Editor’s Note: The Journal continues its series on the influx of migrant families seeking asylum with a look at what is happening on the Mexico side of the border. The series concludes Monday with possible solutions.
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ – They all know their number by heart and eagerly recite it when asked about where they are on the list of people waiting to make an asylum claim at an official port of entry.
“It’s 7971,” said Jessiel O’Farrill, 33, a Cuban migrant.
“They’ll call us on the day our number appears,” O’Farrill explained, referring to U.S. authorities. “They only take about 30 to 50 a day,” he said.
O’Farrill is waiting in a school gym converted into a makeshift shelter in central Juárez with his 2-year old daughter. His pregnant wife was hospitalized in Ciudad Juárez a few days ago with dangerously high blood pressure. After leaving Cuba, the family traveled by bus through a dozen countries and walked through a jungle for 10 days, at one point “drinking water from the river,” he said.
Now he’s eager to finish the last leg of their journey and present his family’s asylum claim at a port of entry.
That’s exactly what Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen advised during recent testimony before a congressional committee. But O’Farrill will have to wait – possibly for weeks – for that to happen.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at official border crossings are turning back migrants before they cross into the U.S. and telling asylum seekers to put their names on a waiting list. They then allow a certain number from the list in each day.
The “metering” system was put in place last year because CBP said it did not have the officers or facilities to handle the surge in families. The list is managed by Mexico’s immigration officials, and thousands – like O’Farrill – are now waiting in shelters or elsewhere in Juárez until their number is called.
At the same time, hundreds of migrants a day who do not want to wait in Mexico are crossing the border between ports of entry and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. The influx has overwhelmed agents in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico. The Journal reported on those migrants and the U.S. Border Patrol’s experiences in Part 1 of this series, “8 Hours on the Border,” published last Sunday.
Maria del Rosario Moral Lima, a Guatemalan mother, has decided to wait it out in Ciudad Juárez.
“I’m trying to get to Santa Fe, New Mexico,” she said. She does not have relatives in Santa Fe, but said she heard it was a good place to start a new life with her two boys, ages 4 and 5.
Moral Lima said Monday they are fleeing violence back home in Guatemala but did not provide details. She hopes “by the end of the week, God willing,” her number on the list will be called and she’ll be allowed into the U.S.
As she carefully applies eye shadow while looking into a small hand mirror, the young mother mentions she will turn 22 on Thursday and may spend her birthday in the makeshift shelter with her sons.
The state of Chihuahua began housing asylum seekers in the school gym last month when Casa del Migrante, the shelter run by the Catholic church in Juárez, reached capacity at more than 600 people. More than 680 migrants are staying at the gym shelter.
“We’re looking for another space,” said Jorge Muñoz, who has been designated coordinator for migrant services. There’s room in the enormous gym, but schools in the area have had to cancel basketball games, volleyball tournaments and other events to accommodate the migrants.
The families staying at the gym shelter get three meals a day and a place to shower. In one room, there are stacks of diapers, shampoo, and other toiletries, and medical care on site, including flu shots. The Chihuahua state government is covering the cost with help from some donations.
Muñoz said the waiting list to appear at a port of entry has reached 8,000 people. The last number called was 6478 on Wednesday. Ramos said the shelter received no new requests Thursday or Friday for people on the list to present themselves at the port of entry, which is unusual.
“I’m 7442,” said Franklin Salazar, a young father from Nicaragua. “They’ll kill me if I go back.”
The 24-year-old said he had to sneak out of Nicaragua and flee across the border into Colombia with his wife and 17-month-old daughter because repressive government forces are targeting him and his family. Nicaragua’s president declared public demonstrations illegal, and police have arrested and tortured protesters, according to the United Nations. Some have simply disappeared.
In the rush to escape in December, Salazar had to leave his 3-year-old daughter behind.
“I couldn’t get her out because of the government,” he said sadly. He plans to send for her as soon as he can.
His youngest daughter is sick and getting medical attention at the shelter. They arrived with the clothes on their backs after being robbed on their journey north. He said they traveled by bus and on foot after leaving Nicaragua.
They spent several weeks stuck on the Guatemala-Mexico border before being allowed to cross. Salazar said he worked as a carpenter along the way to feed his family as they traveled to the ultimate border, the U.S. Mexico-boundary line.
“It’s very hard to get here,” Sanchez said.
Migrants entering the U.S. referred to as “other than Mexican,” or OTMs by CBP, are now the largest category, with people from Guatemala and Honduras outnumbering all other countries.
Families from Central America and Africa, as well as Brazil and a smattering of other countries have also arrived in Juárez hoping to cross into the U.S. Most of those at the shelter at the gym in Juárez are Cubans.
