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Coronavirus Featured Immigration Justice

Migrants awaiting asylum feel forgotten by the United States and Mexico

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Story by Rocio Gallegos/La Verdad
Photographs by Alicia Fernandez
Republished with permission. See the original Spanish version of the story here.

Every time her petition for asylum in the United States is extended, Yaneth Blanco Valdez feels that the possibility of living on the other side of the border is vanishing. Her immigration status has kept her in Ciudad Juárez for almost a year and seven months.

“I’m in limbo. I don’t know if I’m staying here or going there,” says Yaneth, who was returned to Ciudad Juárez by the U.S. government on June 23, 2019, along with her sister Claudia, with whom she fled Cuba to seek asylum in the United States.

They left their country due to the the economic and political situation, she says. They arrived at the Juárez-El Paso border in 23 days and crossed the border on June 14, 2019, turned themselves into Border Patrol agents and nine days later were returned to Mexican territory.

The are among more than 70,000 migrants who were transferred from the United States to Mexico’s northern border under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” The program forces asylum seekers to wait on Mexican soil while their cases are heard in U.S. immigration courts.

Yaneth is still waiting for the immigration court ruling. Her sister Claudia’s situation is different. She was denied asylum and remained in limbo in Mexican territory where she has no legal residence.

Yaneth Blanco Valdez, a Cuban physician, prepares coffee in the kitchen of the place she rents with her sister in Ciudad Juárez.

They were on U. S. soil only eight days, held in Border Patrol cells in El Paso and then Fort Hancock. “That’s where they put us in the MPP and sent us to Mexico,” she says from her home in a rundown neighborhood in Juárez, a city that went from being part of a migration route to a waiting room of the United States.

The uncertainty surrounding her situation does not fade with the arrival of Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, she says. However, she confesses that with the change in government she regained some of the hope of crossing the border to stay legally in the United States, since the new president offered immigration changes.

“I’m not 100 percent certain I’m going to cross, but from the 10 percent hope against 90 percent that I had that I would be denied with (Donald) Trump, at least now I have 50 percent hope,” 35-year-old Yaneth says. She doesn’t know how much longer she must wait in Mexico.

Her third immigration court hearing in El Paso has been continued twice  since the border closure due to COVID-19. Her next appointment is scheduled for March 8.

Biden said in mid-December that it will take months to establish his own asylum plan and dismantle that of the Trump administration.

In the meantime, migrants who are still awaiting asylum in Ciudad Juárez, most of whom are Cuban and Central American. Most live in extremely precarious conditions in shelters or apartments, houses, or rooms that they rent out together, often without the possibility of medical care and in unsafe conditions.

Isela and Fernando from El Salvador hang clothes in the courtyard of El Buen Samaritano migrant shelter

“We have a somewhat complicated situation with migrants. These people have not been able to continue with their court hearings in the United States because of the pandemic, they are closed. So, those people are waiting in Mexico to continue their process and many are waiting to start their process. There is a lot of uncertainty,” says Luz Adriana Torres Serrano, a consultant with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids migrants on the Mexican border.

In her experience, Torres Serrano says that migrants are vulnerable and have been victims of crime. The  winter climate also presents problems, unleashing respiratory diseases, which complicates their health in the midst of a pandemic.

The conditions of abandonment and instability of asylum seekers trapped in Mexico are documented in a research report by the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law (FJEDD) organizations; Asylum Access Mexico, the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) and the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA).

The organizations found in over a year’s research that asylum seekers face abuse not only by the authorities, but also by organized crime gangs, since they are sent to cities that the Department of State includes on their most dangerous list to U. S. citizens, places they recommend against visiting.

They also mention several legal irregularities that were detected regarding the way the strategy was executed, like the fact that it was announced by the Mexican Government as a “humanitarian measure.” However, the Mexican government has not guaranteed returned migrants’ access to health, education, food, employment, or safety services.

In their research, the organizations documented that from 2019 to May 2020, more than a thousand members of the MPP program were victims of kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder, and sexual abuse.

“By accepting the enforcement of the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, the Mexican government became complicit in the cruelty policies rolled out by the Donald Trump administration,” the report says. The report says the first returned migrants entered through Tijuana on Jan. 29, 2019; in March 2019 they began arriving in the cities of Mexicali and Ciudad Juárez. Afterwards, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, Piedras Negras in Coahuila joined in and, in the beginning of 2020, Nogales, Sonora.

“We can’t stop, we need to move forward.”

The insecurity and instability are conditions that Yaneth has overcome during her journey and her stay in Ciudad Juárez, where she has managed to survive with the help of migrant or religious groups, by working in bars and restaurants. Since May 2020, she has worked at the hotel filtro, where returned migrants from the United States are housed. There, she practices her profession as a doctor, caring for migrants with COVID-19.

She is a graduate of the University of Medical Sciences in the Cuban province of Camagüey. “I decided to leave Cuba because of the political and economic situation, which is getting quite complicated,” she says as she cleans the house where she temporarily resides. “I had a little money and I saw that it wasn’t going to be enough for anything, so I decided to leave the country.”

She decided to start her journey to the United States, where her father lives, she says. She and her sister first went to Nicaragua because visas aren’t required for Cubans and they can travel without having to show proof to the government of their return with the purchase of return travel tickets.

“There, we contacted a coyote who charged us $5,000 to bring us here. We crossed rivers, you know, and with everything that happens on the way, fleeing from the police. We came through the Pacific on boat and on the day that there was an earthquake in El Salvador it almost overturned the boat in a shark-infested area. An exceedingly difficult journey,” she says.

They crossed into Mexico illegally. They arrived in Ciudad Juárez, where they were convinced not to sign up for the waiting list to cross the international bridge. They paid an extra thousand dollars to go down the Rio Grande. They were told to turn themselves in to U.S. border agents.

