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Seeing a Central American surge, Mexicans join the asylum line at the US border

Migrants carry scavenged goods after abandoned tents were left by people who had an asylum court hearing, at an encampment near the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico.

GARY CORONADO/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL | Los Angeles Times | Published: December 27, 2019

MATAMOROS, Mexico (Tribune News Service) — Emma Sanchez waited patiently in line at the foot of a bridge leading across the Rio Grande and into Texas, one of tens of thousands of people stuck on Mexico's northern border seeking political asylum in the United States.

"They cut my husband to pieces and dumped his body by the road," Sanchez said matter-of-factly as she showed a visitor a link to a news article about the grisly demise of her spouse, a former taxi driver who, his widow said, refused to pay protection money to the local mob.

"Now I'm afraid they are coming after me and my kids," she added, explaining why she had fled to Matamoros with her four daughters.

It is the kind of haunting account heard frequently in this Mexican border town, where hundreds of Central American asylum-seekers who say they are fleeing gang violence await court dates in the United States. They mostly spend their days in a rough tent city along the Rio Grande, relying largely on charity from donors from the United States and Mexico for food, medical care and other essentials.

But Sanchez is not from Central America. She is a native of Acapulco – once a beach destination for Hollywood movie stars and other high-rolling vacationers, now a sun-splashed Pacific Coast battleground where rival Mexican factions battle for control of drug trafficking and other illicit enterprises.

She is also illustrative of a relatively new – and, from the Trump administration perspective, troubling – trend: The convergence along the border of escalating numbers of Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States.

Word about Central Americans and others gaining U.S. footholds via the asylum process has spread to violence-racked areas of Mexico, prompting many to head north to border towns, from Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico to Tijuana on the Pacific.

"First we heard about the caravans, then we heard that the Central Americans were getting asylum in the United States," said Jose Antonio Mendoza, 28, another asylum hopeful here from Guerrero, the western Mexican state where Acapulco is also situated. "And then we heard that asylum was also a possibility for Mexicans." Mendoza has been waiting here for two months with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 7.

The number of Mexican asylum-seekers arriving at the southwestern border has been steadily rising in recent months – even as the ranks of Central Americans and others seeking U.S. refuge have slowed in the face of crackdowns and policy shifts in both Mexico and the United States.

Mexican nationals now account for slightly more than half of the 21,000 or so people on various asylum waiting lists in Mexican border towns, according to a study last month by researchers at the University of Texas and UC San Diego. A year ago, relatively few Mexican nationals were in the bulging border asylum queues.

"People hear through friends, through social media, through the news that Mexicans can come to the border and get asylum in the United States," noted Gladys Canas, who heads a nonprofit group aiding migrants here. "Some sell their homes or land to finance the trip, but they end up getting stuck here. So far, asylum is more of an illusion than a reality for many Mexicans."

Here, as at other crossings along the Rio Grande, blue-uniformed officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection are stationed mid-bridge and stop many asylum-seekers from proceeding into U.S. territory. U.S. officials defend the process as necessary because of staff shortages. But immigrant advocates call the practice illegal, possibly sending Mexicans back to their deaths, and have sued to stop it.

For U.S. officials, the Mexican influx poses a special challenge: Unlike Central Americans and other Spanish-speaking asylum aspirants, Mexicans cannot be dispatched back to Mexico to await future court hearings, the fate of more than 50,000 asylum applicants under the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy. International law has long banned sending people back to countries where they may face persecution.

Instead, according to Mexican asylum-seekers and advocates, U.S. authorities have adopted a policy of allowing only a trickle of Mexican asylum-seekers to enter the United States, a process known as "metering." On some days, migrants say, none of the scores of Mexican asylum-seekers who line up here daily at a pair of border bridges are allowed pass into U.S. territory.

And that policy could soon become more restrictive: Last week, Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said that Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States might be shipped to Guatemala rather than being allowed to wait in the United States for the conclusion of asylum cases, which can drag on for months or years.

