At the border, confusion, anxiety and hope as U.S. unveils new process for asylum seekers

At the border, confusion, anxiety and hope as U.S. unveils new process for asylum seekers

Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times

Patrick J. McDonnell and Gabriela Minjares - February 21, 2021

Amid a crowd, a child holds a styrofoam carton and cup with food.

People seeking asylum in the U.S. receive food as they wait for news of policy changes on Friday at the border in Tijuana.  (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Angelina Baltazar, stranded here since August 2019 while waiting for her asylum case to move forward, was fiddling with her smartphone, having little success in registering online to cross the border to wait instead on the U.S. side with her family.

“I need to ask someone for help,” said an exasperated Baltazar, 40, a native of Guatemala who lived for more than a decade in Los Angeles — and is now keen to get back there and be reunited with her three U.S.-born children.

“I’m afraid of being left out,” said Baltazar, standing on the grounds of a shelter in this border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso. “If I don’t get enrolled, they’ll just ignore me.”

Angelina Baltazar uses her smartphone to  try to enroll in new U.S. program for asylum seekers.

Angelina Baltazar, 40, of Guatemala, uses a smartphone to try to enroll in a new U.S. program for asylum seekers stranded in Mexican border towns.
(Gabriela Minjares \ For The Times)

A sense of hope, combined with renewed anxiety, has emerged for Baltazar and tens of thousands of other migrants — mostly Central Americans but including Cubans, Venezuelans and others — who have been forced to wait in Mexico under a Trump administration doctrine as their political asylum cases proceed through U.S. immigration courts. Some have been in the queue for more than a year as the pandemic has pushed back court dates.

Most have been marooned in dangerous border towns under former President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” initiative, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Launched more than two years ago, MPP was a signature effort in Trump’s campaign to clamp down on immigration by compelling most to wait in tenuous living conditions as their cases proceeded. Previously, migrants who claimed persecution at home and were seeking legal refuge under U.S. and international law were allowed to remain in the United States as their court cases proceeded.

The Biden administration has now stopped adding new enrollees to MPP, and unveiled a plan to work through a backlog of some 25,000 people with active petitions in U.S. immigration courts. The complex guidelines involve online registration and COVID-19 tests for those eventually allowed to pursue cases in the United States.

It will be slow going. About 25 migrants in Tijuana were processed Friday and entered San Diego for future legal proceedings, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The rollout is scheduled to be extended to other border towns in coming weeks.

The new plan is slated to launch Friday in Ciudad Juarez, which has the largest number of pending MPP enrollees, more than 10,000, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks court cases.

Most live in shelters or cheap hotels, or crowd into low-rent apartments. Unlike Matamoros, the border town more than 800 miles down the Rio Grande, there is no large migrant camp in Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling desert metropolis of 1.5 million.

Confusion is rampant. Few migrants interviewed here in recent days had any idea what the new system entailed. People are on edge.

“We’re all nervous because we don’t know what’s going to happen, or how this is going to work,” said Laurent Nicole Bueso Cartagena, 19, a native of Honduras who was among a number of MPP applicants interviewed at the Pan de Vida (Bread of Life) shelter, just a few yards from the metal border fence.

Like others, Bueso was working her cellphone to try to register under the new guidelines, without success. The system was non-responsive; she was told she entered data incorrectly. She gave up, for the moment. But she vowed to get back online and try again.

“I feel desperate,” she said, echoing a prevalent sentiment.

Bueso arrived in Ciudad Juarez on Aug. 26, 2019, with her mother, she said. U.S. authorities in El Paso enrolled both of them in MPP and sent them back to Mexico to wait. Their hope is to live with relatives in Miami. She said her mother had been a teacher in Honduras and that the entire family faced threats from students affiliated with Honduran gangs.

Juarez isn’t safe either. Mexican cartels dominate here and in other Mexican border towns. The city became infamous more than two decades ago for the unsolved killings of hundreds of young women, many of them poor factory workers. More recently, Ciudad Juarez made headlines for mobsters’ practice of hanging bodies of slain rivals, some headless, from city bridges.

The stranded migrants are easy prey. Human-rights activists call violence and abduction-extortion schemes a common occurrence. Few migrants have much cash, but their loved ones in the U.S. might.

A month after their arrival, Bueso said, she and her mother hailed a taxi. Their accents marked them as Central American. Instead of taking them to their destination, she said, the driver headed to a house used by kidnappers. The criminals commandeered the women’s cellphones and demanded payment from kin in Miami, she said. The two were released seven days later after relatives in the United States transferred cash, she said.

“They wanted dollars,” Bueso said. “I have no idea how much they were paid.”

She never reported the crime, she said, because she did not trust authorities. Police throughout Mexico are known to work hand-in-hand with extortion racketeers, people smugglers and other mobs. A dozen state police have been charged in the gruesome slayings last month of 19 people, including 13 Guatemalan migrants, in the Mexican border town of Camargo hundreds of miles away. Assailants burned the bodies.

Despite having been kidnapped, Bueso said, she and her mother opted to stay in Ciudad Juarez, hoping their turn would come with U.S. immigration officials. Her father and brother joined them from Honduras in December. They are waiting together at the spartan Bread of Life, where about 180 migrants are housed in several buildings.

Baltazar, an Indigenous migrant from northwestern Guatemala, said she worked in a Los Angeles apparel factory and cleaned houses for years. She returned to Guatemala almost a decade ago when her father was ailing, she said. Her children — now ages 9 to 17, all U.S. citizens — returned to Los Angeles.

Like others stuck in Mexican border cities, she and her children are hopeful that the new process may finally result in a reunion of their long-divided family.

“We wish our mom could be here and we could all be together again,” said her eldest, Cruz Angel Chavez, 17, a high school senior, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles. “It’s really hard for her, living there all by herself in Mexico. But my mom’s a very strong woman. She has hope.”

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Minjares from Ciudad Juarez.

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