EL PASO – Minutes before being returned to federal custody on Thursday afternoon – and likely returned to Ciudad Juárez while his asylum case is still pending – Misael Acosta wanted to say one last thing to a judge of immigration.
Acosta said he was in downtown Ciudad Juárez last week buying fruit for his daughter when he saw something startling.
“When I went to throw garbage, I saw the body of a dead man” lying on the ground, he says in Spanish.
Acosta, 25, was one of many asylum seekers who told Judge Nathan L. Herbert essentially the same thing: Under a new Trump administration policy, the violence they escaped in Central America followed them to Mexico, where the U.S. government sent them. .
Acosta fled Honduras after criminal gangs and police threatened him and Katherin Molina, 22, the mother of their two daughters, they said. Family sought asylum at the El Paso port of entry in early April, but was returned to Mexico the next day. They said they have since been transported from shelter to shelter in Ciudad Juárez.
They were part of the wave of asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico under the expansion of a controversial program called the Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, also known as “Stay in Mexico,” began in California in January and expanded to El Paso ports of entry in March; it forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until they appear before US judges.
The future of the program is now in the hands of the 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals. A California federal judge temporarily blocked the program on April 8, but a three-judge appeals court panel suspended that order pending an appeal of the decision by the Trump administration.
This means that the Acosta family and the 13 other migrants in the El Paso courtroom on Thursday for their asylum proceedings will likely be sent back to Mexico and will not be able to return until their next court date, May 31. Their only option to stay in the United States until then is to convince a US immigration officer that they shouldn’t be removed, but that’s rare, said Christina Garcia, who works at El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Fear of returning to Mexico wasn’t the only issue on display in Herbert’s courtroom on Thursday. When the Migrant Protocols were announced, immigration lawyers immediately sounded the alarm about how the program would hamper migrants’ ability to find lawyers to help them navigate the asylum process. .
None of the immigrant families had a lawyer at Thursday’s hearing, and at one point Herbert asked the group if they understood they had the right to ask for a lawyer, adding that he was willing to extend their court dates to give them time to find lawyers. All of the immigrants initially refused the extension, and a surprised Herbert interrupted the proceedings, went into private mode, and spoke with Garcia, who explained the judge’s offer in more detail to the group.
The immigrants all changed their answers and accepted the extension. They received a list of lawyers and other resources.
After the hearing, Linda Rivas, general counsel for the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who had represented a family of asylum seekers earlier in the day, said it was difficult to contact clients while they waited. in the shelters of Juárez.
Each shelter has its own rules about when migrants can communicate with lawyers, even over the phone, she said.
Since the protocols went into effect, the US government has sent between 400 and 500 immigrants to Ciudad Juárez, US Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, told reporters last week. Meanwhile, violence has increased in the city, with 25 homicides occurring over the Easter weekend and 19 the previous weekend, according to local media. reports. As of Sunday, more than 450 homicides had been reported in the city this year, or about four a day.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security responded to the influx of Central American migrants crossing the border by redirecting 750 Customs and Border Protection officers from El Paso ports of entry; Laredo; Tucson, Ariz.; and San Diego to help US Border Patrol agents process undocumented immigrants.
The reallocations caused huge delays on international bridges for pedestrian, vehicle and freight traffic, which affected some local businesses in the portfolio.
Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Centro de Atención a Migrantes de Ciudad Juárez, a transition center for migrants run by the Chihuahua state government, said he hoped his state’s citizens would not start venting their frustrations on immigrants.
“I am concerned because there is a feeling among locals that the main problem with border crossings is caused by this [migrant] phenomenon, and that is incorrect,” he said, adding that the problem is “an institutional misunderstanding” between the US and Mexican governments.
As he rummaged through trash cans for recyclable cans to exchange for pesos on Tuesday, Roberto Flores said the Mexican government should do more to care for its citizens, but he refrained from blaming migrants for trying to flee their homeland.
“It’s not their fault. This is [Mexican President] Lopez Obrador for letting them in,” he said. “And that’s Trump.”
Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he believed the violence in Juárez would only continue. But that is a separate issue from the current migrant crisis, he said.
“The violence is rooted in Juárez’s age-old problems of unemployment and underemployment, limited social mobility, America’s crackdown on poor worker immigration, government corruption, the huge illegal drug market in the United States and Juarez, and large organized crime groups,” he said. “The arrival of Central American, Cuban and other migrants is largely a separate issue, but puts more emphasis on the local government and community, which is beginning to lose sympathy for the refugees in part because of xenophobic yellow journalism and attacks on social media”.
The social media attacks, Campbell said, began last year in Tijuana when false statements on the violence of Central Americans against the Mexican authorities began to circulate on Internet sites.
For now, Valenzuela, the Chihuahua state official, said it was his job to make sure the migrants he sees daily aren’t caught up in local turf battles.
“I think we need to design a better understanding of this phenomenon locally which involves both [Americans and Mexicans],” he said. “I think we’re still not there. We have to turn this into an opportunity. It’s my job not to let this turn into a crisis.