A wall along the southern border of the United States will disturb critical wildlife habitats, block migration routes for animals already stressed by climate change and could possibly lead to extinction for some rare and endangered species, according to environmental experts.

A federal appeals court in California recently ruled that the Trump administration is within its rights to disregard dozens of environmental laws in order to fast-track the wall, and the Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge from environmental groups, so preventing the wall’s predicted impacts will be difficult.

Related: US states sue Trump administration in showdown over border wall funds

“Nature has no borders. … All of the plants and animals and places exist in this region regardless of the borders, regardless of the political boundaries and straight lines that humans like to set.”

Sergio Avila, biologist and outdoors coordinator, Sierra Club

For Sergio Avila, a biologist and outdoors coordinator for the Sierra Club, this is a tragic situation.

“Nature has no borders,” he said. “All of the plants and animals and places exist in this region regardless of the borders, regardless of the political boundaries and straight lines that humans like to set.”

The wall would block the migration path of many species, including the jaguar, the animal Avila studies most closely. Jaguars are the third-largest species of cat in the world, after Siberian tigers and African lions. They live not only in the jungles of the Amazon, but also in the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. Blocking their migration prevents them from living their normal life cycle, Avila says.

“It doesn’t matter if these jaguars are north or south of the border. They are still blocked. They cannot reach food, they cannot reach water and they cannot reach mates [to create] future generations.”

Sergio Avila, biologist and outdoors coordinator, Sierra Club

“This is part of their territory. This is part of their distribution range,” Avila said. “It doesn’t matter if these jaguars are north or south of the border. They are still blocked. They cannot reach food, they cannot reach water and they cannot reach mates [to create] future generations.”

The jaguar and other animals along the southern border are also trying to move as a way to adapt to climate change. “Some of these animals might be moving from warmer areas to cooler areas, either by going from the south to the north or from a lower elevation to higher elevation areas,” he said. “So, it’s very important that we acknowledge that the border barriers are compounding the impacts of climate change by not allowing animals to move freely and to adapt and reach water or food or cooler places where they can survive.”

The list of species Avila worries about is long: The bighorn sheep in the mountains of California; the pronghorn antelope in the deserts of Arizona; the ancient herd of bison that travels back and forth between New Mexico and Chihuahua; the butterflies at the National Butterfly Center that migrate between Canada and Mexico and will no longer be able to find their usual resting place. The list goes on.

Related: If Trump wants a wall, eminent domain is the final frontier

And, of course, Avila worries about the wall’s impact on the human population that enjoys the public lands and national parks and can learn about connections to nature.

Even some fish are being affected. In the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, a small area of public land has been set aside to protect the last numbers of a couple of species of desert fish. These fish are an endemic species, meaning they live only in one place. The Fish and Wildlife Service created the refuge to protect the water, the water quality and the habitat that these fish enjoy in that area.

The Department of Homeland Security diverted a small section of the creek where these fish live. By blocking the water, the Department of Homeland Security created flooding that has contaminated their habitat. They also contaminated the fish habitat by pouring concrete inside the creek.

“It is crazy, not only for the life of these fish, but for the efforts that government and nongovernment agencies have put into a region that is so rich, biologically,” Avila said. “It is damaging to the habitat of the fish, but it’s also damaging to the local work and the years of outreach and education that a lot of these public officials have conducted down here.”

Avila fears that some endangered species might go extinct as a result of a proposed border wall. “I think it’s likely, and I think it’s very sad because we’re seeing it with our own eyes,” he said. “The solution is in our hands, and yet humans are not stepping up to do enough about it.”

Related: Trump signed an order for the wall 2 years ago. The US just ended the longest shutdown ever over it.

Despite all the political, social and environmental challenges, Avila wants people to remain positive.

“People need to know that the Mexican gray wolves, the jaguars and the ocelots exist out there, that they are prevailing in spite of all this infrastructure; that animals are adapting to climate change; that water is still running in these rivers; that saguaros are still standing in the Sonoran desert. If we keep those images alive and we know that those species are there, let’s grab that hope and that energy to share our voices and speak on behalf of them,” he said.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Next: The ‘real’ border crisis: The US immigration system isn’t built for kids and families

From Living on Earth ©2017 World Media Foundation

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Her voice cracking, Floriana Espinoza spoke tearfully into a microphone in Tlaxiaco, Mexico, a remote city hidden in the mountains. Her message was aimed at an audience some 2,500 miles away, in California, listening to the bi-national radio program known as “La Hora Mixteca.”

First in Spanish, and then in Triqui — an indigenous language spoken by around 30,000 people — Espinoza told listeners she was looking for news of her son, Heriberto, who moved to California 11 years earlier and with whom she had lost touch with last March. She gave her telephone number and asked anyone with any information to reach out.

“I don’t know where he is working, or where he is,” she said. “I can’t be like this.”

Eva Hernández is shown sitting behind clear class at a radio DJ board with a microphone.

Eva Hernández, lead voice of “La Hora Mixteca” at La Voz de la Mixteca.


