Thousands Wait In Juárez, Mexico, For A Chance At Sanctuary In The U.S.

Originally published on June 2, 2019 8:57 am

The city of Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has long been a migrant gateway to the United States.

In mid-May, Mexican authorities said at least 14,500 asylum-seekers either have passed through Juárez on their way to the U.S. or were still waiting in Juárez for their opportunity to apply.

A large share of the migrant flow is coming from Cuba and Central America. But Juárez has also become a destination for people fleeing any number of conflicts and oppression around the world. That includes people from Africa.

As soon as they get my story, they will believe me and I'll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That's my power. - Florant, migrant from Cameroon

In one Juárez migrant shelter, El Albergue Buen Pastor, or the Good Shepherd Shelter, people from Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been passing through in recent months.

The migration mosaic here, however, is changing. It now includes people from at least three African countries: Angola, Uganda and Cameroon.

Florant is from Cameroon, in central Africa. Like the other African migrants, he asked that his last name not be used as he fears retribution against his family in Cameroon. He's waiting for his turn to speak to U.S. border officials about his asylum claim.

People from Cameroon and Uganda enter El Buen Pastor church in Juárez, Mexico. The migrants are among thousands waiting in Mexico for their number to be called by U.S. authorities for an initial asylum interview in El Paso, Texas.
Lorne Matalon for NPR

"As soon as they get my story, they will believe me and I'll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That's my power," said Florant.

To complete the first step in the asylum process, Florant must pass a "credible fear" interview with U.S. officials. He must establish that he fears persecution in his home country and that this persecution is a result of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion or because he is of a particular social group.

Tamra, from Uganda, said she's bracing herself for that interview.

She said it will be difficult to recount what she claims happened to her. "Painful, very painful. That is why I cannot even share my story," she said.

When they arrive in Juárez, migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. must first give their names to Mexican authorities. Each person gets a number and is put on a list of those waiting to cross the border. Each day, U.S. officials ask Mexican authorities to send over a given number of people identified by those numbers for an initial hearing in El Paso.

Musika, from Uganda, said he and two friends had tried to present themselves to U.S. authorities on the Paso del Norte International Bridge as soon as they arrived in Juárez three weeks ago. But they were sent back.

"We had to go back and wait for another time when we are permitted," he explained. He is now on that list.

Everyone in the group at this shelter lamented having to leave their families and friends in Africa. But they were fleeing violence and, for some, persecution by the authorities. Human Rights Watch says Cameroon is in crisis, with killings by separatists being met by a government scorched-earth policy. Uganda is plagued by civil unrest and human rights abuses.

John is from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. He claimed he was psychologically scarred after soldiers took him away from what he said was a peaceful, anti-government demonstration.

"I was personally detained for eight days. I didn't know where they'd taken me. I was stepped on, beaten," he stated.

Some people in this group flew from Nairobi, Kenya, to Brazil and then headed north through Colombia and Central America on a journey that took several months.

The Africans said they'd heard that Juárez is a violent place. Yet, they said they felt safe here. But the tension is palpable.

[Honest people] don't slip in the backyard or the window. They go legally, through the front door. - Pedro Luis Tamayo, Cuban migrant waiting in Juárez, Mexico

With the wait for a first asylum interview now several months long, and with concerns that the border could possibly be sealed, shelter director Juan Fierro García said people are growing anxious.

"People want to cross legally," he said. But in March, when President Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico, things changed. "Some people just left the next day and crossed illegally," he said.

Central American migrants have been the largest group asking for asylum in recent months, up and down the border. But in Juárez, the migrant population is now dominated by Cubans: At least 80% of those now waiting to ask for asylum are from Cuba, according to Mexican authorities. One Cuban man, 52-year-old Pedro Luis Tamayo, said he'd been a dissident in Cuba. He said even if his application is rejected, he will not enter the U.S. illegally.

Honest people "don't slip in the backyard or the window," he said. "They go legally, through the front door."

A few feet away, Michael from Uganda said he had finally received his number two days before.

"12,631," he said.

That means at least a two-month wait.

Shelter director Fierro said no one will be asked to leave his shelter, but given the large number of migrants continuing to arrive here, he said they may soon run out of room.


Freelance reporter Lorne Matalon frequently covers stories in Latin America and at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Up and down the U.S. border, thousands in Mexico are waiting for their turn to request asylum from U.S. officials. In the Mexican city of Juarez alone, authorities say there are nearly 5,000 migrants. Long wait times and fears about changing U.S. policies have spurred some migrants to choose to cross illegally. Last week on one night, over a thousand people were apprehended near El Paso. Reporter Lorne Matalon was in Juarez recently and reports that city's become a destination for people fleeing conflicts and violence from all over the world.

(CROSSTALK)

LORNE MATALON, BYLINE: Most of the people hunkering down in this migrant shelter are from Honduras and Guatemala, but Cubans and Venezuelans are also passing through, as well as people from at least three African countries - Angola, Uganda and Cameroon. Everyone at this shelter is waiting for their turn to request asylum at a U.S. port of entry. Florant is from Cameroon in Central Africa.

FLORANT: As soon as they get my story, they'll believe me and I'll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That's my power.

MATALON: Florant, like other African migrants, asked that his last name not be used because he feared retribution against his family at home. He's waiting to have what's known as a credible fear interview with U.S. authorities. It's the first step in the asylum process. Tamra from Uganda says she's bracing herself for that interview.

TAMRA: It's so painful, very painful. That's why I can't even share my story.

MATALON: The waiting process begins like this - when migrants seeking asylum arrive in Juarez, they first give their names to Mexican authorities. They're given a number and put on a list - a list now more than 10,000 names long. Each day, U.S. authorities tell Mexican officials how many people will be allowed off that list, across the border for an initial hearing in El Paso.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

MATALON: Musika from Uganda said before getting on that list, he and two friends had tried to present themselves to U.S. authorities as soon as they arrived. But they were sent back.

MUSIKA: We had to go back and then wait for a time that we are permitted to go inside.

MATALON: Some of the people in this group had flown from Nairobi, Kenya, to Brazil and then headed north through Colombia and Central America on a journey that in some cases took several months. It was a rough journey. Musika claims he was attacked by members of a street gang in Mexico City.

MUSIKA: Because of this kind of gang things, getting us because we are blacks and then we don't know the Spanish kind of thing, pulling out guns on us.

MATALON: Shelter director Juan Fierro Garcia says the long wait time has created tension at the shelter. Tension compounded a few months ago when there was a threat to close the border completely.

JUAN FIERRO GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

MATALON: And he says that prompted some migrants to leave Juarez and cross illegally. Although Africans are now part of the migrant population here, Mexican officials say the vast majority are Cubans. An analysis by the Cato Institute finds that citizens of Cuba are now among the top three nationalities making asylum requests at U.S. borders. Here in Juarez, 52-year-old Pedro Luis Tamayo said he was a dissident in Cuba. He said even if his application is rejected, he won't enter the U.S. illegally.

PEDRO LUIS TAMAYO: (Speaking Spanish).

MATALON: "Honest people don't slip in the backyard or the window," he says. "They go legally through the front door."

A few feet away, Michael from Uganda said he'd received his number on that list two days before.

MICHAEL: Twelve thousand six hundred thirty-one.

MATALON: Twelve thousand six hundred thirty-one.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

MATALON: That means at least a two month wait. Shelter director Juan Fierro says no one will be asked to leave. But given the numbers of migrants arriving here, the shelter may not have room for more.

For NPR News, I'm Lorne Matalon in Juarez.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "ADRIATIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.