CIUDAD JUAREZ – As El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz crossed the border to visit migrants stuck in this city, his mind was on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier that day upholding a law allowing for the quick removal of some asylum seekers without a hearing in federal court.
“Respect for the truth demands that I speak up to say that this fundamental right to asylum here at the border really is effectively over,” Seitz said Thursday afternoon.
He read the statement in Spanish at the end of a meeting with pregnant migrant women from Cuba, Venezuela and Honduras stranded in Ciudad Juárez. The women are among tens of thousands of migrants now stuck in Mexico following a series of Trump administration policies restricting asylum.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision is the latest in a series of actions curtailing asylum, from waiting lists or “metering” at ports of entry applicants to the “remain in Mexico” for asylum seekers waiting while their cases are decided in U.S. immigration court.
In April, amid rising COVID-19 cases in the United States, the Trump administration used a law called Title 42 to immediately remove undocumented immigrants after they crossed the border as a “health and welfare” measure to control the spread of the virus.
“The administration has definitely used the COVID-19 emergency as a pretext to take some really drastic actions at the border that have effectively ended asylum,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a nonprofit organization based on Catholic social teaching. Corbett accompanied Seitz during his visit to Ciudad Juárez to inaugurate a program supported by the Border Refugee Assistance fund to aid expectant migrant mothers.
The bishop created the fund in partnership with the Hope Border Institute to help shelters caring for migrants stuck in Juárez by U.S. immigration policies. An estimated 1,300 migrants currently are staying in shelters in Ciudad Juárez, Corbett said. The number of migrants living on their own in the city isn’t known.
More than 19,000 migrants had court dates in El Paso through May, according to TRAC, an independent, non-partisan tool tracking immigration enforcement developed by Syracuse University. But it’s not clear how many have decided to wait for their hearings and remain in Ciudad Juárez.
Seitz crossed the border on Thursday as COVID-19 cases surged on both sides.
In addition to the pandemic, the migrant women told Seitz that they and their husbands are coping with the economic downturn and lost their jobs when Ciudad Juárez shut down to contain the virus. As the city reopens, the pregnant women said they are not being re-hired because employers don’t want to assume the risk of them being exposed to the coronavirus. Others complained they are still trying to collect their final paychecks for work they did before being laid off.
Seitz also visited a “hotel filtro,” which is providing COVID-19 tests, masks and other supplies for migrants in quarantine. Last week, 26 people were staying at the hotel, including 17 who have tested positive for COVID-19. The oldest migrant is 59, the youngest 18 days old, according to Rosa Mani, the social worker overseeing the quarantine hotel in Ciudad Juárez.
Many are families. Some were sent to Mexico from the United States. Others are new arrivals in Juárez.
When Seitz stopped by the hotel, he — like everyone entering — stepped onto a mat soaked with disinfectant to clean his shoes. He then went onto a hand washing station before walking through the courtyard as a cheerful children’s song played on a loudspeaker.
Inside the hotel, the bishop met with a mother from El Salvador who said she was fleeing violence. She arrived at the border with her three children and was returned to Mexico.
She gave birth this month to an infant daughter. Seitz gave the children a stuffed teddy bear and their mother a stroller for the baby and a small silver cross which she held in her hand as she cradled her infant.
“In the midst of evil, there are still angels,” she told Seitz. Before leaving he blessed the mother and her four children.
“We just can’t allow ourselves to be so focused on our own situation that we fail to really be aware of those who are suffering much more than we are in this time. Those who were already on the edge. Those who were already denied fundamental rights,” he said in an interview at the end of his visit.
The bishop is especially concerned about the plight of migrants seeking asylum as people on both sides of the border cope with COVID-19. They are now living in limbo amid a pandemic, economic downturn and escalating violence in Ciudad Juárez.
“We for our part, we’ve got to start paying attention again. When we were not looking, every right that belongs to a human being who needs to migrate has been taken away,” he said.
Cover photo: Dr. Leticia Chavarria checks Bishop Mark Seitz’s blood oxygen levels as part of the health screening protocol at a hotel in Ciudad Juárez. During the coronavirus pandemic, the hotel has served as a temporary shelter where recently arrived migrants can quarantine for two weeks before moving to a long-term shelter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)