Citlali Fabián/The World

Tlaxiaco has been inundated with international attention in recent months because it’s the hometown of Yalitza Aparicio, the star of the movie Roma, who emerged from obscurity to become an Oscar nominee. (Aparicio’s father is Mixtec and her mother is Triqui.) But Tlaxiaco is already well known in Fresno, California, and other cities throughout the US because of decades of migration from this region of Mexico.

Related: Yalitza Aparicio: ‘I grew up always proud of who I am’

Those ties are fortified by La Hora Mixteca, or The Mixtec Hour, which airs every Sunday in Tlaxiaco, San Quintin, Baja California, and in areas throughout the US with significant Mixteco populations, including Fresno, Californina; Woodburn, Oregon; and Mt. Vernon, Washington. It serves as a link between families and friends separated by immigration. The program is also a lifeline for family members who have lost contact and are looking for their loved ones.

“It’s a program that brings families and friends closer — those that are in the US and those that are here,” said Eva Hernández, who has served as the program’s Tlaxiaco-based host since it started airing here 14 years ago. “It’s as if we were in a market and you run into your friend, or your brother, but in this case it’s just through voices as opposed to physical encounters.”

A close-up photo shows Eva Hernández holding a hand-written note by listener Floriana Espinoza.

Eva Hernández holds a note written by listener Floriana Espinoza. She writes that she is looking for her 27-year-old son, Heriberto Bautista Espinoza, who left for the US 11 years ago. Espinoza lost communication with him last March.


Citlali Fabián/The World

The show has successfully reunited families. But not all stories turn out happily. Some people find out their relatives have been killed or are in prison in the US. In the past four years, around 4,000 migrants have died or gone missing en route to the US, according to an Associated Press investigation. Many were victims of violence related to drug trafficking and organized crime. Still, even bad news can provide closure.

Related: Photos: Welcome to Tlaxiaco, the small Mexican city where ‘Roma’ star Yalitza Aparicio grew up

La Hora Mixteca started in 1991 as a production of Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, California, the only national Latino public radio network in the United States. It began airing in Tlaxiaco in 2005 and proved a hit. Now, around 20,000 people in the United States tune in every week — about 15,000 of them in the Central Valley, according to Maria Eraña, Radio Bilingüe’s director of broadcasting.

It’s harder to say how many people listen in Tlaxiaco, although the show airs on one of the region’s only radio stations. The radio station also airs a second bi-national program in conjunction with a host from Arkansas that dispenses practical advice and information for immigrants living in the US and well as for those planning to make the journey.

Since the 1950s, there has been steady migration from Oaxaca to the United States, initially because of the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican farmers to work seasonally in American fields, and over time as soil erosion has made it harder for people from the region to farm their ancestral farmland. As of 2011, around 150,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca were living in California, and comprised around 20 percent of the agricultural workforce. The Mixteco population has also expanded across the US, with significant populations in Wisconsin and Florida.

A portrait photo of Melchor García López, shown wearing a red jacket and holding a microphone.

Melchor García López, director of La Voz de la Mixteca.


Citlali Fabián/The World

In Tlaxiaco, those migratory forces can be felt in a visceral way. Virtually everyone has a family member who lives in the US, or they themselves once lived in the US. There are signs of that influence throughout the city, including a pizza restaurant, Juanna’s Ristorante, founded by two brothers who worked in New Jersey as chefs and returned to Tlaxiaco.

The hosts of La Hora Mixteca alternate between Spanish and Mixtec as they discuss everything from the health risks of pesticides to legal protections for migrant workers and how to become a US citizen. Those discussions are interspersed with listeners sending greetings to relatives on both sides of the border, and music typical of the Mixteca region.

“Through La Hora Mixteca, we can discuss issues in our own language, with our way of seeing and understanding the world,” said Natalia Bautista, one of the program’s volunteer hosts in Fresno.

Bautista’s story is common in this region of California: She was born near Tlaxiaco and migrated to the US 18 years ago in search of better opportunities. She’s now raising her children in the Central Coast, and is anxious that they retain their cultural identity and language despite their US upbringing.  

“There are not spaces where our language is spoken — everything is in English or Spanish,” said Bautista, whose mother language is Mixtec. She added that speaking the indigenous languages is critical to maintaining the identity of the Oaxacan people.

People head to work in the early morning hours in Tlaxiaco including a man pushing a wheelbarrow in the nearground.

People head to work in the early morning hours in Tlaxiaco, Mexico.


Citlali Fabián/The World

Indigenous languages have disappeared in recent generations because they were often forbidden from being spoken in schools in Mexico, and parents were reluctant to teach them to their children because speaking an indigenous language was associated with discrimination.

Like many people from Tlaxiaco, Hernández is tired of outsiders asking her about “Yalitza,” as she’s known here. Even with the Academy Awards ceremony set to take place Sunday, the city is surprisingly bereft of publicity for “Roma” or Yalitza.

Related: Yalitza Aparicio challenges stereotypes in debut role in ‘Roma’

But Hernandez appreciates that the movie star speaks Mixtec in “Roma” — and that in doing so she has created renewed interest and desire to speak indigenous languages. (Mixtec is a broad term for more than 50 related language dialects). Even Yalitza didn’t speak Mixtec before the film and had to memorize the lines for the part.

“Now, even people who don’t want to teach their kids, they are thinking twice about that decision,” Hernández said.

