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This is Gilbert Ornelas, he volunteers to help migrants in the US state of Texas.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»Are you a migrant?

I’m here to help.”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»We can't help everyone.

We can't save everyone.

But we can save more than we are doing now.”

We traveled with him for two days, in San Antonio and at the border with Mexico.

And although Ornelas has been doing this work for five years, he will also reach his emotional limits in these two days.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»Every time I go there, I bring clothes, food and hygiene products with me.

That feels good.

I give these tools to an organization and they then give them to migrants.

We are on the way with Ornelas to Eagle Pass, a small town right on the border with Mexico in the US state of Texas.

Relief supplies are piled up in his trunk.

The 76-year-old wants to show us what it looks like at the border.

The conditions for refugees there have recently been drastically tightened.

But Ornelas' goal is still the same when it comes to migrants:

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»I don't want them to lose hope.

You have to be hopeful.

As soon as they lose hope, they start to doubt and become afraid - unless you help them on their way.

Near Eagle Pass is part of the infamous fence that Donald Trump wants to expand if he becomes president again.

During the election campaign, he promised to seal off the country to refugees.

So this barrier here right on the Rio Grande border river is a fitting image for Trump's tough migration policy.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

“You have thousands of miles of this fence.

For what reason?

That does not work.

People are still getting through.

For me it’s a complete waste of money.”

Arrival in Eagle Pass, the place that has become a symbol in the dispute over US refugee policy.

Here Ornelas visits with us an accommodation for migrants run by a church organization.

It is a first refuge for people who have made it across the border.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

Hello, how are you?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

Get to work.”

Winter clothing, blankets, hygiene products – Ornelas delivers what he brought with him from San Antonio.

His family once came to the USA from Mexico - and are now the third generation to live here.

He was a pilot in the US Air Force for a long time and later a stockbroker.

As the issue of migration became more prominent in the media, Ornelas decided to help and joined the Interfaith Welcome Coalition.

It is non-profit organizations like this that accompany refugees in the region on their first steps in the USA - and people like Ornelas who make them feel welcome.

The migrants have had a long journey.

Most of the people here come from Central and South America and have traveled through several countries over the course of months - because the economic situation in their homeland is so bad or they are being politically persecuted.

Now they have reached their destination.


»It feels so good.

Yes, I'm so happy.

I am very happy to be here because my family is here in the USA.«


»I decided to cross the Rio Grande.

It was honestly very, very difficult for us because I almost lost my son.

He almost disappeared into the river.

I had to fight the current of the Rio Grande with my wife.

Thank God I’m here to tell it.”

The people we talk to seem exhausted, but also relieved.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»They still have hope.

I don't see anyone here saying: I give up.

They want to go further, to San Antonio or somewhere else.

That's a good feeling.«

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»It says: Where are you?

You are in Eagle Pass, Texas.

And where is the airport?

In San Antonio.”

Overall, there is surprisingly little going on here at the moment.

It is colder in January and fewer migrants dare to cross the river.

But the fact that the halls here are so empty is also due to the current dispute over US immigration policy.

In the year of the presidential election, migration has long been one of the most important election campaign topics.

US President Joe Biden had promised to find solutions, but under him the situation at the border has not eased.

On the contrary: In December, more than 300,000 refugees came to the USA via Mexico, more than ever before in one month.

Texas Governor Greg Abbot shares Donald Trump's views on migration policy.

To ensure that fewer refugees come into the country, he has recently massively tightened the measures at the border of his state.

Border protection is actually the responsibility of the US government, i.e. Joe Biden.

But because from Abbott's point of view they are not doing enough, he has taken a lot of things into his own hands.

The governor also had this NATO wire with its razor-sharp edges assembled on his own initiative.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»We have to do something, but not this.

That's inhuman."

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the federal government is responsible for border protection and that federal officials are allowed to dismantle the NATO wire along the border.

So far, however, Governor Abbot has simply ignored this ruling.

And the authorities are also fighting over this place.

Shelby Park is actually a public park.

But recently Abbot's Texas National Guard has taken sole control here.

Even Biden's national border protection agency won't let them in here anymore.

Once again Ornelas stands in front of a fence that day and can hardly believe what is happening in his country.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

“Some people are so against immigrants coming in that they see it as an invasion.

They say: We are being attacked, we have to stop it.

And if people die at the border, then so be it.”

A few meters further, on the Mexican side, the local authorities are taking increasingly tough action against migrants.

To find out what is happening there and how the people who are stuck in Mexico are doing, we will later drive over this bridge to the neighboring country.

The day before we meet Ornelas at the bus station in San Antonio.

He works there once a week as a volunteer.

Andreas Landberg, DER SPIEGEL:

“Why is San Antonio a good place to talk about this topic?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»Because a lot of people come here and then take a bus or use the airport - we have an international airport, there is a train station.

