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Mexican Migrants Wait In The Streets Of Juárez For Their Chance To Claim Asylum

By Mallory Falk, KERA

A growing number of Mexicans are fleeing their homes and heading to the U.S. border to seek asylum, driven by a surge in violence. But once they get to a port of entry, many of them are blocked.

A policy called  metering limits the number of asylum seekers allowed into the U.S. each day. That leaves some Mexicans stuck in their own country, terrified the violence they’re fleeing may catch up with them.

Mexico’s murder rate is on track to surpass last year’s  record high.

"We’ve seen not only violence escalate across the country, but really spread out," said Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies migration and drug violence in Mexico.

"The times when all of the fighting was concentrated in a place like Ciudad Juárez are over, and now we see conflicts flaring up in random cities throughout the country where the total amount of violence is much greater," Slack said.

Several thousand Mexican asylum seekers have arrived in Juárez since June. Many are fleeing organized crime in states like Michoacán, Guerrero and Zacatecas. 

But once they arrive, many of them have to wait.

Dozens of tents currently line a small street near the Paso del Norte International Bridge connecting Ciudad Juárez with El Paso. Some are covered with blankets or tarp, offering modest protection from the wind.

On a recent November afternoon, an asylum seeker named María sat on the curb, bundled into a soft, hooded sweatshirt. (We’re calling her María to protect her identity, because her family has faced death threats.)

María has been here for a month and a half. She said she left her hometown in Michoacán when a cartel began threatening her husband and killed his sister. Local authorities didn’t offer protection.

"You ask for help and they tell you 'there’s nothing to be done, just stay quiet,'" she said. "But how are you gonna be calm if you know that you’re in danger?...So that’s when we decided 'well, let’s go.'"

Now María, her husband and two sons are biding their time, until it’s their turn to cross the bridge and claim asylum. They’re afraid to lose their spot on the waiting list, so they’d rather camp here than look for other shelter. 

Similar scenes are playing out in Juárez at two other bridges, and in a nearby park.

María said so far the wait has been monotonous.

"You walk to one side of the street, you walk to the other," she said. "For a while, you play with your kids."

But those kids can quickly become restless.

"There is literally not one single thing to do here on the street," said Cristina Rathbone, an Episcopal priest who is currently based in El Paso. She has started leading activities for children near the base of the bridge.

"Why not just teach them a class and have them dance and play and sing a bit, at least, if not learn anything," she said.

On a recent afternoon, Rathbone taught the children the English words for different body parts. She handed out chunks of pastel chalk. Children carefully sketched out eyes, noses and a row of sharp teeth. By the end of the lesson, the sidewalk was covered in chalk.

"It’s very little and it doesn’t solve anything, but it also feels like what we can do," Rathbone said.

Mexican asylum seekers are exempt from some of the Trump administration’s new policies primarily targeting Central Americans, like the  Remain in Mexico program. But they’re not exempt from metering, which started in full force about a year ago.

Jeremy Slack said that has created a huge danger for Mexican asylum seekers.

If you are running or having issues with organized crime, with drug cartels, the chances that those drug cartels have people in Juárez or work with people in Juárez are quite high,” Slack said. “So the fact that you can be found in those places, you know, that’s a huge, huge danger that they’re facing that other people aren’t.”

María, the asylum seeker from Michoacán, said she doesn’t have another option. When she was preparing to leave, she heard her family might have to wait at the border, potentially for a month or more. It’s a risk she was willing to take.

"It’s very difficult, is the truth," María said. "Taking care of the kids, food, our costs.  They charge you to use the bathroom. Sleeping in the cold, especially when the temperature drops, is difficult. But you try to bundle up and endure it."

María said she can only hope the wait is worth it.