Emily Green reported from Tlaxiaco, Mexico.

From PRI’s The World ©2018 PRI

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Military communities around the country are looking at the potential impact of President Trump’s state of emergency declaration.

The president declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday to secure up to $8 billion in funding for a barrier on the southern border – more than four times what Congress approved.

In San Diego officials are eyeing the long-term costs of the Trump administration’s decision to pull $3.6 billion of that $8 billion from the military construction budget to use for the wall along the border.

Mark Balmert, executive director of the San Diego Military Advisory Council, said Friday he was fielding questions about the impact of such a move.

“These (military) facilities are built by private contractors. And their business will take a hit. Their employees can take a hit, too,” Balmert said. “So there will be some impact.”

San Diego is a major West Coast hub for the Navy and Marines. One in five jobs here is tied in some way to defense.

“We don’t know what that impact is, but the uncertainty alone starts to hit each household,” Balmert said.

RELATED: Trump Declares National Emergency To Help Fund Southern Border Wall

There are numerous military construction projects under way or planned in San Diego County, including improvements at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to house the F-35 jet fighter. A new pier for the Navy, set to begin this year, could be on the chopping block, along with hundreds of smaller projects.

The Marines have been under fire to improve water quality at Camp Pendleton after tests detected bacteria found in human and animal waste. A $48 million project to improve drinking water is set to get under way.

Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, is a first-term congressman whose district includes Camp Pendleton.

“There’s no question there is a direct and indirect economic implication to all of this, but my primary consideration is the safety and security of the country, and the president is stealing billions from a number of very important military construction projects,” Levin said.

The House Appropriation Committee released a long list of construction projects that could be affected by the emergency declaration, including $124 million in projects on Camp Pendleton alone. Levin had just returned to Southern California on Friday after spending the week in Washington. Like most members of Congress from military towns, he expected to spend the weekend fielding questions from constituents in and out of the military.

Minutes after the president announced he was declaring a state of emergency, California announced that the state would challenge the decision in court. In a press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the emergency declaration a manufactured crisis.

“No other state will be more harmed than the state of California because of the magnitude of the money,” Newsom said. “We’re also looking at the impact of our National Guard deployment.”

The governor had hoped to work out an agreement with the federal government to send National Guard troops to help stop fentanyl and other drugs from entering California.

But the Trump administration announced Friday it is pulling $2.5 billion in Department of Defense funds from anti-drug trafficking activities to help build the wall.

Balmert said the San Diego Military Advisory Council, which looks at the local economic impact of the military, is neutral on whether the federal government should expand the border wall. The group’s focus is on lessening the impact of the project on San Diego’s economy.

Private contractors on military bases will face extra costs, like maintaining security clearances on every construction worker. And then there is the cost to the taxpayer if a firm has already signed a Department of Defense contract.

“And then the contractor has a right to come in and say, this is the cost of having us stopping and restarting to our contract,” Balmert said. “So if there is a stop this year and a start next year, the project won’t be completed at the same cost. The cost will go up.”

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Monarch Butterfly Numbers Are Up

The population of monarch butterflies that migrates through Indiana went up by 144 percent last year. That’s according to an annual report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The report counts acres of the monarchs when they cluster together in trees in Mexico over the winter.

Jonathan Neal is a professor of entomology at Purdue University. He says there are a number of reasons why this monarch population fared better last year. Indiana and some other states mowed down fewer milkweed plants along highways — the main plant that monarch caterpillars eat. There also was less logging in their winter habitat in Mexico.

But the biggest reason was climate. While this eastern population of monarchs has grown, the western population — which spends winters in California — dropped by more than 80 percent. Neal says the extreme drought there wasn’t good for the milkweed plants.

“And we saw that with the extreme fires that we had in California,” he says.

Even though the eastern population of monarchs is up, it’s still not to the levels the U.S. saw in the 1990s. Neal says if we want that growth to continue, the state will have to do more.

“Are we leaving appropriate amounts of green space and refuges for these species?” he says.

Neal says people who plant butterfly gardens with milkweed can help the monarch survive.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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Heather Altman looks through old health insurance bills in her Long Beach home office, Jan. 16, 2019 (David Wagner/KPCC)
Heather Altman looks through old health insurance bills in her Long Beach home office, Jan. 16, 2019 (David Wagner/KPCC) David Wagner/KPCC

California’s middle class is reaching a breaking point. Especially when it comes to the high cost of housing. So says the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom.

“Housing. This is the issue,” Newsom said at a press conference earlier this month, unveiling his first budget proposal as governor. “Unless we get serious about it, this state will continue to lose its middle class, and the dream will be limited to fewer and fewer people.”

Middle-class Californians could find some relief under Newsom’s $209 billion budget, which includes new spending aimed at getting cities to approve more housing. Other proposals could bring down the cost of health care and higher education for Californians who currently make too much to qualify for state help.

But middle-class California families won’t find much help shouldering other expenses, like the looming cost of caring for aging family members.

What does “middle-class” even mean in California?

In a state where families of four earning up to $117,400 meet the federal government’s definition of “low-income” in certain regions, there may be no definitive answer on what qualifies as “middle-class.”

But according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of government wage data, families of four in California can be considered middle class if they make anywhere between $59,702 and $179,105 per year.

