Immigration, Mexico, U.S.A.

America’s Terror-Filled Waiting Rooms

Mexico has become an incredibly dangerous place for Central American immigrants.

The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has given in to the demands of President Donald Trump, and tens of thousands of migrants who are seeking asylum in the United States have been forced to wait in Mexico while their applications are processed in American courts.

The situation is terrible: At the makeshift migrant camps set up along the border, children — who are neither allowed to attend school nor receive health care — are forced to sleep on the ground, even in the winter cold, and teenagers are vulnerable targets for criminal gangs. Here, in a country rife with drug cartels and human trafficking, Central American families must live like this for months.

And Mexico has agreed to all of it.

It’s painfully ironic that Mexico — a country that for decades has exported immigrants to the United States — has become the primary impediment to migrants heading north. Mexico must not allow itself to be used as a waiting room for the United States. Mexico’s limited state and federal budgets should be used to fight Mexican crime and poverty, not crush the dreams of people who only want to pass through on their way to safety and a new life.

Since the introduction of the Migrant Protection Protocols last January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has required approximately 50,000 asylum-seekers and other migrants to wait in Mexico, according to an October 2019 report by Human Rights First. Already there have been over 340 reported cases of rape, kidnapping, torture and other violent acts committed against these immigrants. This figure would likely be much higher if all such crimes were reported.

For Central Americans fleeing gang violence at home, it’s hard to imagine that life in the border cities of Matamoros or Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas state could be much of an improvement. And yet, as Human Rights First points out, the State Department sends asylum-seekers to Tamaulipas to wait even while labeling it a “Level 4” threat, the same designation it gives Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. According to reports by the López Obrador administration, 790 people were killed in Tamaulipas between January and November 2019.

The last few years have been some of the most violent in Mexico’s modern history. It’s clear that the Mexican government is unable to protect even the lives of its own citizens. Despite this, many thousands of migrants have come, and now have no choice but to stop and wait. Turning back is not an option: Cubans and Venezuelans can’t return to the dictatorships they left behind, and for many Central Americans going home would be a death sentence.

Yamali Flores and Josué Cornejo are a couple from Honduras, with two young daughters and a teenage son. Recently they were forced to flee the violence in northern Mexico and enter the United States illegally. They were captured and sent back across the border to Matamoros.

“We were applying for asylum in Mexico, but we saw one of the bosses of the people who killed our aunt
and they broke into our home while we were asleep,” Cornejo told me last fall in an interview. “Then I told my wife that we had no choice and that’s why we decided to cross the river.”

During the crossing, Cornejo took great pains to protect evidence he had collected of the danger his family faced in Honduras and Mexico from any water damage. It didn’t matter. The American authorities arrested them anyway.

Immigrants entering the United States with children were once allowed to stay, even without valid documents. Now it’s not so simple. This new policy is part of the Trump administration’s effort to significantly reduce the number of undocumented immigrants staying in the country. The Human Rights First report estimates that, according to a policy it calls illegal known as “metering,” 26,000 asylum applicants have been turned away at U.S. ports of entry.

When I asked Flores how the family felt about staying in Matamoros, she told me they were “afraid [and] nervous because of all the things we see happening here.”

Unfortunately, they still have a long wait ahead of them before they learn if they’ve been granted asylum in America. “Even if it takes eight months,” Flores said, “we’ll be here.”

The family doesn’t have legal representation or the money to hire a lawyer, which drastically reduces chances that their application will be approved. Flores says she sometimes cries at night. “It’s hard to see your children sleeping on the floor,” she told me.

Intentionally or not, Mexico is preventing the family from living in a safe place. And neither the López Obrador administration nor the state of Tamaulipas has the infrastructure or economic resources to take care of so many immigrants. The tensions created by this lack of resources, and by the xenophobia of some Mexicans, have flared into anti-immigrant protests, where demonstrators shout things like “Mexico for the Mexican people!”

Such abuse is unlikely to stop as more immigrants arrive.

On Skype, Flores and Cornejo introduce me to their children, David, Génesis and Ivonne. “We only want them to live,” Flores says. “To become adults.”

I asked what would happen to their children if they were sent back to Honduras. “They would all be killed,” their father said.

Migrants like these are stuck in an impossible situation. They can’t seek safety in the United States, where they will only be turned away. Neither can they return to Central America, where they will face death. Instead, they must await their fate in violence-plagued northern Mexico.

Something must be done to help people like Flores and Cornejo and their children. And now.

By Jorge Ramos Ávalos

Image by: Trevor Gerzen on Unsplash

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”