“They made us tell a whole story, that we were assaulted. . . so that a contact they supposedly had there, would know that we were sent by them. Bullshit! No one had a contact over there,” she recalls with dismay.

The traffickers told the women they would see them on the other side of the border in three or four days. The traffickers stripped them of their belongings, leaving them with only their passports, she says.

Sisters Claudia and Yaneth in their small home in Ciudad Juárez.

“We were overly excited and believed their story and, since everything had gone well with the coyote that we were with, we were over-confident. It was all a lie.”

With no money, no phone, no documents and only the clothes she and her sister were wearing, they were eventually returned to Ciudad Juárez.

Officials estimate that of the 22,000 migrants returned to Juárez who have scheduled hearings in the court in El Paso, Texas, 11,000 still remain.

 “When we arrived at the immigration office (in Ciudad Juárez) they told us that all the housing for immigrants was full, because during that time people were coming back and forth and there was nowhere to go,” Yaneth says. She called her father in the United States to send help. But he was only able to do it for one month.

“I had my first appointment before the court on Jan. 22 of last year, then I had a second one on February 20 and I had a next one on June 6, but the border and the court were already closed due to COVID, then they scheduled it for October and that one was also changed,” she says. Now she must wait until next March 8.

Her situation distresses her, not only because of the uncertainty of waiting for asylum, but also because of her sister’s status after being denied refuge by the U. S. government.

She says that Claudia was rejected during her fourth court hearing in December 2019. She requested an appeal and was scheduled for February 2020, but she did not appear.

“They denied me everything and I will not be able to go there, I will stay here in Juárez. Here I have several objectives, first to get my work documents and reunite with my family. But it is a little complicated,” 20-year-old Claudia says.

Nor did she get the option to legalize her stay in Mexico. Refugee status must be requested within the first 30 days of entry into Mexico. So the options she has now are to get married, have a child or a serious illness for the Mexican government to grant residency.

“We have to move forward, life doesn’t stop, we need to advance,” says Yaneth, who wants to go to Dallas to resume her life.

Thousands abandoned their asylum claims

As of December 2020, 70,467 people were relocated from the United States to Mexico’s northern border under MPP, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which gathers information on federal justice in the United States.

Of that number, 22,694 have their process in a court in El Paso. However, only 3,268 asylum seekers have attended a  hearing. Another 8,514 are still waiting for their first hearing.

Two adults and two migrant girls outside El Buen Samaritano shelter awaiting their next asylum appointment in the United States.

At least 10,912 migrants did not attend their last hearing, according to data released by TRAC. Migrant advocacy organizations estimate that most of them have either abandoned their proceeding to stay in Mexico or have returned to their country of origin.

Shelters for migrants in Juárez, such as El Buen Samaritano, have seen a decline in population in recent months.

The shelter, managed by Pastor Juan Fierro Garcia and his wife Maria Dolores, has about 50 migrants, less than half of the number from March 2020, when it was reported to be overcrowded.

March is when the United States and Mexico largely closed their border because of COVID-19. MPP immigration court hearings were postponed, with no fixed date for their resumption.

This shelter has given refuge to about 1,750 migrants since October 2018, when the arrival of the first caravan began, the pastor of the shelter says. It is part of El Buen Pastor church.

“We started with people who stayed one day, then three days, then five, seven days, 15 days, one month, three months and then the long wait for up to two years,” the pastor says.

Juan Fierro, director of El Buen Samaritano shelter, southwest of Ciudad Juárez, talks about the security measures he imposed to protect migrants, including security cameras.

Ismael Martínez Santiago, head of Pan de Vida, which has been sheltering migrants for the past two years, says that many of the returned migrants by the Trump administration who were staying at his shelter went back to their place of origin because they could not bear to wait for their asylum.

Last year there the shelter housed up to 360 people at a time. Now, half that many people are staying in two-bedroom, one bath small houses and a large den that was converted into an improvised kitchen with a space for armchairs and bunk beds.

Among the migrants who have not given up and are still hoping to cross over to the United States and obtain asylum is Victoria Santos, 21, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who is seeking asylum to join her mother-in-law in New Jersey.

She says she crossed the border with her husband and 2-year-old daughter through Mexicali, Baja California, turned herself in to immigration agents in Arizona and was transferred from there to El Paso. There they were informed that they would be sent to Mexico.

“We didn’t want to be here,” she says in Spanish, a language that he struggles to speak so she can communicate with the rest of the residents of the shelter, who are mostly Cuban and Central American.

She arrived in February 2020, her appointment at the El Paso courthouse was set for March, but because was postponed because of the border closure. The U. S. government deferred her hearing to June, then September and again for January, but she now awaits a new date under a new administration.

Victoria Santos cooks at El Buen Samaritano shelter. She is a migrant from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and has months to wait for her next asylum hearing.

She stays at the Buen Samaritano shelter, where she helps in the kitchen preparing food. Every six days she must join her team and work on cooking dishes, washing dishes, and cleaning up the place. This day, she was preparing rice, beans and a potato and carrot stew.

Lunch is served at 2 p.m. “I was not used to cooking for so many.”

She was not prepared to wait that long for her asylum application either.

Yaneth has the same feeling.

“Most of us went looking for a better future. Those of us are trying to live normally, we just want to improve our lives,” she says as she hopes the new U. S. administration will open their doors to people like her.

Cover photo: Yaneth Blanco Valdez, a physician, fled Cuba in 2019 to seek asylum in the United States. She awaits an uncertain future in Ciudad Juárez.

This story was produced by La Verdad as part of a bi-national border media collaboration under the Microsoft-led Rebuilding Local News pilot program in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez.

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