So you can come here and then travel on.”

San Antonio is the first metropolis in Texas after the border.

Most refugees who come into the country across the Texas border first end up in this big city.

From Eagle Pass the bus ride takes two and a half hours.

And from San Antonio they travel further - for example to places in the USA where they have family.

That is why the issue of migration has long since affected not only the border region or southern states like Texas, but the entire country.

The aid organization Ornelas works for supports refugees in San Antonio with their onward journey.

But it also helps migrants who live in the city.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»Do you speak Spanish?

Are you a migrant?

I’m here to help.”

The woman from Venezuela has been in the USA for a year.

Ornelas gets her whatever he can find in the bus station.

Diapers, water.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

“And food for two days.”


“Thank you very much.”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

“No problem.”

But all that isn't enough for Ornelas, he wants to do more.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»I will give you a little money to help you.

This is supposed to help the child.

Thank you.


God bless you."

Andreas Landberg, DER SPIEGEL:

»I see how involved you are, how emotional it is for you that you even give your own money.

I assume it’s your money and not the organization’s?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

"Yes, that's my money."

Andreas Landberg, DER SPIEGEL:

“What drives you to do that?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer.

»You're right, it's very emotional.

I see the little baby... She's in a tough spot.

That breaks your heart.

Yes, so I give her my own money.

I’m just glad I can help her a little.”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

"We're in Mexico, people!"

This is the view of the border from the Mexican side.

To get to the USA, refugees have two options from here.

There are 1,450 official appointments with immigration authorities every day - at eight crossings along the entire 3,000-kilometer-long US-Mexico border.

With an appointment, refugees can easily enter the country via one of the bridges.

But most people have to wait a long time for one of these appointments - and out of desperation they take the illegal route through the Rio Grande, with its dangerous currents and the razor wire on the bank.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»You can see the blade wire and the clothes that are stuck in it.

You wonder who carried them, whether people survived and made it to the other side.”

Andreas Landberg, DER SPIEGEL:

“What does it do to you that your country welcomes immigrants like that?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»That doesn't look good, does it?

This is a terrible symbol.

Our politicians just can’t seem to come up with a plan.”

Andreas Landberg, DER SPIEGEL:

“How do you generally feel about how Joe Biden’s government is dealing with the issue?”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»I think he's really trying to find some sort of compromise.

I'm sure he would like to do more for migrants, but it won't pass.

What he wants will not be passed.

So he has to move toward the Republicans to reach some sort of compromise and get anything passed.

We'll see what happens."

We reach our last stop, an accommodation in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras.

Ornelas delivers supplies again that helpers from the other accommodation gave him.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer.


That’s all they gave me.”

Helper at the accommodation:

“No problem, thank you very much.”

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

“Sure, there you go.”

This place will also be the most emotional, challenging stop of our tour for Ornelas.

There are many more people here than in the camp on the US side.

Most people wait for one of the coveted appointments at the border.

But because there are so few of them available, many are stuck here after all the hardships they have already been through.


»I come from Colombia, my wife and I have

crossed six countries.

Getting this far was difficult.

But now they’re making it pretty impossible for us.”

It is particularly difficult to get across the border because the Texas government is putting pressure on the Mexican authorities.

So that they sometimes take drastic measures against migrants.

Sister Ursula tells us that, she runs the camp here.

Sister Ursula, head of the accommodation:

»The governor of the Coahuila region and the immigration authority have organized several buses.

They launched a "rescue operation" but they did not save the migrants.

They captured her and brought her back to the south.

“To where they started their journey through Mexico.”

The only way to get to the USA from the south is through Mexico.

And the part of the journey through this country was the most difficult of all.

This is what all the refugees we talk to tell us.

This woman from Peru also reports bad experiences with the Mexican cartel on her trip.

Here, so close to the border, she has set a limit for herself: If she doesn't get an appointment with US immigration authorities within 20 days, she wants to try to make it into the country through the river, even though there are always people in the attempt die.


»Who knows how long we will have to wait for an appointment?

We are very desperate.

Here you feel trapped, withdrawn, oppressed.

I mean, we only get this one meal, it has to last almost the whole day.

In my opinion, a person can’t live on that.”

Here, too, Ornelas gets into conversation with many people.

They ask him if there is anything he can do for them.

The person who always just wants to help seems helpless here.

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»I see more and more depression and people losing hope.

This is bad.

That is new."

With all the suffering and despair he sees here: is Ornelas thinking about quitting?

Gilbert Ornelas, volunteer:

»You come here and it breaks your heart.

I have to do something.

I have to help.

I'll keep going for a while.

Until my wife says: Enough.

'Ya basta' in Spanish.

I don’t know when the time will come.”