The Mexican asylum-seekers say they are fleeing their homeland's endemic gang violence as well as deeply entrenched poverty. Some have previously resided in the United States and have close relatives there, or have U.S.-born children reared in Mexico.

Apart from Guerrero state – where traffickers vie for turf and campesinos till fields of opium poppies – many Mexican asylum-seekers come from the southern state of Chiapas, a place not known for rampant cartel violence. However, Chiapas is a region where bloody disputes intertwined with land, politics and religion have long plagued certain rural, largely indigenous zones.

"We as Christians suffer from discrimination, we are seen as second-class citizens," said Esteban Perez, 28, who is one of many evangelical asylum-seekers from San Juan Chamula, a Chiapas municipality where clashes between evangelicals and Roman Catholics have costs scores of lives and left thousands displaced in recent decades.

Perez, a member of Chiapas' Tzotzil-speaking indigenous group, was talking in front of a tent that he shares with a younger brother in the sprawling encampment housing more than 1,000 asylum-seekers along the banks of the Rio Grande. Most inhabitants are Central Americans awaiting U.S. court dates under the Remain in Mexico policy, which saw them expelled back to Mexico pending U.S. court appointments in tent courts on the north side of the river.

The camp – where the smell of burning wood on open cooking fires wafts through the air and women wash clothes in the contaminated waters of the Rio Grande – has become the signature site of frustrated asylum-seekers stuck along the border.

Many of the Central Americans stranded have been on the road for almost a year, and have already had several U.S. court appearances. Some view the Mexicans, relative newcomers, as line-jumpers – even though the Mexicans face a different initial process than the Central Americans, since they cannot be sent back to Mexico.

"I don't see why the Mexicans should just be able to walk up and ask for asylum," said Jose Orlando Lopez, 29, a Honduran national who said he, his wife and his daughter had already had two U.S. asylum hearings and were waiting for a third scheduled for Jan. 10. "The whole system seems designed to make us lose hope. If the Americans don't want us, they should just tell us."

As he spoke, his daughter, Elisabeth, 4, sat on the dirt perusing donated school books with other migrant children, under the guidance of a volunteer teacher.

The migrant camp is next to the entrance to the Gateway International Bridge, which leads to downtown Brownsville, Texas. Along the pedestrian footpath leading to the bridge, Miguel Diaz Sanchez, no relation to Emma Sanchez, kept an eye out for newcomers on a recent morning as he clutched his precious possession – la libreta, or the notebook.

"This is where we keep the names," said Sanchez, 44, a native of Chiapas and a former worker in a chicken-processing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. "This way we know who is coming, and we can keep order."

Sanchez is, for now, the keeper of the book where the names of Mexican asylum-seekers are written down and given a number.

The self-generated lists of Mexican asylum-seekers are kept both here and, a few blocks away, at the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge. The two lists together recently contained some 150 names, likely representing more than 500 people, since many asylum hopefuls arrive with spouses and children.

Each day, those at the top of the lists are dispatched to the two bridges' midpoints, where U.S. immigration officers are stationed, to request asylum interviews. List leaders take daily turns going back and forth to the middle of the bridge in a vigil that is mostly lost time.

"I don't want my daughters to be kidnapped by the cartels and be used by them," said Marco Antonio Valentin, 30, a native of Mexico's Guerrero state who was on the bridge with his wife and two daughters, ages 12 and 6, who were huddled together against an early morning chill and a breeze off the river. "I want them to have a chance at the better life."

Back at the bridge entrance, Miguel Sanchez said that the Mexican asylum-seekers retained hope, even though U.S. immigration officers were letting very few get through for asylum interviews. One day earlier this month, however, U.S. officers unexpectedly called for 50 to proceed, stunning the waiting Mexicans.

"That could happen again, we need to be patient," said Sanchez, who said he hoped to go back to Tennessee, where his mother and four sisters still live, and where his eldest son was born 14 years ago. "For us, that would be our biggest Christmas present: To be back with our families, who are waiting for us with open arms on the other side."

___

Cecilia Sanchez in the Los Angeles Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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