Direct subsidies in the governor’s budget tend to go toward Californians making less. Newsom noted that no state has a higher poverty rate than California. He wants to try to lower it by giving higher tax refunds to full-time workers earning up to $15 an hour through an expanded version of the state’s earned income tax credit.

He’s also proposing a large boost in spending to subsidize the development of affordable housing for low-income residents. His budget calls for increasing the state’s low-income housing tax credit from $80 million to $500 million per year.

The budget also includes a $500-million bump to the California Housing Finance Agency’s mixed‑income loan program, which finances developments that include units for moderate-income residents.


The governor’s budget doesn’t propose similar housing subsidies for most middle-class Californians. Matthew Lewis, director of communications for the pro-housing group California YIMBY, said that approach makes sense.

“As a matter of policy, you don’t provide subsidies to people who are making over $80,000 a year,” said Lewis. “But in California, that’s the middle class.”

Lewis doesn’t think Newsom can subsidize his way toward a solution to the state’s housing crisis. Instead, he and other housing advocates like what Newsom’s budget does to push local governments to approve more housing in general.

“It appears that Governor Newsom is himself a YIMBY,” said Lewis.

Under Newsom’s budget, cities that meet housing goals set by the state would be rewarded with money from a $500 million state fund, and they could use that money for whatever they want.

“In other words, he’s starting to build funds that would actually financially encourage cities to build more housing,” said Chris Thornberg of Beacon Economics. He said that should help address California’s housing supply problems. “That’s really helpful for California’s middle class.”

Newsom has also discussed punishing cities that fail to meet their housing goals by withholding transit funding. It’s an idea that has not gone over well with local governments.

In a statement on the governor’s budget, League of California Cities executive director Carolyn Coleman said her organization was concerned about proposals “that would raid local transportation funds that voters have repeatedly dedicated to local communities.”

Health care

The words “middle-class” only appear once in Newsom’s 280-page budget proposal. They show up under his plan to expand health care subsidies.

One Californian encouraged by that move is Heather Altman. She works as an environmental consultant out of her home in Long Beach. She gets to be her own boss, and she makes decent money.

“I guess I do consider myself middle class,” Altman said.

She would not have started her business back in 2014 without Obamacare. It meant she could finally afford her own health insurance. She no longer needed to get it through an employer. She has asthma, a pre-existing condition that made individual coverage unaffordable in the past.

Back in 2014, “My premium was $356 for a platinum plan,” Altman said. “I thought that was super affordable.”

Premiums for the same plan have more than doubled, to $761 per month. Altman has switched to a plan with a lower premium. But add in the routine costs of treating her asthma, and she’s spending more than $800 a month.

“That’s very difficult to budget,” Altman said. “And it certainly isn’t sustainable.”

Currently, individuals who earn up to $48,560 a year are eligible for subsidized premiums through Covered California. Altman makes too much to qualify. But Newsom’s budget calls for raising annual income limits for individuals to $72,840 and for families of four to $150,600.

“Had that subsidy bracket been in place when I started my business, there would have been years that I would have qualified,” Altman said. “I’m hopeful that some of these changes may make a meaningful difference in my financial bottom line.”

Altman has shared her story with the advocacy organization Health Access California. Executive director Anthony Wright said Newsom’s budget is promising for Californians like her.

“Current law has cliffs where the assistance runs out,” Wright said. “The extra help will allow some families to get coverage that otherwise couldn’t afford it.”

Newsom plans to pay for the expanded subsidies by creating a state version of the Affordable Care Act’s federal mandate to either buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty (which has gone to $0 under the Trump administration).

In a report on the governor’s budget, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that this approach could create a funding conflict. If the state tax penalty works, it should drive more people to buy insurance. But then, “less funding would be available for premium subsidies.”


Higher education is another big drain on middle-class budgets. Newsom’s budget calls for a tuition freeze at state universities, earmarking $300 million for the California State University system and $240 million for the University of California system each year.

University of Southern California professor of sociology Manuel Pastor said middle-class families could also get a break under Newsom’s $40 million plan to make a second year of community college tuition-free.

“If you can make the first and second year free, you’re lowering the cost for a lot of middle class parents of a four-year education,” Pastor said.

The cost of caring for family members, young and old

Universal preschool and six months of paid family leave for parents are still on Newsom’s agenda. But this budget won’t pay for those goals.

Stanford University assistant professor of health research and policy Maya Rossin-Slater said California’s existing paid family leave law could be strengthened. Right now, many parents don’t use it.

Her research shows California workers at smaller, lower-paying companies are less likely to take paid family leave than higher-paid workers. That could be, in part, because workers fear that under existing law, their jobs won’t be protected while they’re out.

“Job protection, I think, is crucial,” Rossin-Slater said, “Especially for middle-class families that might worry about not having a job to return to after the leave.”

Longer paid family leave could help alleviate some of the high cost of child care, which often costs middle-class parents more than college tuition.

California’s population is aging. With more and more baby boomers retiring, the cost of caring for elderly parents will also start to stack up for more middle class families.

