‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy Stirs Concern Among Mexican Officials Struggling With Migrant Arrivals

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Two little boys play a game on a cellphone on the floor of a sports arena recently converted into a shelter to deal with the recent influx of migrants in Juarez, Mexico.  (Alex Hall/KQED)

As local officials on the Texas-Mexico border scramble to accommodate thousands of recent migrants from Central America and beyond, they are bracing for the U.S. to expand its “Remain in Mexico” policy, which could send many more people back across the border to wait while their asylum claims are processed.

The new policy, which is already in force at the Tijuana-San Diego border, has officials in the Mexican state of Chihuahua concerned that they can’t handle the coming waves of migrants. Since late October 2018, more than 8,000 migrants have arrived in Juarez, many coming from Central America, Cuba, Russia and countries in Africa, including Angola and Cameroon.

“We don’t agree with this program. Without it, we have enough problems,” said Ramon Galindo, sub-secretary of social development for Chihuahua’s northern region. “If they use Mexico as a hotel for migrants, it’s going to create a bigger problem than we have now.”

Galindo was one of several state and local leaders who met on Friday with Customs and Border Protection and other U.S. immigration officials at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso about the policy.

Over the past few weeks, officials have been attending meetings like these while maintaining a local sports arena-turned-shelter for hundreds of migrants waiting to ask for asylum in the U.S.

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“In spite of the fact that it has been implemented in Tijuana, we still do not have information from the Mexican federal government or U.S. authorities about how this program will work,” said Enrique Valenzuela, general coordinator with the state population agency COESPO. “I believe that’s because maybe (Mexico’s) federal government maybe does not have clarity.”

An official with Mexico’s federal immigration agency, Instituto Nacional de Migracion, declined to respond to questions about negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico concerning the program and its expansion because he was not authorized to do so.

This basketball court at a sports arena in Juarez has become a resting place for nearly 500 migrants from Cuba, Russia and countries in Central America and Africa. Many of the migrants have children with them. (Alex Hall/KQED)

'No Money, No Resources'

The new policy began in late January in Tijuana, where The New York Times has reported that at least 120 migrants have been returned to await their first date in U.S. immigration court.

Officials in Juarez had been told the program would begin there as early as last Friday. However, in a conference call that day, senior DHS officials told reporters that the program would not immediately begin but that the number of migrants returned to Mexico for processing would “grow exponentially.” The officials also did not say when or how the program would expand.

Chihuahua officials are worried that communities along the border will have to deal with the return of migrants without federal help from either country.

“We do not know of any budget being assigned to this issue,” Valenzuela said. “We do not have the money, we do not have the resources. Not the city of Juarez, not the state of Chihuahua.”

Officials also fear it could make life chaotic in an area experiencing what they say is an unprecedented influx of migrants.

“We made it clear: It’s not fair that local authorities are facing this problem alone,” Galindo said. “We feel alone in having to respond to this program that we did not create.”

Catalina Velasquez washes clothes in a wash bin outside a shelter in Juarez while her 18-month-old son, Jefferson, watches. She does not plan to ask for asylum in the U.S.; rather, she wants to find a job there, she says. (Alex Hall/KQED)

Human rights advocates on both sides of the border have questioned whether the Remain in Mexico policy is legally valid under Mexican law. When a deal is made with another country, an accord or convention is formalized, said Blanca Navarrete, director of Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción.

“We know that no signed agreement exists,” she said, adding that the policy also violates the rights of asylum-seekers under the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Local officials say migrants arriving in Juarez tell them they heard it would be easier to cross there than in Tijuana, where thousands of migrants, some traveling in groups or caravans, have arrived in recent months. But officials say that’s not true.

The number of families apprehended in the El Paso sector has increased 1,689 percent from last year — the greatest shift of any area along the southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection,.

Darwin Oporta and Raquel Picado Al Faro rest on their mats at the Gimnasio del Colegio de Bachilleres, a sports arena recently converted into a shelter for migrants in Juárez. The pair left Nicaragua separately three months ago, fleeing violence by police. They met at the border between Mexico and Guatemala and decided to travel to the U.S. together to ask for asylum. (Alex Hall/KQED)

‘The Migrant That Enters Legally Is Welcome in the U.S.’

Three weeks ago, after the city’s largest migrant shelter ran out of space, Juarez officials set up a refuge in a sports arena in the town center, the Gimnasio del Colegio de Bachilleres. With the help of nonprofit groups and volunteers, the city has been providing meals, laundry tubs and medical and psychological care for about 500 migrants.

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One of the migrants, Darwin Oporta, arrived to Juarez on Feb. 16, three months after fleeing violence by police in his home country of Nicaragua. He wore a pink paper wristband with the number 6,074 written on it. When his number comes up, he told KQED last week, he plans to go to the border and request asylum.

“President Trump said the migrant that enters legally is welcome in the U.S. The migrant that enters illegally will be deported to his country,” Oporta said. “That’s why I’m coming in legally.”

As for the Remain in Mexico policy, Oporta said he didn’t feel safe staying in Mexico while he waited to request asylum in the U.S.

“Mexico is not a safe place for us, especially close to the border,” he said.

“If we leave this shelter, we’re really leaving. We can’t get back in. They say 10 leave and 20 more come,” Oporta added. “If the United States sends us back, things will get complicated. Not just for us, but for everyone.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.