Forty artists from the borderlands contributed original art to Casa Refugiado, including Juan Carlos Reyes (Wuaka Waffles) and Laura Meneses, whose giant mural of “Esperanza” (hope) is the focal point of the refugees’ sleeping quarters. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

For the refugees who have spent months (or even years) stuck waiting in Mexico in the dangerous Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, the art-covered walls of El Paso’s Casa del Refugiado are a colorful and vibrant first glimpse of the United States. 

When asylum seekers first arrive at Casa del Refugiado, the first thing they see is a giant banner above the entryway proclaiming “Bienvenidos/Bem-vindos.” Art throughout the space underscores the artists’ intention of welcoming migrants into the United States. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

On Friday, El Paso’s Annunciation House began to receive asylum seekers at their Casa del Refugiado location as part of President Biden’s suspension of Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as “Remain in Mexico.”) 

Among the migrants newly arriving at Casa del Refugiado, many have endured harrowing and traumatic circumstances in the time they have spent waiting to enter the United States. The MPP program, which forced (primarily Central American) asylum seekers to await their court hearings in Northern Mexico, has been connected to at least 816 public reports of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other violent abuses against vulnerable refugees enrolled in the program

A group of 25 enrollees in Migrant Protection Protocols crossed the Paso del Norte Bridge from Juárez to El Paso on Friday, the first migrants to do so at this port of entry, on Feb. 26. They were taken to Casa del Refugiado, a hospitality center run by Annunciation House. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Casa del Refugiado is a massive, sprawling warehouse — not an ideal setting for a warm welcome. But a team of El Paso and Juárez artists set out to change that by filling it with as much colorful art as possible, visual works specifically designed to communicate affirming and uplifting messages to the refugees who would be staying there. 

Vibrant colors and affirming messages to asylum seekers explode across the walls throughout Casa Refugiado. Mural by Eugenia “AO” Carmona. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

“It had a very, more than institutional, kind of a wasteland sort of feel,” said Kerry Doyle, describing the way Casa del Refugiado looked before it was transformed by local artists in April 2019. 

“(Ruben Garcia, Annunciation House director) brought me over to see what we thought we could do to make it more welcoming. And the size and the scale were really an issue. We thought we had to do something kind of big to make it happen,” Doyle said. 

Doyle convened a group of artists from the borderlands, and asked for their help in transforming the space. 

“I think people’s hearts were really into this project,” Doyle said, who added that it was an entirely volunteer effort with a rapid turnaround time.

“We didn’t give anyone any direction, we just said to make something that would be welcoming for families,” she said. 

When refugees enter Casa del Refugiado they go to the intake area (pictured), where they are given water and COVID-19 sanitizing packets, and wait to fill out paperwork. The walls surrounding the intake area are covered in engaging murals. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)
Colorful hand-painted signs indicate directions within the labyrinthine warehouse. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

In the months to come, Casa del Refugiado will be filled with asylum seekers from MPP, most of whom will only stay there for a short time (24-72 hours), before moving on to another destination within the United States. But for the thousands of MPP asylum seekers to be processed in El Paso, Casa del Refugiado will be their first stop in the United States.

“We wanted to create something inviting for migrants in a time where they’re being attacked in every way; (something that) that gives them some sort of hope that not everyone thinks that way,” said artist Ramon Cardenas of the art duo Los Dos, who created a mural in the Casa del Refugiado dining hall. 

Artist Ramon Cardenas decided to use a phrase from the familiar corrido “Caminos de la vida” as a reassurance to refugees that this moment is only a phase on the path of life, and that these struggles will pass. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso is currently receiving 25 migrants per day from the MPP program, a number that will ramp up to 75 per day by the end of March, Garcia said during a Feb. 25 press conference.

Garcia said Casa del Refugiado has been organized to minimize the potential for COVID-19 spread. 

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, speaks at a press conference about the shelter’s preparations to receive asylum seekers enrolled in Migrant Protection Protocols. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Doyle emphasized all the love that went into creating the art in Casa del Refugiado, and hopes it offers comfort to the thousands of refugees who will arrive there in the weeks and months to come. 

“All of these artists from the border responded with their heart, but also responded with a lot of knowledge and sensitivity about what people might be feeling at that moment in time,” Doyle said. 

“That love is really genuine, every single artist who participated (created work) from a deep desire to be welcoming.”

Cover photo: Forty artists from the borderlands contributed original art to Casa Refugiado, including Juan Carlos Reyes (Wuaka Waffles) and Laura Meneses, whose giant mural of “Esperanza” (hope) is the focal point of the refugees’ sleeping quarters. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.