It was still dark when Alejandra arrived at the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Juárez, Mexico, around four in the morning. She and her 13-year-old daughter sat by the turnstile and waited for authorities to let everyone through.
They had already come to the bridge earlier in the week, to report to US immigration court. But they were told to come back a few days later.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” Alejandra said in Spanish. “They didn’t give us any paper to show we were there. They just told us to show up today at the same time.”
(Alejandra, like other asylum seekers in this story, has requested that we not use her full name while her case is still under review.)
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been sent to Mexico on hold as their cases unfold in US immigration court, under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs) – also known as the “Stay in Mexico” program.
Many are here in Juárez, living in overcrowded shelters or sharing rooms, often in dilapidated buildings.
Their hearings have now been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet they still have to show up at ports of entry on their original court dates, in order to receive new ones – a process that puts them at risk.
“They bring us here without taking any precautions,” Alejandra said. “And for nothing, in the end.”
Alejandra arrived on a crowded day. People like her, who had court appointments during something of a period of uncertainty before the US government officially postponed hearings, have been asked to return, along with people who were scheduled to appear in court today. today.
More than a hundred people eventually lined up on the Mexican side of the bridge, mostly standing shoulder to shoulder. Some wore masks or scarves wrapped around their noses and mouths, but many remained unprotected. A few babies cradled in their arms, wrapped in warm blankets.
US officials let people through in rotation, to receive documents with their new court dates.
A little girl took pictures of the sunrise on her mother’s phone. It was pretty quiet except for a scary moment when a heavily pregnant woman passed out and was rushed to the front of the line.
Alejandra and her daughter stood patiently, with small backpacks slung over their shoulders.
They arrived in Juárez from Guatemala seven months ago and rented a room here. When she can, Alejandra cleans to earn some money.
Now they’re doing everything they can to protect themselves from the coronavirus: washing their hands, hanging up their clothes to bake in the sun – it’s not a proven method of killing the virus, but their best line of defense .
“We try to do everything they recommend, but it’s quite difficult,” Alejandra said.
His son sends updates from Guatemala. This country has stepped up measures to stop the spread of the virus, including putting in place a curfew. In Mexico, it seems people aren’t taking the virus that seriously, Alejandra said.
“Coronavirus is real,” her daughter added, as if delivering a public service announcement. “A sick person can infect other people before they know they are sick.”
They fear that could happen today, whether on their Uber ride to the port of entry, standing on the crowded bridge or interacting with immigration officials.
They are finally welcomed to the United States just before 6 a.m., nearly two hours after arriving to receive their new court dates.
The spread of COVID-19 is complicating an already difficult situation for asylum seekers waiting in Mexico.
“Nobody wins,” said Leo, a Cuban asylum seeker who has been living in a shelter on the outskirts of Juárez for nearly a year.
Had the hearings moved forward, he said, the migrants would have had to choose between risking their health to show up in court or dropping their cases. Yet the postponement of hearings means they are stuck in Mexico for even longer – another place where their safety is at risk, first from violent crime and now from COVID-19.
Leo said residents at the shelter are concerned about their health.
“We make an effort to keep everything clean,” he said in Spanish. “We always have enough water. But sometimes we can’t rely on cleaning products.”
Several residents work in maquiladoras or factories, Leo said. He fears they will bring the coronavirus back to the shelter.
For people like him, who have not found work, an already dire situation has become even worse.
“The people who supported us financially – family and everyone else – can’t send money like they used to,” Leo said. “They can’t help that way because they were also fired from their jobs.”
The pandemic is exacerbating all the problems associated with waiting for asylum seekers in Mexico, immigration attorney Taylor Levy said. She temporarily moved from El Paso to Juárez, to ensure she could continue working with migrants if the US government imposed travel restrictions.
Levy has spent most of her mornings on the international deck, offering free legal advice to asylum seekers navigating the situation.
“This process is absolutely ridiculous, but that’s because the MPP is absolutely ridiculous,” Levy said.
She said many people in the program don’t have a fixed address; the only way to get in touch with them to provide them with new court dates and new documents is to bring them to the bridge – at a time when people around the world are being told to stay home and go. avoid the crowds.
Levy believes asylum seekers should be paroled in the United States to quarantine with their families.
“None of these sanctuaries would exist if it weren’t for Staying in Mexico,” she said. “These shelters are in very poor condition and many people will get sick.”
Maria, a 68-year-old Cuban asylum seeker, hopes she can stave off the virus. She sat outside a government building in Juárez, waiting to renew her Mexican visa – the second step in the process, after receiving her new court date in the United States.
Maria arrived here months ago with her four grandchildren. They finally crossed the border on their own, after a harrowing experience in a shelter; until recently, children unaccompanied by adults were allowed in the United States
Maria is happy that they are safe and a family, but worried about her own health. She knows she is at a higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19 due to her age and said she has weak lungs.
“I know I won’t live forever, but I don’t want to die from coronavirus,” she said.
Maria said the violence in Juárez made her afraid to go out in public even before the pandemic. Now she’s taking extra precautions.
She showed off her protective gear: a blue mask and a plastic shower cap. She pulled off her fuzzy black gloves to reveal a second layer of latex gloves underneath.
“I’m only leaving [the shelter] when I have to, said Maria. I only went today to get this paper.
She unzipped a large bag on her lap and pulled out a folder full of important documents, then held up a sheet of paper with her new court date: April 27.
It turned out that this date was not late enough. Less than a week after Maria received her new documents, the US government announced it was postponing all hearings until May 1.
This means that to get a new court date, Maria will have to put on her shower cap and gloves and go through the same process again.