Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ – The newest wave of asylum seekers say they’re fleeing extortion, kidnapping and murder in regions of Mexico ravaged by drug violence. They are hoping to find a safe haven in the U.S., but instead are stuck in squalid camps in Mexico near border crossings in pouring rain and frigid temperatures.
“The cold is hard, but bullets are worse,” said a man from the state of Michoacán who would only provide his first name, Hector, because he feared the drug cartels in his hometown.
“They asked me for a lot of money or they were going to kidnap one of my children or kill my kids,” he recounted. He escaped to the border with 15 family members, including his wife, seven children and abuelitos, or grandparents.
He said he had to “leave everything behind,” including the small herd of cattle that was his livelihood.
The family is now among thousands of Mexicans camped out in border cities in Mexico, forced to wait in the country they are fleeing to make an asylum claim at a U.S. port of entry.
Mexicans now outpace Central American asylum seekers, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The spike in recent months comes amid a steep decline in the number of Central Americans arriving at the border, which has dropped for the fifth straight month, according to CBP.
Until September, Mexicans seeking asylum were usually allowed to enter the U.S. temporarily to make a claim and wait while their cases moved through immigration courts rather than being forced to stay in the country they are trying to escape.
But now they too are being turned away and told to come back later at the border by CBP officers under a “metering” system created during the influx of Central American asylum seekers.
“Metering” is necessary, according to CBP, because the agency does not have the staff or facilities to process or hold large numbers of people arriving at once to ask for asylum.
“CBP is illegally rejecting Mexican nationals, which they know is unlawful, and returning them to the very country from which they’re fleeing, their home country subjecting them to ongoing dangers. That’s a blatant violation of U.S. and international law,”said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the Border Rights Center for the ACLU of Texas.
On Tuesday, the organization requested an investigation of the metering practice applied to Mexican asylum seekers in a letter to the Office of the Inspector General, the watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the ACLU of Texas, CBP is limiting the number of asylum seekers who can enter the country to “deter migration.” The letter cites a recent study by the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas in Austin that found more than 11,000 Mexican nationals are currently impacted by CBP’s turn-back policy and metering systems border-wide.
Numbers released by CBP for October show more than 45,000 people were taken into custody both between and at ports of entry, a 14% decline from September.
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan credited the Trump administration’s tough deterrence policies for reducing border crossings. The sharpest drop came this summer after Mexico’s president deployed his country’s national guard to stop migrants from reaching the U.S.
Those troops, though, cannot keep Mexicans from leaving their own country. And authorities in Mexico handling waiting lists for foreigners do not want to be responsible for their own citizens trying to escape violence, which is considered a conflict of interest by human rights organizations.
So the migrants camped at various ports of entry have started their own lists.
“They’ve allowed five families from our list to cross in a month and a half,” said Monse Carbajal, who was holding her crying toddler and the notebook listing people waiting at the Santa Fe Bridge.
She arrived a month and a half ago from Zacatecas with her husband and three children ages 2, 5 and 7. “Everyone here is fleeing organized crime,” she said, the term often used to refer to drug cartels.
At this camp, many of the asylum seekers are from the states of Zacatecas, Guerrero and Jalisco, but most are from Michoacán.
Ironically, they are camped outside an ice cream shop named “La Michoacana,” a cruel reminder of the home state they left behind.
When there is space to accept asylum seekers, CBP notifies authorities at the “shelter system” in Mexico to send a certain number of people to ports of entry, according to a CBP official. But since Mexicans are not in shelters, they have to keep checking with CBP officers on their own, hopeful they will be included with the few families allowed to enter the U.S. to make an asylum claim.
Mexican asylum seekers are so worried about losing their place in line that they’d rather camp out in the cold than go to overcrowded shelters.
“We try to bundle up the children,” said Felipe Gonzalez as he watched his son and a niece play with a donated toy train while his sister swept the dusty road outside the tents.
He left Zacatecas with three sisters and their children after their father was abducted and “disappeared” by drug cartels.
“More than anything we fear something will happen to us, and our children will suffer the way we’re suffering now,” Gonzalez said.
In some border cities in Mexico, cartels profit from kidnapping for ransom and have targeted not just Central American migrants but Mexican asylum seekers, according to law enforcement authorities and human rights advocates.
The ACLU of Texas estimates there are at least 3,000 Mexican asylum seekers living in tent cities in Ciudad Juárez.
At a camp in the sprawling Chamizal National Park near the Bridge of the Americas, a sea of blue tarps shelters at least 400 families. There are only six portable toilets.
Some stay in donated tents designed for weekend camping trips and cook on barbecue grills. Two women at one family campsite tried to boil rice in a pot on an open flame.
Many depend on the kindness of strangers for basic necessities.
One recent morning, volunteers handed out sandwiches and other snacks as part of a “border immersion” trip organized by various churches in Boise, Idaho, with the help of the Cristo Rey Lutheran Church in Sunland Park.
“We felt called to come down,” said Vivian Parrish of Boise.
“Doing nothing in silence is acceptance,” said Bob Parrish, her husband.
Julie Ann Horras, 69, another volunteer from Boise, smiled as she described her job. “I’m the ketchup person,” she said, squirting the condiment on sandwiches by request.
“These aren’t mostly criminals. We make them criminals. They’re hard-working people. They’re people I would want to have in my neighborhood,” Horras said.
A 19-year old father in line for sandwiches said cartel criminals forced him to flee with his 18-year old wife and two little girls.
“I’m here because they tried to shove me into a van,” said Luis Telles.
“In order to force you to sell drugs, they threaten your family,” he said. He carried his youngest daughter, a 2-year old wearing a donated fleece jumpsuit with a hood that made her look like a teddy bear.
The asylum seekers not only have to brave cold but also escalating violence in Ciudad Juárez, where drug gangs have set cars and buses on fire nearly every night the past few weeks.
It’s a grim reminder of the drug war many are seeking to escape.
This year, Mexico is on track to set a record for homicides with a projected 30,000 murders.
Even so, the vast majority of Mexicans fleeing cartel or gang violence are not granted asylum by immigration courts. Most judges do not recognize gang or cartel violence as qualifying reasons under asylum law, which requires applicants to prove they are fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
And the odds of being granted asylum are low. In 2017, for example, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted affirmative asylum to 490 individuals from Mexico out of 11,941 cases considered, according to a report by the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics.
That has not stopped Mexicans from trying to find a safe haven in the U.S. There are so many asylum seekers at this camp that the migrants held meetings and “elected” representatives to manage not just a master waiting list but to keep track of the states of Michoacán, Zacatecas, Guerrero and Durango, which have the most people waiting.
A police officer from Zacatecas, now seeking asylum, said rival cartels in a brutal fight for territory in Mexico’s heartland are causing the mass exodus. He fled in early October.
“We all fear for our own lives but more for the lives of our family, our children,” said the officer who would only give his first name, Gerardo.
“I tried to maintain a code of conduct based on values, but when you want to do things the right way, you don’t fit in,” he said.
He fled with his wife and two young daughters ages, 3 and 7, and is now camped out and on the waiting list near the Bridge of the Americas.
“I hope we cross before Christmas,” he said.