco, it was important that they offer women real beds to sleep in and not simply pallets on a floor. The shelter encourages a community or sisterhood among the women who live there.
This is why, even in a newly built expansion, they have opted for dormitory-style housing. This is especially beneficial for single mothers of newborns, who don’t have a partner to help them recover from a c-section, handle overnight diaper changes, or take care of other children.
Breceda and Father Francisco point to the solidarity among the women, who arrive as strangers, and then end up helping care for each other’s children, even breastfeeding a baby whose own mother’s milk had not come in.
“It’s very interesting to have a community of pregnant women, dedicated to one and only issue, and it’s interesting to see how they help each other in taking care of the babies,” Father Francisco said. “I still sometimes can’t tell whose baby is whose, because I see them with first one woman, then another, then another.”
The effort at San Juan is less than a year old, and so up to now has only had the capacity to focus almost exclusively on the immediate needs of providing safe shelter and access to medical care for the vulnerable women who arrive there.
Along the way, the shelter has improved its ongoing practices and started to plan for the future. A formalized intake process for new arrivals now yields a record of information such as identification documents and medical history that is ready to go when labor begins.
“This is the shelter where I’ve felt very safe. They’ve helped us overcome some of the psychological issues we had,” said Maria, a young mother from Central America who, with her 3-year-old son, has been waiting in Juárez in the “Remain in Mexico” program since December 2019. “We haven’t had any news about whether it’s possible for us to have the opportunity to enter (the United States). So we are a little desperate because we don’t have the help of any lawyers who could assist us or at least give us a little bit of hope.”
El Paso Matters doesn’t identify asylum seekers by their full names to protect them from possible retribution.
‘To listen to their stories is not pretty’
Both Breceda and Father Francisco envision expanding their outreach to include legal assistance on the women’s immigration cases and assistance with long-term housing and employment in Juárez for the women who will not be granted entry to the United States.
This effort has already had some success, setting up a group of three women with their children to rent a house in Juárez together while still maintaining a close relationship with San Juan. Breceda also is working to expand her network with advocacy groups to spread the word about San Juan among other migrants who are pregnant and in need of help.
However, larger questions surround the work they are doing. Why are these women here? Why do they migrate?
“Many people don’t understand the state of the migrant,” Galarza said. “To listen to their stories is not pretty. Truly, if we were in the shoes of that migrant, anybody would flee. Anybody would want to be a migrant. And I always tell (the women), I recognize that they’ve had the strength to migrate.”
“Honestly, if you listened to the story of each woman, you’d give her entrance (to the United States) immediately,” she added. “The stories of these women are stories of survival. They are truly harrowing.”
Veronica’s decision to emigrate came after she survived years of abuse and torture from gang members.
“I came fleeing the gang, because one of them kept me prisoner,” she said. “He tried to kill me four times.”
This man was eventually arrested and imprisoned by authorities, “but he told me I wasn’t free just because he was in jail. They were still watching me. In the end, the same ones who he left watching me, one of them raped me.”
She became pregnant as a result and managed to escape, intending to seek asylum in the United States and join a relative already living there.
Though most of the women at San Juan can tell their own stories of family or community violence, Galarza sees a larger pattern of structural violence in poverty, domestic violence, gender violence, and criminal corruption that began generations ago and pushes the women to migrate.
There is some fear that this trauma is being perpetrated on the new generation of children who suffer from anxiety and regressive behaviors. Breceda placed the blame for the children’s trauma not only on the violence they’ve suffered and witnessed in their home countries, but also on the treatment they receive by U.S. officials at the border.
“The system of the U.S. is very dehumanizing and very cruel, (the children) arrive in this condition and then the treatment that they receive (at the border) also affects” them, Breceda said. “We’ve had to work with the children, some very young, and it’s affected them in their mind, in their growth, in their way of relating with others. (People) always talk about laws but the law can be more human, more open to life.”
“They did not ask to be here just for the sake of wanting to be migrants,” Galarza said. “They are here because of their state of vulnerability, because of the structural violence they have lived. Really, they are very brave women. Very, very brave.”
Cover photo: A expectant mother and resident of San Juan prepares bundles of supplies for babies and new mothers. The shelter distributes these supplies to women in need, many of whom lack basics such as feminine pads and newborn clothes when they deliver their babies. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)