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‘We can’t go back to Guatemala’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

CIUDAD JUÁREZ – Many of the migrants staying at a crowded shelter in this Mexican border city are facing hard choices after they were sent back to Mexico to wait for an immigration court in the United States to decide whether to grant them asylum.

“We can’t go back to Guatemala,” said Isabel, a 56-year-old grandmother. She sat on a bunk bed in a sweltering room filled with other Central American women and children also returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol known as MPP.

Migrants descend from a ridge in southern New Mexico in June 2017 after getting lost in the desert. Some migrants risk their lives by crossing the border in remote areas in triple-digit heat or by dangerous waterways. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Isabel traveled up to the border in June with her 14-year-old daughter and the 8-year-old granddaughter she has raised since the girl was an infant. They’re seeking asylum.

“They put a gun to my head and knife to my throat,” said the 8-year-old making a gesture of a gun pointing at her temple with one hand and knife under her chin with the other, referring to gang members in her hometown.

A day before their first appearance in U.S. immigration court in El Paso, Isabel said, “I pray to God they let us stay.”

Her husband, sons, and other grandchildren are all in Rhode Island and have lived there for years.

After she was sent back to Mexico under MPP, she said, “My family encouraged me to try to cross the border again.”

She said she didn’t want to cross illegally, but her relatives pressured her to try because they worried about her staying in Juárez, a city with a rising murder rate.

Rather than wait, some migrants are risking their lives by crossing the border in remote areas in triple-digit heat or by passing through dangerous waterways.

This week Vilma Mendoza, a 20-year-old asylum seeker from Guatemala who had been returned to Juárez under MPP, drowned in a canal in El Paso as she tried to cross the border again.

On Thursday a 32-year-old man from El Salvador died in Border Patrol custody after he was taken to the Lordsburg Border Patrol station.

“I am beyond saddened by another tragic death,” said Rep. Xochitl Torres Small after Customs and Border Patrol notified her office the man died after “he fell into medical distress.” She and others in Congress continue to push for a full investigation into three deaths of people in Border Patrol  in custody in New Mexico, including two children in December.

The Consul General of El Salvador for an area that includes El Paso told the Univision television network that the man who died had been sent to Ciudad Juérez under the MPP.

Guatemalan Consul General Tekandi Paniagua said he is not surprised to see remote areas of New Mexico again being used as a border crossing route as migrants try to avoid Mexico’s National Guard posted in border cities like Ciudad Juárez.

“In the coming days we might see more people try to cross through dangerous areas and we might have more tragedies,” Paniagua said.

Early Wednesday morning Border Patrol agents took a large group of migrants into custody near the Antelope Wells border crossing. The 225 people were mostly families and unaccompanied minors from Central America.

“Even as temperatures rise to dangerous levels, criminal organizations continue to exploit innocent human lives in order to enhance their illicit gains without regard to the risks associated with the hazardous practice. In most cases these smugglers never cross the border themselves in order to avoid apprehension,” Border Patrol officials said in news release about the large group.

In addition to people looking to evade Mexico’s National Guard, other migrants may want to avoid the long waiting list to appear at a port of entry to make an asylum claim. The wait is longer because CBP in El Paso stopped taking new asylum applicants.

“CBP has not allowed anyone to come in on the metering list for almost the past two weeks,” Garcia said.

After a sharp decline in border crossings in June, there’s an uptick again.

Annunciation House in El Paso is providing temporary shelter to about 300 migrants a day when they are released by Border Patrol, CBP or ICE. In June the number had fallen below 100 a day.

“Clearly people are becoming very, very frustrated. They’re looking then at ‘what else can we do?,’ ” said Ruben Garcia, director of the nonprofit Annunciation House.

Across the border at the Buen Pastor Shelter, sister Marta Esquivel Sanchez, who runs the Methodist church shelter, also sees the frustration among migrants stuck in Mexico.

“There are people who are sad. That’s logical. They’re desperate,” Esquivel Sanchez said.