Fri, 18 Oct 2019

US-Bound Migrants, Asylum-Seekers Wait Out Policy Changes

Voice of America
15 Sep 2019, 22:05 GMT+10

LAREDO, TEXAS/NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO - Editor's note: VOA is withholding some identifying information and images when requested by the migrant or asylum-seeker, to limit risks to their safety, as criminals in northern Mexico are targeting migrants for kidnapping, assault and ransom. Only first names are included in this report from the border, which contains personal accounts as told by migrants that have not been verified by VOA but are consistent with reports from a wide range of news outlets and sources.

The U.S. Border Patrol reports it has intercepted more than 800,000 migrants and asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border so far in the 2019 fiscal year.

In recent months, the Trump administration has returned tens of thousands of mostly Central American migrants to Mexico to await U.S. immigration hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" program.

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the administration to deny asylum to all recent non-Mexican claimants who hadn't already been denied asylum in a third country before reaching the U.S. border. Even before the Supreme Court decision, U.S. officials reported nine of 10 asylum claims were being rejected.

Despite such statistics, and amid rapidly shifting U.S. policies, migrants and asylum-seekers from the Americas, Africa and beyond await a determination of their fates while biding their time on both sides of America's southern border.

VOA reporters Victoria Macchi and Ramon Taylor spoke with a broad sampling of migrants and asylum-seekers in early August. Many departed their home countries months before U.S. policy changes went into effect, under assumptions that no long apply. All are awaiting immigration court hearings. These are their stories.

Melissa, 25: 'It's only been an American nightmare'

Country of Origin: Venezuela

Status: Returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, under MPP

Melissa fled Venezuela in late July seeking asylum in the United States. As a critic of Venezuela's disputed President Nicolas Maduro, she feared retribution from the government. Along her route, she says she was kidnapped and extorted by smugglers in Reynosa, Mexico, who forced her to cross into the U.S. between ports of entry, where she was detained. Melissa was returned to the International Bridge spanning the Rio Grande river to Nuevo Laredo, Puente 1, lacking laces in her shoes, a change of clothes, food or shelter. Her pleas to remain in the U.S. to await her Oct. 22 court hearing were denied. "I thought this would be, as they say, the American dream. But for me, it's only been an American nightmare."

Voices of Migrants: Detained at the US-Mexico Border video player. Embed Copy

Victor, 26: 'My baby was shaking from the cold'

Country of Origin: El Salvador

Status: Released to temporary nonprofit migrant facility in Laredo, Texas

After spending three days at a crowded U.S. detention facility in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Victor and son Daniel, 2, were transferred to a migrant shelter in Laredo. They were the only ones in his detention group who were not returned to Mexico under MPP, he said. He'll await his court date in the U.S. Victor describes their brief time in detention as a test of physical and mental endurance. At night, the air conditioning made the facility dangerously cold, he says, and Daniel caught the flu. "My baby was shaking from the cold, so I wrapped him tighter." Victor said Daniel received prompt medical attention. Since their release, Victor's goal is to provide "security" for his son, free of violence.

Voices of Migrants: Returned to Mexico video player. Embed Copy

Keiny, 27: 'Faith in God and the truth'

Country of Origin: Cuba

Status: Returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, under MPP

In a barren shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Keiny and his seven-months-pregnant wife are counting the days until their immigration court date later this month. They are among Laredo's first scheduled MPP hearings and have been in the border city since July with no lawyer and no money, only "faith in God and the truth." With the savings from a food cart he ran in Cuba, the couple paid about $475 each for a flight to Nicaragua. From there, they went by bus to Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico. Frustrated by the long waits and dangers asylum-seekers face on Nuevo Laredo's streets, Keiny insists returning to Cuba is not possible for him and his wife. It's his fourth attempt to leave Cuba for good. The first three were by boat. When he was returned, he was forced to pay hefty fines and says his family was surveilled. If his asylum bid fails and he is sent back again, he fears punishment in the form of jail, or even torture. "I don't feel safe in my country. The police and government do what they want."

Voices of Migrants: Fleeing Violence, Crime video player. Embed Copy

Julia, 34: 'I don't want that anymore for my children'

Country of Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo

Status: Released to temporary nonprofit migrant facility in San Antonio, Texas

Julia and her two daughters, ages 15 and 9, left the DRC in 2014 after her eldest son was killed. They spent four years in Angola, but security concerns there prompted them to leave Africa entirely. Last year, they flew to Ecuador. On foot and by bus and boat, they made their way through South and Central America, into Mexico, and finally to the U.S.-Mexico border. They crossed the Rio Grande alone and reached out to border agents waiting on the other side. They were allowed to remain in the U.S. pending their first court hearing, scheduled for the first week of August. "I told them when we left Angola that we were headed for America. We're going to have a better life. ... We suffered a lot. I don't want that anymore for my children."

Lilian, 30s: 'They treat us like delinquents'

Country of Origin: Honduras

Status: Returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, under MPP

Hours after being dropped off on the Mexican side of Puente 1 by U.S. border agents, Lilian says her group of migrants was told if they didn't get on the buses to Mexico's southern Chiapas state, nearly 2,000 kilometers away, they would be left to fend for themselves. A diabetic, traveling with her 9-year-old son, she said she was forced to dump all of her belongings when a smuggler took the group across the river, and she hasn't had access to insulin since then. She says it's cruel to make people wait three months for their November court date in Laredo, if they are just going to be rejected for asylum in the U.S. Her son's father, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, has yet to find an attorney they can afford - and she's not alone. In June, only 1.3% of the nearly 13,000 MPP cases had legal representation. "We're coming to this country for a better life," Lilian says. "They treat us like delinquents, both in the U.S. and in Mexico."

Marvin, 38: 'The journey could have cost me my life'

Country of Origin: Honduras

Status: Released to temporary nonprofit migrant facility in San Antonio, Texas

When they set out northward in February, Marvin and the group he traveled with decided to avoid trains to minimize risks to the children. By the time the group - including his teenage son, Kevin, colleagues, and extended family members - got to the border, they knew they didn't want to pay fees to cartels to cross the river. He bided his time for a few days in Piedras Negras, visiting the river daily to determine where and when it would be safest to cross. "I prayed to God in that moment to clear the way for us," says Marvin, sitting beside his son in a San Antonio shelter waiting for their bus. They were allowed to remain in the U.S. pending their court hearing. "I know that the journey could have cost me my life along the way. ... If doing nothing means you'll die, or that something will happen to you (in your home country), you'll do whatever it takes - risk illness and everything."

VOA Spanish Service reporters Jorge Agobian contributed reporting from Laredo, Texas, and Celia Mendoza from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Read their reports in Spanish.

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