The governor’s budget includes a 15.2 percent increase in general fund spending for in-home supportive services. But USC gerontology professor Donna Benton said most Californians don’t qualify for the low-income program. So they’re stuck spending thousands of dollars a year on caregiving.

Out-of-pocket costs eat up 20 percent of caregivers’ income, on average. Some caregivers have to quit their jobs.

“Family members in general sacrifice a lot,” said Benton. “And then when they go to look for services for themselves, usually they’re not going to qualify.”

Benton was part of a state task force that issued a number of recommendations to help ease the cost. Among their ideas was a tax credit for caregiving expenses, as well as more funding for resource centers throughout the state that serve caregivers regardless of income level.

When Benton looked through Newsom’s budget, she said, “I didn’t see anything that, I would say, touched on any of the recommendations.”

Long Beach environmental consultant Heather Altman lives near her parents, who are now in their 70s. She said they’re in a good financial position right now. But she wonders if they’ll end up needing her help in the future.

“Should it come to that time, then yeah, that responsibility falls to me,” she said.

The same will be true for millions of middle-class Californians.

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

David Wagner

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At the Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown Tijuana,  a woman walks past a tapestry of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the middle of the migrant tents on Dec. 16, 2018.

At the Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown Tijuana, a woman walks past a tapestry of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the middle of the migrant tents on Dec. 16, 2018. Peggy Peattie for KPCC

The migrant shelter that’s been set up at El Barretal, an old concert venue on the outskirts of Tijuana, is a sprawling sea of tents.

The camp buzzes with activity. Men talk and play cards, gathered around boomboxes blasting cumbia. Women shake out blankets and fold donated clothes. People have set up makeshift vendor stalls, selling trinkets and gum to earn a little money.

There are thousands of hopeful asylum-seekers from Central America camped out in Tijuana, many with children, living in shelters or makeshift camps. It’s not clear how long they’ll remain at the border.

On Friday, the Trump administration announced that asylum seekers entering the country from Mexico, either illegally or “without proper documentation,” would need to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed, even once they are interviewed by U.S. officials. The new policy clashes with the longstanding practice of not returning non-Mexican migrants to Mexico.

All around this shelter, there are children, walking alongside their parents or playing amid the tents. They are trying to make sense of their journey, their future. They are also just being kids.

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, Ruth Reyes, 5, shows her mother a new doll she was given on Dec. 16, 2018.

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, Ruth Reyes, 5, shows her mother a new doll she was given on Dec. 16, 2018. Peggy Peattie for KPCC


Not far from the shelter entrance, three-year-old Monserrat played with donated toys in the tent that she, her four siblings, and their parents call home these days. She put a toy pot on a tiny plastic stove.

“I’m going to cook!” she shouted brightly in Spanish. “I’m going to cook FOOD!”

Just outside the tent, Monserrat’s mother Rosa Reyes smiled a tired smile and shook her head.

The Mexican government-run shelter serves two meals a day, Reyes said, but it isn’t much.

As winter settles in, families like these who arrived from Central America in hopes of coming to the U.S. are learning to live in limbo as they wait, unsure what their future holds. As for the kids, many are too young to fully understand why they left, and why they’re here.

Reyes says caravan or not, they still would have left Honduras. She and her husband Alexander left their country on October 13 with five kids in tow, ranging in age from 10 years to 10 months.

They had a stroller for the youngest ones. The two oldest, 8-year-old Ruth and 10-year-old Genesis, came all the way to Tijuana on foot.

“It was difficult, lots of walking,” said Ruth, the bubblier one of the two oldest. “Lots of walking, lots of running around, and we got sunburned – lots of sun.”

There are still blotches the girl’s arms where her sunburned skin peeled.

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, Monserrat Reyes, 3, has her new dolls kiss, as she plays near her family's tents with the toys she was given on Dec. 16, 2018.

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, Monserrat Reyes, 3, has her new dolls kiss, as she plays near her family’s tents with the toys she was given on Dec. 16, 2018. Peggy Peattie for KPCC

“Believe me, it would break my heart when they’d say Mom, I can’t stand the sun,” said Reyes, in Spanish. “They would say Mom, we don’t want to walk, let’s go home, let’s go back to Honduras.”

But they pressed on. Reyes says that’s because they can’t go back. She hasn’t told the kids exactly why – she says they’re too young to understand now.

“We were threatened,” she said quietly. “And they threatened my children.”

The couple had a small business, Reyes explains, a produce stand. To operate, they had to pay extortion money to a local gang back in San Pedro Sula. After countless shakedowns, they ran out of money. They were given a deadline to pay up. Tattooed thugs visited them, she said, making threats. Then the threats turned personal.

“They said…”if you don’t pay, one of your children will turn up dead,” Reyes said.

A few days later, they heard about the caravan. They packed up the kids and left.

They have no family in the US and no idea where they would live, Reyes said. But a few friends on Facebook have suggested Los Angeles, and that has fueled her dreams.

“Los Angeles must be beautiful, because even the name expresses it… Los Angeles, the angels, come from God,” she said. “I can imagine, it must be beautiful.”

But it’s harder convincing the kids. Asked if she wants to come to the United States, Ruth’s answer was a resounding “No!”

“I want to go back to Honduras,” she said. Then, seeing the disappointed look on her mother’s face, she fidgeted.

