Migrants on Border Face Confusion and Fear Under "Remain in Mexico" Policy

click to enlarge Central American refugees line up in Matamoros to wait for a chance to plead for asylum. - REBECCA CENTENO
Rebecca Centeno
Central American refugees line up in Matamoros to wait for a chance to plead for asylum.
EL PASO — Minutes before being sent back into the federal government's custody Thursday afternoon — and most likely back to Ciudad Juárez while his asylum case remains pending — Misael Acosta wanted to tell an immigration judge one last thing.

Acosta said he was in downtown Ciudad Juárez last week buying fruit for his daughter when he saw something startling.

“When I went to throw away some trash, I saw the body of a dead man” lying on the ground, he said in Spanish.

Acosta, 25, was one of many asylum seekers who told Judge Nathan L. Herbert essentially the same thing: Under a new policy by the Trump administration, the violence they escaped in Central America has followed them to Mexico, where the U.S. government sent them.

Acosta fled Honduras after criminal gangs and police officers threatened him and Katherin Molina, 22, the mother of their two daughters, they said. The family sought asylum at the El Paso port of entry in early April but was returned to Mexico the next day. They said they have been shuttled from shelter to shelter in Ciudad Juárez since.

They were part of the wave of asylum seekers who have been returned to Mexico under the expansion of a controversial program called the Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, also known as “remain in Mexico,” began in California in January and was expanded to the El Paso ports of entries in March; it requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates before American judges.

The program's future is now in the hands of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the program April 8, but a three-judge panel of the appellate court put that order on hold pending the Trump administration's appeal of the ruling.

That means that the Acosta family and the other 13 other migrants in the El Paso courtroom Thursday for their asylum proceedings will likely be sent back to Mexico and won’t be able to return until their next court date, May 31. Their only option for remaining in the U.S. until that date is to convince an American immigration officer that they shouldn’t be returned, but that's rare, said Christina Garcia, who works at El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Fear of returning to Mexico wasn’t the only issue on display in Herbert’s courtroom Thursday. When the migrant protocols were announced, immigration attorneys immediately sounded alarm bells over how the program would hinder migrants' ability to find lawyers to help them navigate the asylum process.

None of the immigrant families had lawyers at Thursday's hearing, and at one point Herbert asked the group if they understood they had a right to seek counsel, adding that he was willing to extend their hearing dates to give them time to find lawyers. All of the immigrants initially declined the extension, and a surprised Herbert paused the proceedings, went off the record and conferred with Garcia, who explained the judge's offer in greater detail to the group.

The immigrants all changed their answers and accepted the extension. They were provided with a list of attorneys and other resources.

After the hearing, Linda Rivas, the managing attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who had represented a family of asylum seekers earlier in the day, said it's difficult to connect with clients while they wait in Juárez shelters.

Each shelter has its own rules about when migrants can communicate with attorneys, even by phone, she said.

Since the protocols took effect, the U.S. government has sent between 400 and 500 hundred immigrants to Ciudad Juárez, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, told reporters last week. Meanwhile, violence has been on the rise in the city, with 25 homicides occurring during Easter weekend and 19 the weekend before, according to local media reports. As of Sunday, more than 450 homicides had been reported in the city this year — roughly four per day.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has responded to the surge in Central American migrants crossing the border by redirecting 750 Customs and Border Protection officers from the ports of entry in El Paso; Laredo; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego to assist U.S. Border Patrol agents in processing undocumented immigrants.

The reassignments have caused huge delays at international bridges for pedestrian, vehicular and cargo traffic, which have hit some local businesses in the pocket book.

Enrique Valenzuela, director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition facility operated by the Chihuahua state government, said he hopes the citizens of his state don’t start taking out their frustrations on the migrants.

“I am concerned because there is a feeling around locals that the main problem of the border crossings is caused by this [migrant] phenomenon, and that’s inaccurate,” he said, adding that the problem is "some institutional misunderstanding" between the U.S. and Mexican governments.

On Tuesday, as he was looking through garbage cans for recyclable cans to trade for some pesos, Roberto Flores said the Mexican government should do more to take care of its citizens, but he stopped short of blaming the migrants for trying to flee their homelands.

“It’s not their fault. It’s [Mexican President] Lopez Obrador for letting them in,” he said. “And it’s Trump.”

Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he thinks the violence in Juárez will only continue. But it’s a separate issue from the current migrant crisis, he said.

“The violence is rooted in the age-old Juárez problems of unemployment and underemployment, limited social mobility, the U.S. crackdown on immigration of poor laborers, government corruption, the huge illegal drug market in the U.S and in Juarez, and large organized criminal groups,” he said. “The arrival of Central American, Cuban and other migrants is largely a separate issue but further stresses the local government and community, which are starting to lose sympathy for the refugees in part because of xenophobic yellow journalism and social media attacks.”

The social media attacks, Campbell said, began last year in Tijuana when false claims about violence by Central Americans toward Mexican authorities began circulating on internet sites.

For now, Valenzuela, the Chihuahua state official, said it’s his job to make sure the migrants he sees on a daily basis don’t get caught up in local turf battles.

“I think we need to design a better understanding of this phenomenon locally that involves both [Americans and Mexicans],” he said. “I think we still haven’t gotten there. We have to turn this into an opportunity. It’s my job to not let it turn into a crisis.”