“We’re 7227, 7228, 7225 …,” said a trio of Cuban women.
“I’m 7556,” chimed in a fourth.
“We got this far with God’s help. Surely we’ll reach the U.S.,” Midersis Labrada Rodriguez said.
“We have a lot of faith,” she said.
“Some have paid” to get ahead on the list, said Anisnuvia Perez Matos, another Cuban woman. Others have “crossed illegally through the river,” said Judith Ramos Lopez, referring to the Rio Grande.
“We’re going the ‘legal way,’ ” she said as the other women nodded their heads in agreement.
Most of the Cubans interviewed say they prefer to wait for their numbers to be called to ask for asylum “legally” at a port of entry.
But many don’t fully trust the process. Every afternoon a group gathers at the downtown Paso del Norte Bridge connecting Juárez and El Paso to “stay on top of things,” said Arasais Concepcion, a Cuban migrant.
“Let’s see who gets lucky today,” she said, craning her neck for a view of the entrance to the bridge where a CBP officer allowed a few people to cross.
No special treatment
In the El Paso sector alone, the number of Cubans presenting themselves at legal ports of entry grew from 394 during the last fiscal year to 2,673 from October through February.
Cubans who reached Juárez said they hopscotched across at least a dozen countries to reach the U.S. border. Most started in Guyana because they can travel there from Cuba without a visa.
Cubans who reached U.S. soil used to enjoy special treatment and an expedited path to citizenship under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy dating back to the 1990s. That consideration ended under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration has kept it in place, requiring Cubans to add their names to the growing list of asylum seekers.
A few frustrated Cuban asylum seekers tried to bypass CBP officers posted on the pedestrian path and walked through vehicle lanes to reach the entrance to a port of entry in El Paso on four separate occasions this month.
The dozen individuals face charges for “eluding examination or inspection by immigration officers.” They were taken into custody and will now have a criminal history. They can still file an asylum claim.
Those who cross the border illegally between ports of entry and approach Border Patrol agents to ask for asylum could also face charges, but most parents with children do not.
They are subject to “expedited removal,” but if they are granted asylum by an immigration judge, they won’t be deported.
The Trump administration tried to ban anyone who crossed between official ports of entry from making an asylum claim, but the ban faced a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. A judge granted an injunction blocking the ban in November.
“The Immigration and Naturalization Act clearly states that you’re eligible to apply for asylum no matter how you enter the country, and courts all the way through the federal system up to the Supreme Court agree,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU Border Rights Center.
According to the ACLU, the growing waiting list in Mexico is encouraging people to cross between ports of entry, including remote areas like Antelope Wells and rugged places near Sunland Park.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that restrictions at ports of entry certainly push more people to cross in other ways where they still have the right to seek asylum but where they can be more easily criminalized,” Drake said.
And it does not serve as a deterrent, according to Drake.
“If your children are facing certain death at home, the possibilities of what may happen to you at the border, in the United States or on your journey up here are less severe than death,” he said.
The ACLU is also challenging the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” plan, renamed the Migrant Protection Protocol, which would send people from other countries back to Mexico until their asylum claim is decided.
In December the Department of Homeland Security announced the policy to have asylum seekers wait in Mexico until a U.S. immigration judge can hear their case. This year the protocol was implemented on the California border for migrants waiting in the Mexican cities of Tijuana and Calexico. The next place where the policy is expected to take effect is in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border region.
A hearing on a preliminary injunction motion to halt the ban is scheduled for later this month.
As the battle over asylum plays out in court, authorities in Juárez are concerned they will have to find resources to shelter more migrants.
Migrant advocates also are concerned about the dangers these asylum seekers face as the city copes with a spike in drug-related violence. There have been more than 247 murders so far this year.
A reminder of home
At the migrant shelter in Juárez, some Cubans on the waiting list to make an asylum claim at an official port of entry bide their time playing dominos and loudly debating who won the last game as salsa music plays in the background.
The scene reminds Alejandro Moya Hernandez of home. The 29-year-old was an accountant in Cuba. He is eager to practice his English with a visitor.
“I learned watching American movies,” he says.
Moya Hernandez loves movies based on Marvel comic characters. His favorite is “Captain America.”
He said he left Cuba because of persecution.
“In the United States you can speak anything you want to say. In my country no, only ‘shut up your mouth and follow the line.’ ” His wife has a visa to travel to the U.S., and he plans to meet her on the U.S. side of the border.
He’s been at the shelter in Mexico for two weeks. He hopes his number on the waiting list will be called in 10 days, but others who have been on the list longer are still waiting.