“I want to keep going,” she said reluctantly.


Just a few yards from where the family is camped, Ana Elia Valdez sees this kind of uncertainty and confusion among the kids there on a daily basis.

Valdez is with Save the Children, an international NGO that has a tent set up at El Barretal where kids can come let off steam with art projects and games.

“Their emotions are mixed up,” Valdez said in Spanish, as a group of kids next to her played Loteria, the Mexican game of chance. “At one moment you’ll see them sad, the other you see them happy, then restless, and sometimes they have a lot of aggression.”

She and other aid workers help provide emotional support, she said, allowing the kids to work out their feelings as they draw and play.

Valdez says living in limbo, uncertain what the future holds, is deeply affecting the kids and their parents.

Experts say that’s just part of it. These kids have endured layers of trauma, said Natalie Cruz, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. In recent years, she’s worked with many Central American migrant families who have made it to the United States and settled here. The kids have been referred to her, often through their schools.

These kids, like the kids in the camps, have already experienced layers of trauma, she said.

“They’ve got the violence that they may have witnessed in the home country,” Cruz said. “They’ve got the journey, which is, you know, for these kids, it’s been a pretty arduous one, they’ve…a lot of them walked for like a month. And now, they’re having to wait for an extended who-knows-how-long period of time before their parents can present themselves. So you’ve got a threefold thing going on.”

At the El Barretal temporary migrant shelter in Tijuana, Abigail Thompson Maldonado from Honduras, talks about the journey she and her husband and their three children made to reach this spot on Dec. 16, 2018. In the background are Luis Antonio, 9, and Alexandra, 11.

At the El Barretal temporary migrant shelter in Tijuana, Abigail Thompson Maldonado from Honduras, talks about the journey she and her husband and their three children made to reach this spot on Dec. 16, 2018. In the background are Luis Antonio, 9, and Alexandra, 11. Peggy Peattie for KPCC

As for parents, Cruz said, some may themselves be second-guessing their decision to head north with their kids. It’s a train of thought she’s seen in migrant families even once in the U.S., after experiencing the challenges of migrating and resettling and especially after enduring long separations as parents and children arrived separately.

“It is a constant question for them,” she said “Did I make the right decision? Did I make the right choice to migrate here? You know, my intention is to provide my child with a better life. But has it been worth it?”

Back at the camp, Valdez with World Relief said things are in flux: Families are moving in and out, or leaving for other shelters. Some are looking to go back to their home countries, or have already left. Others aren’t sure what they’ll do.  

“I think (the children), as well as their families, are going through uncertainty right now,” Valdez said. “They have their American dream, but they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”

A few tents away from the Reyes family, Abigail Thompson Maldonado was trying to stay strong as she camped out with her husband Julio and their three kids, 11, 10 and 6. It was a rough journey for them: Their youngest, 6-year-old Doris, suffered burns on her arm early in the trip when someone accidentally spilled a donated cup of soup on her arm.

She’s recovered, her mother said, but now at the shelter, the nighttime Tijuana temperatures have chilled the children, who are accustomed to the tropics.

“They’ve gotten sick,” Thompson Maldonado said in Spanish. “Sometimes, we can’t sleep because of the cold.”

But when the kids ask things like “when can we leave?” she tells them, “soon.”

“Soon we will get to the United States to work,” she tells them, “and so you can study.”

Doris, who says she dreams of seeing snow, takes it to heart.

“I’m going to be a doctor!” she shouted.

“We’re confident in God,” Thompson Maldonado said, “ that God will help us.”

At the Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown Tijuana, Maria Isabel Reyes, 40, center, stands amid the garbage and migrant tents on Dec. 16, 2018.  

In Tijuana, Mexico, children members of the migrant caravan are learning to live in limbo as they move between shelters, settling in as much as possible to create a sense of normalcy, with help from NGOs, counselors and aid organizations. (Photo by Peggy Peattie)

At the Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown Tijuana, Maria Isabel Reyes, 40, center, stands amid the garbage and migrant tents on Dec. 16, 2018.

In Tijuana, Mexico, children members of the migrant caravan are learning to live in limbo as they move between shelters, settling in as much as possible to create a sense of normalcy, with help from NGOs, counselors and aid organizations. (Photo by Peggy Peattie) Peggy Peattie for KPCC


Most of the migrants at El Barretal have taken a number, hoping that when theirs comes up, they can present themselves to U.S. officials at the San Ysidro port of entry and ask to be interviewed for asylum. Already before Friday’s announcement, it was unclear how long they would have to wait in Mexico, and there were no guarantees they’d be accepted into the U.S. The Mexican government has since said it will extend humanitarian protections to foreign asylum seekers whose cases are being decided by U.S. officials.

Still, for those already waiting in the camps, the new policy adds to their dilemma.

Some, like Maria Santos, are giving up.

Santos, from Honduras, and her family were camped far across town from El Barretal, in a makeshift tent city close to the border fence in Tijuana.

This unofficial camp sprung up outside the Benito Juarez sports complex, the site of an earlier migrant shelter, after that shelter flooded during a rainstorm and was closed.

Santos sat in front of her tent with Asli, her 9-year-old daughter. She smiled weakly as the little girl held up a Disney Little Mermaid costume, a donation from volunteers.

