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Asylum-seekers wait in Juárez under COVID restrictions

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

CIUDAD JUÁREZ – There is a theme in the stories told by immigrants.

It’s captured in the phrase that ends their recollection of that long trek across Mexico, into the interrogation rooms of the U.S. Border Patrol, and back onto Mexican land for the perpetual wait for the reprieve, the asylum, that may or may not come.

“It’s in God’s hands,” that phrase of wistful resignation, was said again by Iris Johana Banegas, a 33-year-old mother from Central America. She traveled for five months with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, hoping to obtain asylum in the United States, find a home and reunite with her two daughters, ages 11 and 16, whom she left behind in Honduras.

“The decision to leave, it was so hard, to leave my girls. I cried all the way,” she said while standing on a narrow sidewalk outside the one-room living space she has shared with a group of fellow immigrants for three months.

She is one of about 400 immigrants living in the Pan de Vida – the bread of life – shelter, a compound of small, but well-kept, apartment rooms on an acre of land in the Anapra neighborhood of a dusty subdivision in far west Juárez. It’s one of the larger shelters in the city and has been a sanctuary for many of the people seeking asylum in the U.S. who were pushed back into Mexico by the controversial policy known as Title 42.

Title 42, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiative implemented in March 2020 that prohibits entry into the U.S. of anyone who might spread COVID-19, is defined in different ways by different people. It’s considered by some to be an invaluable tool in better managing the U.S. cases of COVID-19 by keeping out unvaccinated immigrants who may have traveled through areas with high infection rates.

“If we remove Title 42, we’re not going to be able to handle the influx of people,” said Ricardo Samaniego, county judge in El Paso, the city of nearly a million people that sits across the border from Juárez. “The number of people that would qualify to stay here and the number of people who would cross and not be sent back, we would not be able to handle that,” he said.

But to others, it is a government ruse implemented by the Trump administration to deny immigrants from Central America and Mexico the right to apply for asylum in the U.S.

“I believe COVID was originally weaponized against immigrants through Title 42, and was used to shut the border down to asylum-seekers,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which works with immigrant rights organizations in Texas, Chihuahua and New Mexico.

Started under the Trump administration and continued by President Biden, Title 42 is responsible for sending back into Mexico 867,673 immigrants – most of them asylum-seekers – from its inception to May this year, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.

Immigrants filtering back into Mexico face the decision of returning to the countries they left, or finding a way to sustain themselves while awaiting the possible end of Title 42. Many in Juárez are opting to wait.

“Only we know what we have been through, as people,” said Jose Luis Alvarado, a 28-year-old Nicaraguan who sat with four friends he made at the Anapra shelter. All of them left Central America and endured a grueling journey, one they say was defined by harsh treatment from some U.S. officials they encountered when they tried appealing for asylum at the border between Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“Just because we have our problem of having to leave our country does not mean we have lost our dignity,” Alvarado said. “I hope they never have a point in their lives where they are treated how we have been treated. Just like they have a family, we have a family. Just how they have a mother, we have a mother. Just how their mothers worry about them, our mothers worry about us, even more because we have left our country,” Alvarado said.

He sat next to Jose Olvan Villanueva Rodriguez, a 49-year-old man from Honduras; next to him was Douglas Ezeqiel Ruiz, 38, from El Salvador; and Javier Mateo, 15, the youngest of the group, whom they all affectionately called Chapin – a nickname reserved for likable young men from Guatemala.

“It’s been hard, but it’s good to have friends,” Mateo said.

Ismael Martinez, director of the Pan de Vida shelter, is familiar with the hardships that go along with poverty on the border. Thirty years ago, a horrific fire in a cardboard house in his neighborhood killed six children. That compelled him to transform his property into a day care where children could be safe.

Martinez since then has made his land a refuge that evolves with the changing needs of people. Now, he offers it to immigrants and estimates that about 6,000 of them have used the shelter since 2019.

The heated politics in the U.S. around immigration and immigrant communities is often discussed at his shelter among the immigrants, and their volunteer lawyers and advisers, who visit often, he said.

“There is talk here warning people about going to Texas because that is one of the states that is more racist than others,” he said.

The dynamic between Texas and New Mexico – one led by a Republican governor and the other by a Democratic governor – has grown more distinct, and the political distance between the two states is becoming increasingly evident, according to political scientists along the border.

“Texas and New Mexico offer a world of policy difference on immigration and the border, especially with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and the extremely conservative Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican,” said Dr. Kathleen Staudt, professor emerita of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. “And the Texas Legislature … is trying to undermine local city and county authority – i.e. local democracy – in multiple ways,” she said in an emailed statement. “I doubt that this is happening in New Mexico.”

The hard line the Texas governor is drawing against immigrants and immigration is evident in a proclamation he made last month, which declared the Texas border “a disaster” and labeled undocumented border crossers as being responsible for “an ongoing and imminent threat of widespread and severe damage, injury, and loss of life and property, including property damage, property crime, human trafficking, violent crime, threat to public health, and a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In this proclamation, Abbott also called for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to discontinue licensing any child care facility under a contract with the federal government “that shelters or detains unlawful immigrants.” This action prompted the Biden administration to threaten the state of Texas with a lawsuit seeking to keep those facilities open.

In addition, Abbot joined Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey – a Republican who declared his state to be in a state of “emergency” because of illegal border crossings – in releasing a letter that asked all U.S. governors to “send all available law enforcement resources to the border in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The Republican Party of New Mexico, in a June 11 news release, called on Lujan Grisham to “take action to deal with the Southern border crisis, and to listen to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.”

Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s communications director, did not respond to requests for comment on the Republican Party statement.

‘They just want to be safe’

Some advocates for migrant and immigrant communities say they are concerned that Title 42 pushes undocumented border crossers away from secure ports of entry and out to illegal pathways – the desolate trails of the summer Chihuahuan Desert and the risky heights of the border wall.

The ACLU of New Mexico said two women from Ecuador were hospitalized after being found near the Santa Teresa port of entry on June 9; the next day, U.S. Border Patrol officials confirmed that a 20-year-old man died in Sunland Park of heat-related illness. Twenty miles away, on June 11, El Paso police said, a 24-year-old Mexican national fell to his death while trying to scale the 35-foot border wall.

Jessica Corley, coordinator for nonprofit agencies in the Albuquerque region that provide help to asylum-seekers, said Title 42 puts unnecessary strain on people driven to the U.S. by the belief that the only way to keep themselves and their families safe is to petition for U.S. asylum.

“No one wants to flee their country. They just want to be safe,” she said. “They want to protect their kids. There is not one parent who would not do what they are doing to protect their kids.”

Banegas said she is aware of the dangers and the divisive politics in the U.S. and hopes Biden will lift Title 42 and allow her a chance to petition for asylum safely at a port of entry. She says that despite how much she misses her two daughters in Honduras, and the hardships now, she’ll continue to wait.

The thought of what words she would like to send to her young daughter and the two girls she left behind made her silent for a long moment, her eyes welling with tears.

“You are my life,” she said. “I love you all so much. I am struggling for you. Through all of this, you are my motivation.”

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