In Mex­ico, asy­lum seek­ers to U.S. left in limbo

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - U.S. COR­RE­SPON­DENT CI­U­DAD JUAREZ, MEX­ICO TAM­SIN McMA­HON

The coun­try is strug­gling to ac­com­mo­date thou­sands of re­turned mi­grants but its big­gest chal­lenge may be that most re­main des­per­ate to es­cape back across the bor­der

Marlene Diez Padron slipped into a drainage ditch sep­a­rat­ing Mex­ico from the Texas bor­der nearly two months ago, be­liev­ing she was reach­ing the end of a per­ilous jour­ney from Cuba and the start of a new life with her daugh­ter in Mi­ami.

In­stead, after three days in a U.S. detention centre, Ms. Diez Padron was sent back to the Mex­i­can bor­der com­mu­nity of Ci­u­dad Juarez with a six­month work visa and a grow­ing un­cer­tainty about whether she will ever make it to the United States.

Ms. Diez Padron is among more than 17,000 mi­grants who crossed the U.S. bor­der to claim asy­lum only to be told they had to re­turn to Mex­ico to await their court pro­ceed­ings, driven largely by an agree­ment signed be­tween the two coun­tries.

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials rushed to sign onto the ar­range­ment after Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ened to slap tar­iffs on ex­ports un­less the coun­try quickly stemmed the flow of mi­grants to the bor­der. The in­flux this year has reached its high­est in more than a decade.

Asy­lum seek­ers cross­ing the bor­der has been a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sue in the U.S. for years, with no clear res­o­lu­tion. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been par­tic­u­larly ag­gres­sive in im­ple­ment­ing harsh mea­sures, such as sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies, mass detention and now re­quir­ing mi­grants to wait in Mex­ico.

But the mea­sures have done lit­tle to de­ter thou­sands from mak­ing the long and dan­ger­ous jour­ney north.

The surge of asy­lum seek­ers trav­el­ling through Mex­ico to the U.S. bor­der has strained re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries and forced the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment to send thou­sands of sol­diers to its north­ern and south­ern borders. In addition, it has had to dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand its fledg­ling asy­lum sys­tem. With Mr. Trump plan­ning mass de­por­ta­tions start­ing as early as this week­end, that could mean the po­ten­tial for thou­sands more peo­ple flow­ing back across the bor­der into Mex­ico.

Re­turned mi­grants, mean­while, say they feel stuck in limbo. Mex­ico has been wel­com­ing, “but we have no busi­ness be­ing here,” Ms. Diez Padron says. “We have fam­ily in the U.S. We have a life that we want to build. We’re stuck here and we don’t un­der­stand why.”

Mr. Trump has cheered the agree­ment, known as the Mi­grant Protection Pro­to­col and often re­ferred to as Re­main in Mex­ico, as a ma­jor suc­cess. Ap­pre­hen­sions at the U.S. bor­der fell al­most 30 per cent last month, although they re­main near historic highs.

Mex­ico has also sought to frame the agree­ment as a win for Pres­i­dent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s six-month-old gov­ern­ment.

Of­fi­cials ar­gue that mi­grants rep­re­sent an eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity for the coun­try. They also con­tend that treat­ing asy­lum seek­ers hu­manely will help build in­ter­na­tional sup­port for its pro­posed devel­op­ment plan for Cen­tral Amer­ica. “This has el­e­vated Mex­ico’s po­si­tion on an in­ter­na­tional level,” said Juan Car­los Lo­era, the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Juarez who be­longs to Mr. Lopez Obrador’s Na­tional Re­gen­er­a­tion Move­ment. “It’s a demon­stra­tion of the diplo­matic talent of the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment.”

The Re­main in Mex­ico agree­ment has long-term im­pli­ca­tions for the coun­try. Many mi­grants can ex­pect to stay in Mex­ico for months, if not years. Of­fi­cials in Juarez say some mi­grants have re­turned with U.S. court dates as late as Oc­to­ber, 2020.

In Juarez, which has re­ceived more than 8,600 re­turned asy­lum seek­ers – the most of any bor­der city – gov­ern­ment lead­ers an­nounced plans this week to speed pro­cess­ing of work per­mits, so­cial-se­cu­rity num­bers and bank ac­counts for mi­grants.

Lo­cal busi­nesses say they hope mi­grants can fill thou­sands of job va­can­cies, many of them in maquilado­ras – ex­por­to­ri­ented fac­to­ries that line the bor­der. “If they’re able to work, many of them are going to be willing to stay here and wait their turn,” said En­rique Valen­zuela, di­rec­tor of a state-run mi­grant-as­sis­tance centre in Juarez. He added that if many ul­ti­mately choose to set­tle per­ma­nently in Mex­ico, it could be a turn­ing point in the mi­grant cri­sis.

An­a­lysts and re­li­gious lead­ers, how­ever, warn that the coun­try’s immigratio­n sys­tem re­mains ill-equipped to han­dle the in­flux of asy­lum seek­ers. They worry that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s gov­ern­ment ac­ceded too quickly to U.S. de­mands with­out ne­go­ti­at­ing any fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to sup­port mi­grants wait­ing in the coun­try. In addition, they ac­cuse the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of aban­don­ing the U.S. com­mit­ment to in­ter­na­tional treaties that pro­tect the right of those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion to claim asy­lum when they reach the United States.

