Asylum-seekers in a Mexican shelter share their stories of hope and disappointment
[Editor’s note: The names of asylum-seekers in this story have been changed to protect their identity. People sought anonymity in interviews with Reporter Yasmin Khan, fearing retaliation and violence. Click here to read Khan’s story “Title 2 exception helps LGBTQ asylum seekers.”]
The inner courtyard of Casa del Migrante in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, looks like a day care center. Plastic toys are scattered from one end to the other. Tiny baby clothes hang on the chain link fence, drying in the sun. Toddlers throw a ball in the direction of a blue and yellow basket hoop, jumping with excitement even as the ball falls far short of the rim.
Parents wearing surgical masks sit under the shade of a tree, chatting in Spanish. Their children stop by for a hug or a drink of water. There are migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala.
Some children and their parents have waited weeks to cross. Some have been waiting for years.
Margarita and her son Alfonso have been waiting in the shelter for more than 18 months. She said they faced racism as Black asylum-seekers
“In this year and a half, a lot of bad things have happened. Ugly things,” she said. “But we are still looking for the American dream so he can recover.”
Her son, a tall, slim 26-year-old wearing beaded friendship bracelets and a soccer jersey, came to Mexico from Honduras after local gangs tried to recruit him. He left Honduras by bus, she said, but when he arrived in Mexico where he intended to get to the U.S. border to ask for asylum, he was kidnapped by Mexican cartel members and was handed a backpack of drugs to carry over the border. When he refused, he was beaten and left for dead, his mother explained.
The beating swelled his brain and left him in a coma for two months, and by the time she found him in a hospital room in Mexico, she said he had lost the ability to walk and most of his ability to speak. Margarita, who worked as a nurse in Honduras, said he needs surgery to fix damaged tendons in his legs.
Alfonso, in a wheelchair as he recovers, pulled down his mask and smiled at the mention of the surgery, nodding in agreement.
Trump policy remains in effect
Margarita and Alfonso’s long wait in the shelter is not over. The border has been closed for two years because of Title 42, a previously obscure public health policy from 1944 that the Trump administration dusted off at the beginning of the pandemic. The policy banned people from crossing the border and allowed for the immediate expulsion of migrants — effectively removing their ability to ask for asylum, which goes against international law.
The Biden administration had planned to end the policy on May 23, but it was extended indefinitely when a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the move. Under the policy, immigration officials have turned people away 1.8 million times since April 2020, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“That Title 42 policy is pure discrimination. It’s political ego,” said Margarita. “They don’t understand how inhumanely they are treating us.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped the use of Title 42 for unaccompanied minors this year in March, but families and individual adults are still subject to it. Activists were able to negotiate an exception for vulnerable asylum-seekers — like people who are HIV positive and LGBTQ migrants — an unexpected bit of good news at the border. Still, some estimates indicate as many as 60,000 people are waiting in northern Mexico who have not been able to cross under either exception.
Alfonso’s story of successfully escaping from Honduras only to be kidnapped and brutally beaten in Mexico illustrates one of the more dangerous aspects of Title 42 — that migrants are in danger as they wait.
Josiah Heyman, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at University of El Paso, Texas, called Title 42 a “convenient and lazy” way for the CBP to turn people away without having to investigate their plea for asylum.
“Just turn them around. You don’t have to feed them a meal. You don’t have to put them in a tent. Just turn them around, and send them back to criminals in Juárez or Tijuana,” Heyman said. “The Mexican border police are so criminal, so filled with violent actors, and the prime meat for them to consume are vulnerable outsider migrants.”
Enduring horrific ordeals
Maria, a teenager from Guatemala, is one of those outsider migrants. She is so small-framed that her mask kept sliding off her face. It was a children’s mask but still too big for her. A dark hoodie framed her hair, brown at the roots and bleached blonde on the ends. Her eyes filled with tears before she even began speaking. She’d been at the shelter since February.
“We walked through the desert. My feet and legs were so bloody from cactus. My toenails fell off. We didn’t sleep for two days, and we ran out of water,” she said. She slipped off her sandals and socks. Her feet are covered in bruises and stains of blue antiseptic.
Maria, 19, explained that she and a friend left their home in Guatemala after there was a gang shooting in front of her house. She said she and her friend were picked up in the desert by U.S. Border Patrol and taken to El Paso, where they were separated. She thinks he went to jail, she said, and then Border Patrol agents dropped her over the border in Juárez, alone at night. “They didn’t even hear me. They didn’t let me talk.” She said she was immediately kidnapped in Juárez.
“I was kidnapped by the same people who brought us through the desert,” Maria said. They kept her in a house and beat her, demanding money, she explained. She was able to escape one day, and walked through the streets for almost 12 hours before finding Casa del Migrante at 2 a.m. “I left my country not because I am a bad person, but because I am trying to escape violence. And here I feel so sad, I just want to hug someone.”
Maria said she now thinks the kidnappers knew she would not get through because of Title 42, and that’s why they waited for her at the border, but no one had told her about the policy until she was picked up by Border Patrol.
Some migrants said they had heard about the border closure before they began their trek north, but they say they had no choice but to leave their homes, hoping they could still ask for asylum. Many people are trying to reach family members in the United States, but like Maria, they haven’t been able to state their case to border agents. Each of the 11 people interviewed at the shelter said they can’t go back home regardless.
Liset, who came from the Estado de Mexico with three young children, said her father in California helped her travel by plane to Juárez, but even with him living in the U.S., she can’t get an appointment to state her asylum claim. She and her children tried first in April 2021 and were turned away. They came back one year later and still can’t cross.
“In my case, I came because of fear. In Mexico, they killed my mother, my sister, my brother, and my husband, all at different times. So I decided to run from my country,” she said. “I don’t want to just keep waiting until me or one of my children are next.”
Her father said in a phone interview from California that he has no idea how to help his daughter and grandchildren with the Title 42 policy in place. He thought because she had proof of the killings, she and the children would be granted asylum.
“Everyone there knows about the killings,” he said. “It was in the news. They have evidence. Photos. It’s documented. But they can’t even tell anyone to get help.”
Cindy said she left Honduras in January with her 6-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son after gangs kidnapped and burned him. She said she wants people in the U.S. to know they are trying to cross the border out of necessity, and that there are other ways to stop the spread of COVID at the border.
“The pandemic is in the whole world, not only here,” she said. “Test us, give us masks. We are all tested here, no one is sick.”
Cindy said if she doesn’t find a way to cross soon, she fears she and her children will again become targets of gang violence, this time at the border just minutes from the United States.
“It isn’t fair, this policy has affected us a lot. Jesus was a migrant. He went looking for help, and we will find a way, too.”
Yasmin Khan is a reporter who covers worker’s rights, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents, for the news outlet Source New Mexico, which first published this report.