Adults and children join in an evening soccer game at the Pan de Vida shelter in September. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As the Biden administration announced that the United States would begin to allow asylum seekers enrolled in Migrant Protection Protocols to cross the border, a rare sight spread across a migrant shelter in Juárez: Smiles lit up every face. 

That is, every face but one.

Pastor Ismael Martinez, director of Pan de Vida, a shelter in a Juárez colonia with a reputation for crime and violence, sat in the midst of the migrant families gathered to register for their place in line to enter the United States. Martinez was serious and pensive. 

“There are going to be conflicting emotions” when the residents of the shelter leave, Martinez said, his shoulders sagging. “Happiness, a lot of it, but also sadness because people are leaving who are part of the life we had for two years.” 

Martinez is a large man with a gruff, intimidating appearance. He is usually dressed in oversized t-shirts or sweatshirts and a baseball cap. At dawn each morning, he drives away from the shelter in an aging van to look for resources, such as donations or discounts on groceries, that will keep people fed for the day. 

A child too young to join a soccer game watches from the sidelines at Juárez’s Pan de Vida shelter in September. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

At first glance, it is hard to imagine that the dozens of small children who live at Pan de Vida bicker over who gets more of his attention and affection. 

Pan de Vida, which Martinez runs together with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, was originally founded 30 years ago as a comedor (a facility similar to a soup kitchen) for local neighborhood children. Its services expanded to offer a residential shelter for local single mothers, particularly those escaping from domestic violence. 

When the number of migrants in Juárez began to grow in 2018 and 2019, Martinez opened the doors to the individuals and families, mostly from Central America and Cuba, who were passing through. Most people stayed for a few days or weeks as they waited for their numbers to be called at the port of entry so they could request asylum. 

But with the implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols, and then the closure of immigration courts at the start of the pandemic, those stays have extended into months and years. 

Now, Martinez feels conflicted about the prospect of seeing his “family” dispersed. 

“We are, above all, a huge family,” he said in a September interview discussing families that had already been granted asylum in the United States prior to the pandemic. “As I have told them, I feel like I am part of them. I feel their need, and when each person leaves it hurts a lot. It is like having your family split apart.” 

He asked not to be photographed for this story because of security concerns.

Building strangers into a family

More than 200 people currently live at the shelter. About 180 of them are enrolled in MPP and are now awaiting word on when it will be their turn to cross the border. They come from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. They come fleeing domestic violence, political persecution, gang violence, and attempts on their lives. 

“They have gone through hell to get here,” Martinez said. “They are very fearful when they arrive. Sometimes they have arrived barefoot, shirtless, full of dust from the desert. It is a little complicated with people building trust, because they’ve seen so many bad things in their journey. There’s not much trust at first. But then they leave that behind and they start to feel like family. It’s beautiful to see that love become mutual among them.” 

A mural depicts the Biblical image of the “breaking of the bread” at Pan de Vida, a shelter and comedor run by Pastor Ismael Martinez in Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The shelter faces the logistical challenge of meeting material needs for 200 people on a daily basis. Martinez relies primarily on donations, though some long-term residents of the shelter have also sought employment in Juárez. His primary concern, though, is not how to feed everyone, but how to make everyone feel at home. 

“The biggest challenge is that people feel comfortable, and I think we have accomplished this in making people feel at home. Some people don’t even want to leave,” Martinez said. “I would say that (our relationship) is like family, like a relative, a cousin, siblings, children. That’s how I see them.”

“We have great affection for him. I know that for us it will be very hard to say goodbye to him and his family,” one resident of the shelter said. “He has an enormous heart. I don’t have the words to describe all of his qualities and I’m very grateful for everything he has done for us.” 

Children rush to hug his legs when he arrives from an errand. Some of them call him by the affectionate nickname “Tito,” a diminutive of “abuelo” (grandfather). The shelter celebrates holidays and birthdays together, like any family.

“We love to party,” Martinez laughs. Each month, they hold a celebration for all the children who have birthdays that month. Martinez ordered pizza for everyone to watch the election night returns together on Nov. 3. 

Martinez does not collect any salary or pay for the work he does, but he dismisses any suggestion that his efforts are worthy of recognition. 

“When you do something out of love, it is a pleasure. We work with governments and with foundations here and in El Paso, and, thank God, doors are opened to us. But sacrifice? No, for me it is not that. It is something that I like to do. It’s like if your child told you, ‘I am hungry,’ well, you’d feed him and you’d feel good about feeding your child.”

The need for shelter will continue

Martinez keeps in touch with many of the families who left the shelter in previous months. Some have even returned just to visit him. He has especially high expectations for the children who have lived at the shelter.

“Sometimes they don’t want to leave, and I tell them, ‘This is something you have to do to go fulfill your dreams,’” he said. “I tell them to be good over there, to study hard, to not throw away everything that they’ve made all this sacrifice for — coming from their country, going through everything they went through, arriving here, spending two years without family, all with the purpose of crossing to the U.S.”

Moments after a group of 25 asylum seekers were allowed to cross into the United States on Feb. 26, another group of women and children were returned to Juárez in a Title 42 expulsion. Pastor Martinez believes that migrants like these are especially vulnerable to being victims of violence and crime in Mexico and so he will continue to welcome new arrivals to Pan de Vida. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For all his outward appearance and demeanor, Martinez does not hesitate to demonstrate his affection for the people he has lived with for the past two years. None of the families in his care has received word of a departure date, but he knows that the time to say goodbye is approaching.

“The strongest emotions will be the day that they leave,” he said. “That day, I think the tears will flow because (there will be) so many hugs, so many people that will be saying goodbye to me and me to them. It’s not a final goodbye but there will be a distance that is going to hurt, with them being there (in the U.S.) and us here. But I think that all the work has not been in vain. All the love that was given, and everything that will be reaped from it, is the fruit of what was done for them.” 

Even as he prepares to close this chapter in the shelter’s history, Martinez has no plans for rest. Migrants expelled from the United States under pandemic restrictions 42 are returning to Juárez every day, and he fears that these people, who are not registered in any formalized system either in the United States or in Mexico, are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of kidnapping, extortion, gangs, or prostitution rings. 

“More people will be coming,” he said. “Anyone who comes, we will receive them and help them.”

Cover photo: Adults and children join in an evening soccer game at the Pan de Vida shelter in September. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...