Santos looked exhausted. A growing pile of garbage bags sat a few yards from their tent. People could be heard coughing nearby. She said she can’t imagine going any further.

“We’re asking God to guide us,” Santos said in Spanish. “We don’t know if we will stay, or what we will do.”

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, in one of the covered areas, migrants are happy to be out of the rainy plot in their original shelter at Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown on Dec. 16, 2018.

At the El Barretal shelter in Matamoros, Tijuana, in one of the covered areas, migrants are happy to be out of the rainy plot in their original shelter at Benito Juarez Sports Complex near downtown on Dec. 16, 2018. Peggy Peattie for KPCC

Santos said they’d thought seeking asylum in the US would be easier, that they would be allowed to cross the border. She said they’d heard people say this in the caravan. “It was a lie,” she said bitterly.

Santos was with Asli at the camp, near the fence, when U.S. agents fired tear gas into Mexico during a border protest.

She recalled covering her daughter’s face to protect her as they choked on the gas.

“It was a bad smell, and my eyes watered when they threw those bombs,” said Asli.

Santos said the incident further shook their faith in the idea of continuing north.

Since then, her husband and their older son have found work here in Tijuana, in construction. They no longer see the United States as a feasible option.

Neither does Asli.

“Since they don’t let us cross, we’re going to stay here,” she said.

Her mother agrees. If they can find a place to live, she said, they’ll try to make a new home in Mexico.

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Leslie Berestein Rojas

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Patricia Ortiz meets with Rosa at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project offices in Los Angeles to discuss her asylum case, Dec. 5, 2018.

Patricia Ortiz meets with Rosa at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project offices in Los Angeles to discuss her asylum case, Dec. 5, 2018. David Wagner/KPCC

In recent weeks, thousands of migrants have gathered in Tijuana, hoping for asylum in the United States. Some will be deported before ever stepping foot in California. Others will be detained by U.S. immigration authorities as they wait for their hearings.

But some will be allowed to live in California while their cases wind through the system. Legal experts say they’ll be lucky to be here. The state has a cadre of pro bono attorneys eager to help them navigate the complicated asylum process.

But California’s high cost of living could push families out of the very places offering the most help.

“A lot of our immigrant community are finding themselves having to move outside of Los Angeles so that they can afford to live,” said Patricia Ortiz, a lawyer with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project.

“But once they’re there, there is not quite the same amount of resources or support that they would have here,” she said.  

One of Ortiz’s clients, Rosa, has been in Los Angeles for about two months. She fled gang violence in El Salvador with her two children.

Before Rosa arrived, she pictured Los Angeles as a place full of luxury and natural beauty. Some areas are like that, Rosa said. But her corner of the city looks and feels familiar.

“I sometimes feel as if I were in the capital of El Salvador,” said Rosa, who requested that her last name be withheld because her asylum case is ongoing.

She was surprised by how much housing costs here. During their first month in Los Angeles, Rosa and her family lived in cramped quarters with another family sleeping right next to the bathroom.  

“We chose to move because we could not access the bathroom,” she said. “We did not feel comfortable entering it.”

Since then, Rosa has found a studio apartment near downtown L.A. that rents for $800 per month. But even coming up with that amount will be a struggle. Asylum seekers are not eligible for a work permit until at least six months into their cases. Many work under the table to get by.

Despite these hurdles, Rosa said California provides what she didn’t have in El Salvador: Safety, and the chance of a better life for her kids.

“There is opportunity here,” she said. “Here, you can realize any dream you want.”

Ortiz said as expensive as Los Angeles is, asylum seekers here have access to people who want to help. For instance, she said, “Getting our clients connected to mental health resources outside of the L.A. region is very difficult. It’s something that we are always struggling with.”

Jenna Gilbert, a pro bono asylum attorney at Human Rights First, said it’s heartbreaking to get calls from clients who plan to leave California months into their case, because they can’t afford to stay.

She tells them they’re not just losing their lawyer. They’re leaving behind California’s Ninth Circuit for courts that may be more likely to deny asylum claims.

“If you move to a small town in Texas, housing is going to be much cheaper,” Gilbert said. “But you probably won’t have the legal resources. And you also will be in a circuit that is much less favorable to asylum seekers.”

In 2017, California lawmakers approved a state budget that included $45 million in funding for immigrant legal services. With that increased funding, the state’s Department of Social Services has contracted dozens of nonprofits — including Esperanza and Human Rights First — to offer legal help to thousands of immigrants every year.

The state money is spread to organizations throughout California. But regional breakdowns show that nonprofits in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have received the largest chunks of money. These areas may be expensive for migrants, but the data shows that having access to legal aid makes a huge difference in asylum cases.

“Finding a lawyer is powerfully associated with positive outcomes,” said UCLA law professor Ingrid Eagly.

In a study on outcomes for families after being released from detention, Eagly and her colleagues found that between 2001 and 2016, released families that did not have a lawyer were only allowed to stay in the country 7 percent of the time. Those who had a lawyer increased their odds to 49 percent.

“They’re more likely to be able to gather evidence, to work collaboratively with their lawyer and to otherwise prepare and find witnesses who can testify in their case,” said Eagly.