“It sets the prece­dent that Mex­ico will do what the U.S. will ask for with­out really de­mand­ing much in re­turn,” said Je­sus Pena Munoz, a re­searcher in Juarez with the North­ern Bor­der Col­lege, a Mex­i­can re­search in­sti­tute spe­cial­iz­ing in bor­der and migration.

De­spite agree­ing to accept thou­sands of U.S. asy­lum seek­ers, the Mex­i­can fed­eral gov­ern­ment cut trans­fers this year to state gov­ern­ments for migration and bor­der pro­grams, Mr. Valen­zuela says.

And crim­i­nal gangs are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the in­flux. Church lead­ers say mi­grants are fre­quent tar­gets of ex­ploita­tion, kid­nap­pings and rapes by gangs. Many asy­lum seek­ers re­leased at the Mex­i­can bor­der turn down of­fers of rides to lo­cal shel­ters, say­ing they are wait­ing to be picked up by fam­ily mem­bers. Then they call their polleros – hu­man smug­glers – to ar­range to be taken back across the U.S. bor­der. The prob­lem is so ram­pant, some shel­ters now re­quire mi­grants to hand over their cell­phones to prevent them from con­tact­ing smug­glers.

“The mi­grants are like a river full of big juicy fish and all the fish­er­men are get­ting to­gether to make a profit,” says Sis­ter Maria Guadalupe Ve­lasco, whose Catholic church is among a net­work of faith groups who travel twice daily to the bor­der to greet re­turned mi­grants.

Mi­grants them­selves say they have strug­gled to find work and to af­ford the soar­ing costs of ho­tels or makeshift ac­com­mo­da­tion in the city.

Since be­ing re­turned to Juarez, Ms. Diez Padron has started pass­ing out fly­ers for a restau­rant in the city centre. She earns 150 pe­sos ($10.30) a day, barely enough to cover her rent.

So far, pub­lic sen­ti­ment in Juarez has been pos­i­tive to­ward mi­grants, Dr. Pena Munoz says. Whether that re­mains the case will de­pend largely on how suc­cess­ful the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment is at in­te­grat­ing mi­grants into so­ci­ety. That will re­quire over­haul­ing the coun­try’s immigratio­n sys­tem – his­tor­i­cally de­signed to help Mex­i­can na­tion­als de­ported from the U.S.

“As soon as peo­ple start looking at mi­grants as a neg­a­tive thing, all the doors will shut,” he says. “We’ve seen it in Europe what hap­pens when peo­ple’s opin­ion of mi­grants turns neg­a­tive.”

But the big­gest chal­lenge to Mex­ico’s plans to in­te­grate re­turned asy­lum seek­ers may be that most mi­grants re­main des­per­ate to get to the United States.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials in Juarez don’t have es­ti­mates of how many re­turnees may have al­ready crossed back into the U.S. il­le­gally, but sug­gest that it’s a high per­cent­age.

Poll­sters in Mex­ico say that nearly 90 per cent of mi­grants sur­veyed tell them they have no in­ten­tion of stay­ing in the coun­try. The strong drive to get to the U.S. is likely to un­der­mine Mr. Trump’s push to de­mand both Mex­ico and Gu­atemala be­come safe third coun­tries for asy­lum seek­ers, Dr. Pena Munoz said.

Rather than de­ter­ring mi­grants from claim­ing asy­lum in the U.S., many say the long waits to cross and the Mex­i­can Na­tional Guard sol­diers sta­tioned along the bor­der, are in­stead push­ing mi­grants to­ward more risky il­le­gal cross­ings through deserts and swift-flow­ing rivers.

Ms. Diez Padron says the prospect of her first court ap­pear­ance, set in El Paso, Tex., next month, has mo­ti­vated her to keep wait­ing in Mex­ico for now. But she is less cer­tain of how she will feel after that. Last week­end, she learned she will likely be re­turned to Juarez to await fu­ture hear­ings. “Even though I’m stay­ing in one place now, I feel like I’m still in the mid­dle of the jour­ney,” she said. “This isn’t the place I want to be.”

As soon as peo­ple start looking at mi­grants as a neg­a­tive thing, all the doors will shut. We’ve seen it in Europe what hap­pens when peo­ple’s opin­ion of mi­grants turns neg­a­tive.

JE­SUS PENA MUNOZ RE­SEARCHER WITH NORTH­ERN BOR­DER COL­LEGE

IVAN PIERRE AGUIRRE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Since be­ing re­turned to Juarez, Marlene Diez Padron now passes out fly­ers for a restau­rant to earn 150 pe­sos ($10.30) a day, barely enough to cover her rent.

IVAN PIERRE AGUIRRE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Cuban na­tive Marlene Diez Padron at­tempted to en­ter the U.S. from Mex­ico, but was caught and sent to Ci­u­dad Juarez, where she has stayed for nearly two months. She hands out fly­ers for a restau­rant now, earn­ing $10.30 a day.

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