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On the border: ‘It was hell’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s Note: Journal reporter Angela Kocherga and photographer Roberto E. Rosales continue their coverage from both sides of the border. Today’s report focuses on asylum-seeking migrants who are being returned to Mexico to await their immigration hearings in the U.S.

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

CIUDAD JUÁREZ – Iris Villeda walked out of the building housing Mexico’s migration agency with her 2-year-old son, a weary look on her face, and second thoughts about seeking a safe haven in the United States.

“They treated us very badly,” she said, referring to U.S. authorities who sent her back to Mexico.

Her son’s bottom was bare, which she said was because she couldn’t get a diaper. U.S. authorities also took away her shoes and the few belongings she had while in custody.

“They threw everything in the trash,” she said, looking forlornly at the pair of rubber flip flops on her feet.

The Trump administration’s efforts to clamp down on migrants seeking asylum and deteriorating conditions on both sides of the border may finally be working. Both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and immigrant advocates point to a sharp decline in the number of migrants arriving at the border in June.

Apprehensions last month fell by at least 25%, down from a high of 144,000 in May, according to CBP. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan credits Mexico in part for the decline.

Under pressure from the Trump administration, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador deployed more than 21,000 troops – serving as National Guardsmen – to stop migrants at its borders before they can reach U.S. soil to file an asylum claim. The move came after President Trump threatened to slap stiff tariffs on all Mexican products.

“The numbers have declined dramatically,” said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House. The non-profit organization leads the relief effort for migrant families released from CBP custody with help from churches and other faith-based organizations in El Paso and Las Cruces.

This year, Annunciation House received a steady influx of migrant families ranging from 600 to 1,000 a day.

“That flow has now declined to 100 a day and some days not even 100,” said Garcia, attributing the drop to several factors.

“Mexico’s border enforcement is on steroids,” Garcia said.

He also points to the Migrant Protection Protocol, known as “remain in Mexico,” for having an impact. Under that policy, migrants are sent back to Mexico to wait for their asylum hearing in U.S. court. Previously, those with children were processed, released and allowed to wait in the U.S. Most connected with family members already living in the country. Those were the migrant families often helped by relief organizations and churches in the U.S. like Annunciation House.

Garcia said another factor could be the smuggling organizations that move people up to the border are also slowing their activity.

“They’re just waiting to see how this thing is going to play out,” he said.

And there is a seasonal dip in migration because of summer heat this time of year.

This week, the Mexican government began offering free bus trips back home for Central Americans who don’t want to stay in the country. The first buses departed from Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday with more than 60 passengers. The vast majority were asylum-seekers who had been returned under the Migrant Protection Protocol, according to Mexican authorities.

Even before the free bus rides, Villeda had made up her mind.

“My court date is in November. I can’t survive here,” she said. “I’m going back to Honduras, even if I have to beg for money along the way to get home.”

She said she slept on the floor in an overcrowded holding cell with her son, Adrian, who turned 2 while they were in CBP custody. Villeda said they didn’t get enough to eat or a chance to shower during the 10 days they were detained.

The mother from Honduras had followed the recommended procedure for requesting asylum at an official port of entry, first putting her name on a list in Mexico and waiting her turn to cross the border. She’s now among at least 15,000 migrants who have been sent to Mexico to wait for their asylum hearings in U.S. immigration court.

‘A lot of danger’

In the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where 200 to 300 migrants a day are returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol, asylum-seekers say they feel anything but protected as drug violence escalates.

“I’m very afraid. There’s a lot of danger here, a lot of danger,” said Yusmila Maikel, a 27-year-old woman from Cuba. “The other day where we were staying, there was a shootout,” she said.

Maikel was a doctor back in Havana, but said when she refused to go to Venezuela on behalf of the Cuban government, she lost her medical license. She fled the island and arrived at the border seeking political asylum with her husband. Both were returned to Mexico after filing a claim.

“All we can do is wait. I never imagined this. I’m not a criminal. I’m a professional. I was only looking for help,” Maikel said. Her immigration court date is scheduled for late January 2020. Her husband’s is the first week in December, even though they entered the U.S. together to file their asylum claim.

“They sent us back to Mexico with nothing,” she said, referring to U.S. authorities.

“They threw everything we had in the garbage. We came out worse than we entered,” she said, referring to their time in CBP holding facilities where they were separated by gender.

Maikel said she was not allowed to bathe or brush her teeth while in custody for 32 days. A report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, an independent internal government watchdog group, last week noted “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” during visits in June to Border Patrol holding facilities in the south Texas area.

A prior OIG report in May found similar conditions in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico.

Border Patrol officials have said their holding cells were not designed for families or children or long-term stays created when ICE or the Department Health and Human Services delay taking custody of migrants.

Horror stories

Migrants waiting outside Mexico’s migration office for relatives or friends who have yet to be returned to Mexico passed the time sharing horror stories about their time in U.S. custody.

“It was hell,” said Roberto Guerra, 50, a migrant from Cuba who said he was in an overcrowded holding cell for 33 days. “We couldn’t bathe or brush our teeth.”

He was detained with his 25-year-old son, Roberto Guerra Jr. His wife and daughter-in-law were held in an area for women. The men were back in Mexico, but now waited for the women to be returned.

“They don’t know anybody. We need to be here when they get out,” said the younger Guerra.

Shortly after he was sent back to Mexico, another Cuban migrant, Serafin Aguilera, said he was beaten in a robbery attempt.

“They followed me, knocked me down and started hitting me,” he said, showing off a large black eye. Aguilera said he was able to fend off the two attackers and hang on to the money his sister sent from the U.S. so he could buy clean clothes.

“It’s very dangerous here,” he said.

Aguilera’s immigration court date is Aug. 1.

But other asylum-seekers have to wait until the fall or beginning of next year for their hearings.

“How will we live here?” asked Fernando Juarez, a 25-year-old father from Honduras, right after he was returned to Mexico with a group of migrants, who were shuttled in large vans to Mexico’s migration agency’s offices near the U.S. border.

“We suffered a lot,” he said of his time in an overcrowded holding cell with his 6-year-old daughter, Natalie. “People slept on the floor with children, ate cold food.”

Juarez said he’s considering returning home rather than waiting in Mexico.

Another young father who returned to Mexico with his 6-year-old daughter said he, too, was thinking about going back to Guatemala.

“We don’t have any family here. We don’t have anything,” Juan Antonio said of Mexico. He was planning to stay with relatives in New Orleans while his asylum case moved through immigration court.

His most pressing need after being released from custody was finding a place to take a bath.

A Guatemalan mother and her 4-year-old son followed closely behind him looking for guidance on what to do next.

“We’re trying to find a place to stay,” Adalinda Muñoz said.

She left Guatemala nearly two months ago, put her name on a waiting list in Ciudad Juárez, and when it was her turn, crossed through an official port of entry to ask for asylum.

Muñoz said she was in CBP custody a day, and U.S. authorities then returned her to Mexico.

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