Asylum seekers in limbo look to US election with hope and worry | Mexico

Medellin Colombia – When Jose Luis Pino goes outside in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, he is too scared to say anything.

After spending more than a year on the Mexican border with the United States, the 38-year-old asylum seeker learned that migrants like him are easy prey for the drug gangs and human traffickers who rule the area. His Venezuelan accent is like a target stuck to his chest.

“Anyone can attack you, blackmail you,” he said. “We’re just trying to survive until our court date.”

He is among more than 67,000 asylum seekers, including Cubans, Venezuelans and Central Americans, who are stuck on the US border due to a Trump administration policy, Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico”.

Under the policy, asylum seekers in the US are processed and given an appointment to return for a hearing in the immigration court. They are then sent back across the border to Mexico.

In Ciudad Juarez – one of the most dangerous cities in the world – some migrants and refugees are facing an even more precarious situation than the one from which they fled: kidnapping, extortion, murder and sexual abuse.

Migrants are scattered across the border, but Ciudad Juarez has become a hub for asylum seekers as nearly a third of all MPP cases are set to be negotiated in El Paso, Texas, the city just across the U.S. border.

In this April file photo, 37-year-old Roberto from Honduras, who is participating in the Remain program in Mexico, is returning to Ciudad Juarez after his family’s court records from US Customs and Border Protection following judicial waivers for coronavirus disease (COVID ) were changed -19) eruption in Ciudad Juarez [File: Paul Ratje/Reuters]The COVID-19 pandemic has made their situation more precarious. As part of its response to the pandemic, the U.S. closed its borders to non-nationals and residents in March and postponed all immigration court hearings. Authorities announced plans in July to resume hearings once certain health criteria are met. However, the hearings have yet to continue. For many of those stuck on the border, the long wait is limitless.

“We live in the same darkness as Venezuela, but we still have a little bit of hope, a tiny light at the end of the tunnel,” said Pino, referring to the November 3rd US election.

Before the vote, many asylum seekers look north with a mixture of hope and fear.

The hope is that in the election of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate will keep election promises to end hardline politics like MPP immediately. The fear is that if President Donald Trump wins a second term, their situation could worsen.

The Trump administration began Remain in Mexico in January 2019, saying the policy was necessary to stop the exploitation of the right of asylum and reduce overcrowding in detention centers.

Critics like Ruben Reyes, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, say the government is using them and other policies such as “safe third country” agreements to make it impossible to seek asylum in the US.

“The purpose of this government’s policy towards asylum seekers is to put a finger around the neck of the refugees,” Reyes said. “To try to make it so difficult, so arduous, so terrible that they just give up.”

Under Remain in Mexico, only 585 people, less than 1 percent of the cases, were granted asylum.

In this file photo from February, migrants are waiting at the entrance to the international bridge Paso del Norte in Ciudad Juarez as part of the “Stay in Mexico” policy. [File: Paul Ratje/AFP]Pino, his wife and 12- and 6-year-old children arrived at the border in August 2019 after fleeing political persecution in Venezuela. Her case has been pushed back three times by US authorities and her next trial is scheduled for March.

Meanwhile, they live in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez and live on what they earn from painting houses, cleaning cars and doing odd jobs that Pino takes on day by day.

In December, he said armed men forced him and other migrants into a truck as it was leaving a supermarket, tried to blackmail them, later robbed and attacked him.

Other asylum seekers living in a makeshift camp on the Texan border in Matamoros, Mexico, have faced poor conditions, threats and extortion from armed groups. Corpses of dead migrants have washed up along the nearby Rio Grande.

Reyes, AILA director, said the US election result could mark a turning point.

“Pretty much everything is at stake for the entire immigration surge that exists in the United States,” he said.

A representative from the National Institute of Migration (INM) is issuing instructions to Cuban migrants from the United States to renew in the queue to renew permission to stay in Mexico while the US authorities ‘Remain’ requests for entry edit in Mexico program [Herika Martinez/AFP]Biden pledged to end the Remain in Mexico program and attacked the president during the last presidential debate last month. “This is the first president in the history of the United States of America that anyone seeking asylum has to do in another country,” he said.

The words of the Democratic candidate gave Alexander Perez de Corcho, his wife and daughter, a glimmer of hope to Cuban asylum seekers who had also waited more than a year and were subjected to similar blackmail and violence in Ciudad Juarez.

“We know it’s just a campaign,” said Perez de Corcho. “But we hope that he (Biden) will help us.”

After speaking out against the Cuban government, Perez de Corcho said he was persecuted, arrested and tortured by Cuban officials, and eventually threatened with death.

He hoped that her case could gain more support because of the US’s longstanding stance towards the Cuban government.

“When we return to Cuba, you can be sure that they will be waiting for us at the airport,” he said. “We’re scared here. We are scared. But at least we are somewhat free. “

In this file photo from July, a man walks towards a tent at the National Institute of Migration (INM) where Cuban migrants from the United States are renewing their permits to stay in Mexico while the US authorities process immigration applications as part of the Remain in Mexico program [Herika Martinez/AFP]MPP has also been the subject of fierce litigation announced by the US Supreme Court last month. Arguments are likely to be made in the next year. If Trump loses his offer for re-election, the cases could become contentious.

Aid providers like Sara Ritchie, a director of the Kino Border Initiative, a migrant kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, fear that some of the damage caused could be beyond repair.

She has watched asylum seekers who once relied on her facilities on a regular basis disappeared and were forced to abandon their cases as things became more precarious.

“Some decided to wait and see,” said Ritchie. “And those who didn’t, we are not sure what fate awaited them.”

But Perez de Corcho said they had no choice but to hold on to fleeting hope because the only thing that scares him more than the violence at the border is the thought that if Trump is re-elected, their limbo will drag on for years could.

“He (Trump) will keep doing what he wants and no one will stop him,” he said. “We fear that if he wins again, it will only get worse.”

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