No safe haven
Sending asylum-seekers to Mexico to await their court hearings means sending them back to life-threatening conditions (This is the second story in a series.)
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Carlos Benjamin Dubon-Moro says that when someone shot his brother multiple times, he had no idea if those bullets were meant for him or if it was a random act of violence. The 27-year-old Guatemalan father of three said he had been receiving threats after campaigning for a political candidate before the shooting. That’s the problem in Guatemala, he told me: You just never know—and you better get out before you find out.
So Dubon-Moro fled Guatemala for the United States. He knew that, by doing so, he was taking a gamble—a gamble that he would make the dangerous journey to the United States safely, that the government wouldn’t deport him, that an American judge would grant him asylum. What he didn’t expect was for the U.S. government to send him right back to Mexico.
Dubon-Moro is one of about 20,000 asylum-seekers placed under a new U.S. policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.” This policy, which currently faces lawsuits challenging it, radically changes the way the U.S. asylum system has historically worked and is part of the Trump administration’s continued effort to make it harder for Central American migrants to gain asylum in the United States.
Under MPP, the government now sends asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico for the duration of their court proceedings instead of letting them wait in the United States with a sponsor. Since April 16, officials have sent about 9,000 migrants back to Ciudad Juárez, about 6,000 people to Tijuana, and about 4,000 people to Garita Mexicali according to a Mexican government report.
Pre-MPP, immigration officers would interview asylum-seekers about their fears, then release them on bond to sponsors based in the United States, who promise to make sure they show up to court. Officials would track them via a GPS ankle bracelet. Churches all across the U.S. border cities have been temporarily sheltering and helping these people until they reach their sponsors (see “Offering the love of Jesus,” Aug. 31, 2019).
Post-MPP, those responsibilities have shifted heavily toward churches and shelters in Mexican border cities—except they aren’t sheltering these asylum-seekers for a night or two, but for weeks and months with no end in sight. Taking care of these migrants has been extremely straining on Mexican churches and shelters, which have significantly fewer resources and funds than U.S. churches.
Currently, about 10,000 migrants are stuck in Juárez, where people are capping out shelters and hotel rooms, renting basements and lots, or sleeping on the streets. These asylum-seekers have family members, relatives, or friends who can take care of them in the United States—but very few have connections in Mexico. When the U.S. government sends them back to Mexico, these people wander out into the streets with no money, no food, no place to sleep, and no social network.
Some lawyers and advocates say MPP fails to comply with the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, which allows asylum-seekers to fairly exercise their right to seek asylum and protects them from returning to countries where they would face “danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” They also say that MPP has resulted in more family separations—in several cases, a father and children older than 18 were sent back to Mexico, while the mother and younger children were allowed to stay in the United States. In other cases, children who crossed the border with an adult who’s not their parent or legal guardian—typically grandparents, older siblings, or another relative—were also separated.
Meanwhile, thousands of people are now stranded in border cities rife with kidnappings, murder, robbery, trafficking, and extortion. These are cities that the U.S. State Department itself is recommending Americans avoid due to extreme violence. There, migrants are particularly easy and obvious targets—they have darker skin, distinct facial features, foreign mannerisms, and strange accents. Even without those detectable traits, they’re easy to spot when lining up at the port of entry for court or walking into shelters. Kidnappers know that most have loved ones in the United States, which makes them lucrative hostages.
‘There’s just rampant, rampant amounts of kidnapping [in Juárez]. I know my life is in danger every time I go over there.’ —immigration attorney Taylor Levy
Legally, those who fear returning to Mexico can request an interview with an asylum officer. But the standards for “reasonable fear” are nearly impossible to meet: Ninety-nine percent of interviewees are sent back. Taylor Levy, a pro bono immigration attorney in El Paso, said one client and her children had been kidnapped twice in Juárez. The woman managed to pay both ransoms, and though she showed asylum officers evidences of the ransom payments, the government still sent her back, saying just because she’d been kidnapped twice in the past does not mean she’s likely to be kidnapped again.
Levy said she once watched a group of men snatch a family right before her eyes. When she tried to intervene, the kidnappers threatened her as well. So Levy thought of her two adopted daughters and stood, helpless and devastated, as the kidnappers dragged the family away: “I can’t stop thinking about them, ever. There’s just rampant, rampant amounts of kidnapping [in Juárez]. I know my life is in danger every time I go over there.”
I SAW THE SAME FEAR among the migrants in Mexico. When I last saw him in late July, Dubon-Moro was staying at Pan de Vida, a ministry that serves at-risk kids and single mothers in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez. Very few dare to venture outside the compound: Sometimes they hear gunshots outside or rumors of another migrant murder in the neighborhood.
