Families Divided

"The dam is going to overflow": In Mexico, pressure builds as U.S. immigration policies take hold

While U.S. officials sound the alarm over a surge of migrants crossing the border, Mexican shelter operators and immigration officials are trying to find space for people from nearly every continent who must wait in Mexico as they try to claim asylum in the U.S.

Workers from the state of Chihuahua's migrant aid agency call out numbers in Ciudad Juárez. Migrants go the agency's office twice a day to wait for their numbers to be called so they can enter the U.S. to be processed by U.S. immigration officials.
Workers from the state of Chihuahua's migrant aid agency call out numbers in Ciudad Juárez. Migrants go the agency's office twice a day to wait for their numbers to be called so they can enter the U.S. to be processed by U.S. immigration officials.  Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Families Divided

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Maybe one day in the coming months, the regulation scribbled on a hand-written sign at the immigrant shelter here will be better enforced.

But chances are better that the notice — which reads “only 60 migrants” in Spanish — could be yanked from the wall of the cluttered El Buen Pastor shelter and tossed away altogether.

“The capacity is 60, and that comes with a lot of problems. We don’t have beds,” said the Rev. Juan Fierro Garcia, the shelter's director. “So we’re trying to use another place [across the street] so we can fit in more.”

Chaos is the new normal for Fierro and his wife, who for the last six months have been forced to use church pews as makeshift cots and find space in their dining room for thin mattresses where a growing influx of migrants can sleep. For the past two weeks, the number of migrants sleeping at the shelter has ranged from 80 to 110, he added, but he’s trying to add space to take as many as 250.

El Buen Pastor migrant shelter has held 80 to 110 migrants for the past two weeks. Its capacity is 60.
El Buen Pastor migrant shelter has held 80 to 110 migrants for the past two weeks. Its capacity is 60.  Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

While the U.S. government builds tents to hold an increasing number of migrants crossing the border, Mexican shelter operators and immigration officials are warning that pressure is building on the south side of the border, too, as thousands of migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for a chance to make their case for asylum to an immigration agent or U.S. judge. In Ciudad Juárez, their numbers include not only Central Americans, but also refugees from Africa, South America, Europe and Asia.

The crush is due, in part, to President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, which has forced thousands of migrants waiting to present themselves for asylum in the United States to stay in Mexico until their numbers are finally called. The waiting list to have an initial interview with an asylum officer is now months long.

Under the process, commonly referred to as metering, the American and Mexican governments communicate daily and exchange information on how many asylum seekers will be permitted to cross the ports of entry. As of Monday afternoon, more than 14,000 migrants had been placed on the list in Ciudad Juárez since last fall; about 9,500 numbers had been called.

“Day after day they’re coming, their wait times are increasing,” Fierro said Monday. “Some people here are going to wait three months.”

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Another big reason for the buildup of migrants is the U.S. government's recently implemented Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration hearings even after they’ve appeared before American immigration officials. The program began in California in January and was expanded to the El Paso ports of entries in March.

A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the program April 8, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week allowed the program to continue. As of Tuesday, about 2,800 migrants in the El Paso and Ciudad Juárez area had been returned to Mexico, said Marisa Limón, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, a grassroots Catholic organization that advocates for immigrants' rights.

Fierro said some of the people at the shelter have gone to El Paso twice for hearings and been forced to return. And finding a place to sleep is getting harder by the day.

At Buen Pastor, Fierro said the average migrant is usually allowed to stay 15 to 30 days before having to leave, although he said the shelter makes exceptions for migrants from far away nations.

During that time, “they should look for work and look for a way to pay for a room so they can continue to wait,” he said. “But some lose patience and decide to cross the river and enter the United States illegally.” Others are pressured to leave after their time is up and they have to find a way to fend for themselves.

On Monday, Fierro said the shelter housed 11 people from African countries, including the Congo, Cameroon and Uganda. He’s also provided shelter for refugees from Iraq, Brazil, Turkey and Russia, he said.

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Among them was Roberto Kabuya Mutombo, a 45-year-old from Congo, who will likely call Ciudad Juárez home for the next few months. After arriving in the Mexican border city Sunday, he was given a slip of paper with the number 13,995 on it. On Monday afternoon, Mexican immigration officials called numbers 9,514 through 9,574.

