JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – It was more than two years ago that thousands of refugees from Central America and elsewhere came to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of getting asylum in the United States.
It has almost been that long since U.S. authorities sent them here, to wait in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.
Now the Biden administration says it will let them into the United States beginning on Friday, and these asylum-seekers say it’s not a moment too soon. Many have endured extortion, kidnapping and worse.
Those who haven’t given up – at least half went back to their country or found a way to cross illegally into the U.S., according to Mexican authorities – are eking out a living and keeping a low profile in border cities like Juarez.
When they’re short on rent, they rely on money transfers from relatives and friends in the U.S. When criminal gangs stalk them, they endure beatings, pay extortion fees and try to survive until America opens its doors to them.
‘We didn’t come here to stay in Juarez, but to be over there’
Downtown Juarez hotels not long ago teemed with Cuban, Central and South American guests happy to share their stories with strangers and talk about their plans in the United States. Businesses like Little Havana restaurant sprung up catering to these international citizens.
But then the Trump administration introduced measures such as metering, which capped the number of daily applicants, and the MPP program that sent new petitioners to wait in Mexico.
The hotels have emptied out. Many asylum-seekers now share rooms in low-rent apartments and work odd jobs near Downtown, where the underground economy thrives.
It is in the crowded, oft-loud Market District that Irving Yanez sells trays of Cuban food out of a shopping bag. He must share a portion of his sales with a Juarez gang that’s been stalking him since December.
“My wife and I went to dinner – Chinese food – on Christmas Eve. Coming out three young men jumped us, dragged us to a vehicle, told us to keep our heads down and took us to a home,” the Cuban migrant said. “They beat us, grabbed our cellphones to look for relatives so they could ask for ransom.”
The criminals didn’t find what they were looking for, so the beating continued. Yanez said he agreed to take the men to the couple’s hotel room and hand over all possessions so they would let them go.
“We begged them to let us (into) the United States after that. I even showed the bruises and the rope marks on my wrists and they didn’t believe us. They told us to call in or mail” the evidence, he said.
Yanez was a human rights activist in Cuba who said he had to leave the island after “people close to the government” told him they were going to cut out his tongue for speaking out against the regime. He started to believe the threats after police arrested him for handing out know-your-rights leaflets.
He and his wife arrived in Mexico 19 months ago. He has a brother in Albuquerque and friends in Tampa and said either would be a good place to start a new life.
Yanez said Biden’s announcement to do away with “Remain in Mexico” is like light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
“This is not a safe city. Migrants didn’t come here to stay in Juarez, but to be over there (in the United States),” he said, and moved on to deliver food trays to employees of a nearby business.
‘You must have mental fortitude to survive’
Edwin Hernandez was a successful computer programmer in his native Venezuela when the socialist revolution reached the State Prosecutor’s Office where he worked.
“The politics is that if you’re not in favor of the government, if you’re not of any benefit to them, then you are the enemy,” he said. “That has made a lot of talented people leave the country. I was politically persecuted. There were telephone calls, there were threats, there was a police presence outside my house.”
He and his brothers said goodbye to their parents and set off for the United States. Some of them made it, but Hernandez got bogged down in Mexico. “The federal police got me off the airplane in Cancun. They let me back in after they took all of my money. I thought, ‘but this is why I left my country,’” he said.
Hernandez said he felt unsafe landing in Juarez but didn’t think he’d have to stay that long. That changed when he was told at the El Paso port of entry that he must wait months in line to file for asylum. That was too long, he decided, so he crossed illegally, got detained and made his claim.
It’s been a year and a half since he was placed on MPP and forced to survive in Juarez — a city where more than 1,600 people were murdered last year and where two drug cartels and four street gangs are at war with each other. The only thing his college education in Venezuela got him here was a job as a meat cutter, then a cook in small restaurant.
“You hear about crime and difficult situations that people here in Juarez face all the time. You fear that a stray bullet might hit you any time. […] But you have to work, you have to pay rent. You must have mental fortitude to face life, to survive,” he said.
As he became more familiar with the city, he managed his time to learn a trade. He learned to cut hair and now works in a barbershop in the Market District.
“I get out of work at 5:30, take the bus and go to my apartment. I go to a gym next door but try to be home by 7,” he said.
After Biden’s announcement, Hernandez is confident he will soon join his brothers as well as a friend who’s been sending him money from New Jersey. But one thing he has learned from his stay on the border is that things don’t happen overnight.
“I’m hoping to get good news soon. But I urge all of those who are in a similar situation to be patient. Nothing good comes out of going to the (port of entry) to yell and scream that they let you in. Things don’t work like that” in the United States, he said.