Pan de Vida first opened its doors in March to one Honduran family sleeping on the streets. Then two more families came asking for shelter, then another, and another, and soon Mexican officials were sending people over by vans. Today, about 240 asylum-seekers live in Pan de Vida’s tiny, bare-bones housing units surrounding a dusty, sun-fried courtyard. Dubon-Moro shares one of those units with eight men, one woman, one boy, and two girls from Guatemala and Honduras. Everyone in that unit had been sent back to Juárez under MPP, which was first implemented in El Paso in March.
I asked them for their first court dates: “Aug. 26.” “Sept. 30.” “Nov. 6.” “Nov. 13.” Those are just the preliminary hearings—they’ve got at least two more court dates before the judge makes a final ruling—that’s many, many more months of waiting in a city where they feel unsafe. But those dates are still relatively early—some people have court dates as far out as June 2020.
One 32-year-old man, Miguel Angel Ventura Lux, said he and his family left Guatemala because of gang threats. He used to run a small cafeteria, but local gangs demanded he pay them $390 every two weeks—or die. His wife, son, and daughter left first in February. He stayed behind to wait for a loan. That was a bad decision: Single male migrants have very little legal protection in U.S. custody. When he tried to apply for asylum through the port of entry in Juárez, Customs and Border Protection officers turned him away. He said one female officer told him, “Men don’t cross by port of entry. They cross by the desert.” So he paid a coyote $4,000 to help him cross the desert, but he couldn’t keep up with the group because of an injured leg.
U.S. Border Patrol agents found him. He said he spent a month in detention, where he shivered under freezing temperatures, drank water from the bathroom sink, and watched an agent kick one migrant “like a dog.” The government then sent him back to Juárez, where Lux faces a dismal future: He has spent all his money. He says he can’t get a work permit in Mexico because federal officials took his ID away, for reasons he does not know. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to join his family members, who crossed before MPP took full effect and are currently waiting for their court hearing in Seattle while immigration officials monitor them via a GPS ankle bracelet.
MPP drastically lowers his chances of winning asylum, no matter how strong his case. Very few U.S. lawyers are willing to travel across the border, and most refuse to accept clients who are out of the country. Currently, only about five immigration lawyers are willing to travel frequently to Juárez, a city with 10,000 asylum-seekers. Given how complicated immigration law is, asylum-seekers without legal representation have less than a 10 percent likelihood of succeeding.
The Trump administration claims that MPP is necessary because most asylum-seekers fail to appear at court—but studies show the opposite: Almost 6 out of 7 families show up for their initial court hearing, and more than 99 percent of those who have attorneys show up. DHS has stated that MPP will discourage false asylum claims—and that may be working: Many migrants who came to the border due to economic reasons (which doesn’t meet asylum qualifications) are realizing that they don’t stand any chance of asylum. Faced with threats of starvation, violence, and death in Mexico, a significant number are taking the bus back home. As for those who truly fear for their lives, MPP won’t deter them—but instead punishes them for seeking asylum.
HERE IN PAN DE VIDA, MPP doesn’t seem to have drained the asylum-seekers’ resolve to try to get into the United States, despite all the hardships. Dubon-Moro’s wife was pregnant when he decided to flee, so she stayed behind with his two boys. Three days before I met him, his wife gave birth to a baby girl and sent him pictures of his newborn through WhatsApp. He said he dreams of reuniting with his family, but one thing is clear: “There’s no way I can go back to Guatemala.”
Other folks also told me they cannot return to their home countries. In Juárez I met 21-year-old Manuel from Honduras (he asked me to use only his first name for fear of his life), who said he fled Honduras after drug cartel members tried to kill him. Back home, he had worked as a security guard for a man who prompted an investigation on a local drug cartel. He said the cartel exacted revenge by gang-raping his then-seven-months-pregnant girlfriend, then chopping her into pieces in front of him and stuffing her eyeballs and tongue into his mouth. Thanks to some friends who came to his rescue, he said, he was able to escape into the mountains.
Manuel tried to seek asylum in Mexico, but he said, on a bus ride from Oaxaca to Puebla, a group of men dressed in Mexican military uniforms tried to kidnap him and several other Hondurans on the bus. Realizing that he wasn’t even safe in Mexico, he came to the border to seek asylum in the United States. As he told his story, his voice rose with emotion: “I didn’t choose this life of seeking asylum. It was not a choice. The violence in Honduras—you don’t see anything like that anywhere else in the world.”
Another Salvadoran man, 42-year-old William (who also asked me to use his first name only because he fears for his life), lifted his shirt to show me scars stretching from chest to belly button. That’s the handiwork of MS-13 in his neighborhood, he said. He too said he never planned to seek asylum, “but the U.S. is the closest and safest place for me.”
Despite all the gory and tragic stories I heard among the asylum-seekers, I saw people still cling to hope. Most of these asylum-seekers identify as evangelicals: They say they have faith in God and the Bible—and thus they hope. Whenever someone leaves the shelter for a court hearing, everyone is abuzz with good wishes and anticipation. When the person sends good news, everyone rejoices.
It gives them one more day’s strength to hope.
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