The data from Eagly’s study does not include cases since President Trump took office. Under his administration, asylum denial rates have been rising.


Lizeth looks out the window of her apartment in Los Angeles, Dec. 6, 2018.

Lizeth looks out the window of her apartment in Los Angeles, Dec. 6, 2018.
David Wagner/KPCC

Even on a day off from her job at an El Pollo Loco, Lizeth finds herself cooking. While her kids are at school, she stirs a big pot of caldo de res, or beef soup.

“I’ve always cooked,” she said. “I like it.”

Lizeth, who only wants to use her middle name, had a small business selling food out of her home in Honduras. But she said gangs threatened her for refusing to pay a “war tax,” a local form of extortion. She fled with her husband and two of her children, now aged 6 and 14.

They’ve been living in Los Angeles for more than two years, and they’re still awaiting a decision in their asylum case. By now, they’ve settled into a routine.

“At six o’clock, we get up and get ready,” Lizeth said. They need to be out the door by 7:20 a.m. so Lizeth can get to work by 8:30 a.m.

It took Lizeth a year and a half to get her work permit. Her husband just received his. Like other asylum seekers, they started off renting rooms in houses crammed with other occupants.

But now, they can afford the $1,000 rent for their own studio apartment in the San Fernando Valley. It doesn’t offer much privacy, Lizeth said. A simple room divider separates the living room from the bedroom. But their home is decked out with festive Christmas decorations.  

“It’s one thousand percent better” than anything she expected to have, Lizeth said.

“I have dreams. I have goals. And I know I can achieve them. In my country, you have goals. You have hope. But everything remains a dream,” she said.

Two years may sound like a long time to wait for an asylum decision. But Lizeth’s attorney, Jenna Gilbert, said these days, “Two years is on the shorter end.”

As years go by, Gilbert worries that judges may start to think her clients no longer have a credible fear of gang members in their home country. She says a claim that may have been strong a few years ago, “maybe today isn’t so strong.”

“Things are changing so rapidly, there’s really no way to provide your clients with any kind of comfort, any kind of understanding of what the road ahead might look like,” Gilbert said.

UC Hastings law professor Karen Musalo attributed that uncertainty to recent actions by the Trump administration.

In a decision earlier this year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote, “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”

Musalo said Sessions was ignoring the strong legal basis many migrants have for these sorts of asylum claims. But immigration judges are getting a different message.

“Certainly the administration is sending a message that people fleeing gangs or people fleeing domestic violence should not be recognized as refugees,” Musalo said.

On Wednesday, a federal judge struck down parts of the Trump administration’s policy of turning away asylum seekers based on domestic violence and gang violence claims.

“Many of these policies are inconsistent with the intent of Congress,” wrote Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington. “And because it is the will of Congress—not the whims of the executive—that determines the standard for expedited removal, the court finds that those policies are unlawful.”

At this point, Gilbert hopes a decision in Lizeth’s case is delayed until 2020 or later, when there could be a new president in the White House with more favorable asylum policies.

“Now that we’re kind of at the halfway point, I’m hoping that cases slow down as much as possible until we can see the end of this administration,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully.”

In the meantime, Lizeth and her family grow more comfortable in California every day. They’ve put a down payment on a car. Their kids are picking up English in school. Lizeth worries what would happen if they were deported back to Honduras.

“They think those of us coming from the United States are carrying a lot of money,” she said. “There are many cases of people who went back to Honduras and didn’t live more than a month.”

But for now, Lizeth said, the future is bright. In Honduras, holidays were hard. She could afford to give her kids gifts or a nice meal, but never both.

“Now, I’m going to make a big dinner. And my children will have clothes, shoes and a nice Christmas,” she said. “Like I haven’t had in a long time.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

David Wagner

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The Indiana Department of Homeland Security says a search-and-rescue dog team has been deployed to California to help in efforts to find missing and unaccounted victims of California wildfires.

It says Lillian Hardy and her dog Eris deployed to Butte County, California, on Sunday and will return on Dec. 10. Hardy and Eris will help authorities detect human remains in areas devastated by the Camp Fire. The Camp Fire began Nov. 8 and has claimed at least 85 lives and left nearly 300 missing.

Hardy leads the Indiana agency’s search-and-rescue training program and also assists Indiana public safety agencies in search-and-rescue operations. Hardy and Eris are certified for land and water human remains detection.

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Time is short in this session of Congress, and conservation and tourism groups are hoping for a vote on a bill to address the massive maintenance backlog in the national parks.

The Restore Our Parks is a bipartisan proposal to direct up to six and a half billion dollars of revenue from offshore oil and gas royalties to fix crumbling roads and buildings, plus electrical and wastewater systems at the parks.

Marcia Argust with the Pew Chartiable Trust says parks such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia are crucial to the state’s tourist economy,

“California receives over 40 million visitors each year to its national parks. They spend over $1.9 billion in local communities, and generate over 25,000 jobs each year.”

Argust says the bill has passed comittees in both the US House and Senate but needs a floor vote in each house, ideally before  the end of the year. A recent study estimates that tackling the estimated 12-billion-diollar maintenance backlog could stimulate the creation of 110-thousands jobs nationwide.

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