CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — On Monday afternoon, Luis Emilio realized he’d had enough.
The 22-year-old Ecuadorian migrant had just spent three days in detention in the United States after seeking asylum, only to be sent back to Mexico until his immigration hearing.
Tribune reporting for this project is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
That meant staying in this border town until August under a US government program called Migrant Protection Protocols, which sends asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to await their asylum applications. The program began in California in January and expanded to El Paso ports of entry in March.
By mid-May, around 2,800 migrants were waiting in Ciudad Juárez under the program. By Monday, that number had risen to more than 7,600, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Centro de Atención a Migrantes de Ciudad Juárez, a transition center for migrants run by the Chihuahua state government.
The program would expand to other parts of the Mexican border later this month; The Associated Press reported that the next likely location will be Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which borders South Texas and has for years been considered one of the deadliest cities in the country.
Instead of resisting, Luis Emilio, who declined to give his last name, said he would try to scrape together enough money over the next few days and take his next step.
“I need to find money to buy a ticket to return to [Ecuador]; nobody told me [I’d be sent back] in Mexico,” he said as he and four other Ecuadorians walked down Avenida Juárez, the city’s main street.
The MPP program also coincided with a spike in homicides in Ciudad Juárez. In May, 151 people were killed. In the first 17 days of June, more than 80 additional homicides were recorded in the border town.
This has drawn the attention of human rights groups who have claimed that the MPP does not provide a safe haven for asylum seekers who claim to be fleeing equally dangerous conditions in their home countries.
In a 56-page report, Human Rights Watch detailed several first-hand accounts of violence suffered by asylum seekers in Mexico. These include the rape of a 20-year-old Honduran woman who was told her 4-year-old son would be killed if she screamed for help; a 21-year-old Salvadoran who was stabbed in the back but was told local police would not help him because he was not a Mexican citizen; and the abduction by a taxi driver of a 23-year-old Honduran woman and her daughter who had to pay a ransom or be killed.
Human Rights Watch also alleges that under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the U.S. government is obligated not to return anyone to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believe that [they] would be at risk of being subjected to torture.
“As part of the Migrant Protection Protocols Program, the [United States] fails to meet its international legal obligations to ensure that asylum seekers can fairly exercise their right to seek asylum and are protected from repression“, says the report. Even former Mexican officials, who have in the past been reluctant to describe their country as a volatile war zone, have acknowledged that the MPP program puts migrants at risk.
During a discussion on US-Mexico relations at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, said Mexico was not a safe haven for migrants. .
“It’s not realistic; Mexico is not a safe third country,” he said, adding that the country does not have the capacity to absorb large numbers of migrants.
In May, Valenzuela, the director of the transitional facility, sounded the alarm over a lack of accommodation space in Ciudad Juárez that could force migrants to fend for themselves on the streets. On Monday, he said the situation had only become more urgent, with migrants being returned to Mexico through the MPP joined by 6,000 who are still waiting their turn to cross the border and seek asylum.
“We need a growing network of shelters; we need to add more shelters on a monthly basis,” he said.
Tension spilled onto the streets of the Mexican border town. On Monday, more than 250 Cuban and Central American migrants gathered at the foot of the bridge in downtown Juárez and headed towards the United States, demanding to be allowed entry, KTSM television reported. . Authorities closed the bridge for about three hours and used “hardening” measures, including deploying barbed wire, adding concrete barriers, and deploying Customs and Border Protection officers in anti-blast gear. -riot, to secure the port.
Valenzuela said he’s not sure if any of the walkers have been sent back to Mexico under the MPP program, but he fears it doesn’t matter to the frustrated Juarenses who are growing weary of the numbers growing number of migrants in their city.
“We fear that this will cause more tension. I have asked migrants to avoid this type of action,” he said. “We want to preserve this orderly system that we’ve put in place locally, and that’s not helping.”