Central Americans with disabilities seek compassion at US border

By Sandra Cuffe

Tijuana, Mexico - Lying in the shade in a little green strip between a walkway and a fence in the Tijuana stadium-turned-shelter for Central American migrants and refugees, Daniel Folgar launches into a chronology of the bones he has broken and re-broken.

He has dislocated his right hip six times; repeatedly broken both femurs; and his knees have metal screws.

"My height and growth was no longer normal," says 49-year-old Folgar, who is 1.4m tall, as his crutches rest against the fence next to him.

Folgar suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder, also known as brittle bone disease. There is no known cure.

Doctors in his home country, Guatemala, recommended he avoid falling and suggested calcium supplements to help strengthen his bones. But Folgar has not been able to afford those, he says.

"I practically have no family. I have not been able to work," he adds, explaining that he hopes to find work in the US to support himself and afford supplements.

Job opportunities are scarce in Guatemala, and even more so for people with disabilities. Sidewalks and streets are peppered with obstacles blocking the path for wheelchairs, and access to some government buildings and services involve stairs.

Folgar arrived in Tijuana last week with hundreds of other participants of what's now being called the Central American exodus. Six thousand people are now at the US border in northwestern Mexico and thousands more are on their way, with the goal of applying for asylum in the United States.

The journey has been gruelling, especially on Folgar who runs the risk of breaking or fracturing a bone. He's found comfort though in a friendship with Sergio Caceres, who travelled with him for the more than 2,500km from Guadalajara, Mexico where they met. 

Caceres, 40, has spent half his life wondering if things could be different. Twenty years ago, he suffered severe spinal cord injuries when he fell in the shower, Caceres says. One surgery improved the range of motion in his neck, but a potential second surgery to improve his leg function never happened.

"The doctor said it could only be done if I had money," Caceres says, adding that the surgeon told him the best option would be to try to get the surgery in the US.

Caceres never had the money, however. Without work, he lived with his mother and stepfather in Villanueva, in northwestern Honduras.

"My country is very poor. The millionaires have all the money," he says.

It was only a year ago that he received a wheelchair, making such a long journey to the US border possible.

"I would have never made it all the way here with the walker," Caceres says, explaining he was unable to use the seat to rest because he would always slip off.

Strict border measures

Now, thousands of kilometres away from their homes, both Caceres and Folgar, are in for a long wait.

The two friends, like most of those part of the collective exodus, plan on crossing into the US, but due to the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy and recent extreme measures, their futures seem uncertain. 

On Monday, US border officials shut down all northbound lanes at the San Ysidro vehicle crossing for roughly three hours in order to further fortify the area, according to Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Last month, US President Donald Trump ordered the deployment of more than 5,000 US military troops to the border. Since then they've been installing concertina wire along fences.

Nielsen tweeted Monday's lane closures came after border officials "were notified that a large [number] of caravan migrants were planning to rush the border".

No such rush occurred, and Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the cross-border social movement group accompanying the exodus, condemned the measure and Nielsen's message as ways to stoke anger and impatience against the refugees.

"Nielsen's false comments about the Refugee Exodus are a deliberate attempt to mislead the public and demonize refugees fleeing government-sponsored violence and displacement," Pueblos Sin Fronteras said in a statement Monday.

Separately on Monday, a federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked Trump's latest measure to restrict asylum seekers, which including barring those who cross between official ports of entry from being eligible for asylum.

"Whatever the scope of the President's authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden," Judge John Tigar wrote in his ruling.

The ruling is an important victory for asylum seekers, but other measures also have advocates and immigrants worried.

Proposed rules may make it harder

Under proposed changes to the definition of what constitutes a "public charge", immigrants seeking green cards or other visas would be judged negatively if they may use public assistance programmes, including food stamps, non-emergency Medicaid and housing vouchers.

Rights groups say the change will adversely affect people with disabilities.

"The proposed public charge rule would discriminate against immigrants on the basis of disability and scare people with chronic illnesses away from getting the healthcare they need to thrive," Madison Hardee, a Center for Law and Social Policy Lawyer and Senior Policy Analyst, told Al Jazeera in an email.

More than 1,500 community, social services, religious, non-profit and other groups have signed a letter opposing the proposed rule change, which the public can comment on until December 10.

"Immigrants hoping for a future in the US shouldn't be afraid to apply for health programmes - but if this rule moves forward, they will," Hardee said. "It is critically important for health and disability rights advocates to fight alongside anti-poverty and immigrant rights groups to oppose this discriminatory proposal."

Back at the Tijuana stadium, the immediate goal for Folgar and Caceres, however, is to figure out what to do next. 

Despite the challenges, the two new friends remain positive.

Folgar is extremely thankful to everyone who has sheltered, fed, and otherwise supported the Central American migrants and refugees throughout Mexico. He is hoping for the same kind of humanitarian assistance and compassion from the US.