From left: Roberto Kabuya Mutombo of the Congo with his family Lucas, Acacia, and Sara at El Buen Pastor migrant shelter on May 13, 2019, in Ciudad Juárez. Mutombo and his family just arrived at the border city.
Roberto Kabuya Mutombo shows his and his families number of the waiting list to enter the U.S. in the rectory at the migrant Center at the migrant shelter, El Buen Pastor, Monday, May 13, 2019, in Ciudad Juarez. Mutombo and his family, not pictured, just arrived to the border city. They are from Angola. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

First: Roberto Kabuya Mutombo and his family stay at El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez after arriving at the border from Congo. Last: Mutombo shows his family's number on the waiting list to enter the U.S. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Mutombo said he fled the civil war in his home country three years ago and spent two years in Angola, where he worked odd jobs before traveling to Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. He eventually crossed the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from the Mexican state of Chiapas and made the trek to Chihuahua.

“My dream was to come to the United States for my future and the future of my kids,” he said. “I have to be patient until my [hearing] date. I am OK doing that.”

Cuban migrant Reinaldo Pacheco has also been patient, and he hoped Monday afternoon that it would pay off later in the week. With a grin he flashed his ID and the number — 9,714 — he was assigned when he arrived in Mexico more than two months ago. He said he would be called sometime within the next two days.

He had nothing but praise for Fierro and the shelter, calling the hospitality wonderful.” But it's a different matter when it comes to Ciudad Juárez as a whole, he said.

“I didn’t know or have any idea how Mexico was or how Juárez was, but I always wanted to come to Mexico,” he said. “But in realty I haven’t enjoyed it much. It’s very violent. I was kidnapped here [after a week], they beat me up, they took my money and threatened me with death.”

Reinaldo Ramirez Pacheco of Cuba talks to his wife in the rectory at El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez on May 13, 2019. They have been at the shelter for two months.
Reinaldo Ramirez Pacheco of Cuba shows his number of the waiting list to enter the U.S. in the rectory at El Buen Pastor migrant shelter on May 13, 2019. Ramirez has been at the shelter for two months.

First: Reinaldo Ramirez Pacheco of Cuba talks to his wife in the rectory of El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Cuidad Juárez, where they've stayed for two months. Last: Pacheco hopes his number on the waiting list to enter the U.S. will be called this week. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Pacheco is part of a growing number of Cubans who have fled the island and sought refuge in the United States since the Obama administration ended what was known as the “wet foot/dry foot” policy. The Clinton-era rule allowed most Cubans who reached a U.S. land port to apply for a designation that allowed them to apply for legal residency status, known as a green card, after living in the country for a year. Since the policy ended in early 2017, more Cubans have traveled to other countries like Panama or Colombia and then paid smugglers to get them the rest of the way to Mexico.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokespersons in El Paso and Laredo said they didn’t have up-to-date numbers on asylum seekers from African or European nations, but they provided recent information on Cuban “inadmissibles.”

Through the first seven months of the federal government’s current fiscal year, 4,737 Cubans have presented themselves at the ports in El Paso. That’s up from 394 for the entire 2018 fiscal year. In Laredo, the number is 5,835, compared to 6,533 for all of last year.

Of the migrants waiting to apply for asylum in Ciudad Juárez, more than 75% are Cuban, according to a report in the Diario De Juárez, a local newspaper that quoted statistics from the Mexican Red Cross, the city's Casa del Migrante and the list managed by Chihuahua's state migrant aid agency.

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As the stress continues to mount in Mexican border cities, U.S. officials are warning that the crisis is worsening north of the border as well. Last month, about 99,000 undocumented immigrants were apprehended or turned themselves in between ports of entry on the southwest border, according to federal statistics. Since October 2018, when the current fiscal year began, there have been more than 460,000 apprehensions, already surpassing 2018's fiscal year total of 396,579.

On Tuesday, CNN published photos of migrants, including young children, sleeping on rocks and pavement in Border Patrol stations after being processed by federal agents.

“Border Patrol agents are doing everything they can to protect and care for migrants in their temporary custody. Border Patrol stations are simply not equipped to handle the number of families and children arriving along the southwest border,” a Border Patrol official told CNN.

The photos came even after the Border Patrol erected two temporary structures in Texas, one in El Paso and one in Donna in the Rio Grande Valley, to deal with the increasing flow. The facilities have a capacity of 500 people each, but officials are already seeking to expand the Donna facility, according to media reports in the Valley.

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Fierro said that as migrants spread the word about where to travel and how to get to the United States — regardless of how long the wait is — the problem will only grow.

“Its like a glass of water that’s going to overflow and spill onto everything,” he said. After a brief pause, he added, “Here it’s like a dam. The dam is going to overflow.”