Bundled against the cold, dozens of asylum seekers pushed back into Mexico by the United States tried Friday to get their bearings, still unsure of how they would travel some 350 miles to their court dates, subsist for months in this unfamiliar border city or return to their distant homelands.
On Thursday, the U.S. government expanded its so-called “Remain in Mexico” program to the border between this city and its sister Nogales, Arizona. A group of about 30 mostly Central American migrants were returned that day and another approximately 45 were sent Friday.
The migrants said no one had figured out how to round up money to leave Nogales yet.
The U.S. had sent some 56,000 asylum seekers back to await their cases in Mexico through November, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Making asylum seekers wait in Mexican border cities, many of which suffer from rampant crime, aims to discourage migrants. Previously many of them were released with monitoring bracelets to await their cases inside the U.S.
Nogales is the seventh border crossing to participate in the program and perhaps the most onerous yet for asylum seekers.
Central Americans who returned Thursday had court dates scheduled for late March in El Paso, Texas, hundreds of miles east. Other border points have courts just across the frontier or at least a significantly shorter distance away.
Lorenzo Gonzalez, a Guatemalan farmworker traveling with his wife and three children between the ages of 1 and 12, said he didn’t see how they could wait three months. He was ready to throw in the towel, but also didn’t know how they’d be able to return to Guatemala.
“We don’t understand why they didn’t send us to Guatemala to fight our case from there and not wait here,’ he said at a soup kitchen where his family had eaten Friday. “We’re worried here because we don’t know anyone, we don’t have any place to go. They gave us a shelter, but not more than three nights.”
The family spent Thursday night at a shelter nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the border. In the morning, migrants there paid a nominal fee for a lift to the soup kitchen, which sits a short walk from the border crossing. In the afternoon, Mexico’s immigration agency shuttles them back to the shelter from the border. But workers at the independently run shelter said they can stay for only three nights.
“I want to go back (to Guatemala), but we don’t have money,” he said. He also didn’t have the 1,200 pesos ($63) for a bus ticket to Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, where his court date was scheduled for March 25. “I don’t know what to do.”
Even with money, the journey to Ciudad Juarez is far from secure. It entails crossing from territory controlled by the Sinaloa cartel to that of the rival Juarez cartel. Three women and six children, all dual nationals, were killed by Juarez cartel gunmen in November where those territories meet.
“We’re very worried by this situation,” said the Rev. Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, which provides the free meals to migrants. He said the returnees are at risk of assault, abuse, kidnapping and rape. “They’re vulnerable here. They’re going to be vulnerable en route. They’re going to be vulnerable in Ciudad Juarez.”
A report by the independent Human Rights First group, released in December, documented at least 636 public reports of violence against asylum-seekers returned to Mexico including rape, kidnapping and torture. The group said that was a steep increase over October, when it had identified 343 attacks, and noted the latest figure is surely an under-count because most crime victims don’t report.
Heberto Ramirez, another Guatemalan farmworker traveling with his 16-year-old son, said he had been in touch with his family since being sent back to Mexico and they asked him how he’d get home because there was no more money. Still, he didn’t see how they could wait more than three months at the border either. He had just a towel draped over a shirt to buffer against the cold that hovered just below freezing early Friday morning.
“We wanted to do something, maybe earn something that we don’t have, but it turns out we couldn’t,” Ramirez said. “Better we go back, continue living poorly.”
In a statement Thursday, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the Migrant Protection Protocols program has been “an extremely effective tool.”
“I am confident in the program’s continued success in adjudicating meritorious cases quickly and preventing fraudulent claims,“ Wolf wrote.
Gonzalez, wearing a hooded sweatshirt with nothing underneath, expressed concern for his family’s safety on the Mexican side of the border. His wife appeared nervous. They had been separated during five days in detention in Tucson and then loaded onto a bus Thursday with no information about what was happening, he said.
“They didn’t tell us where they were going to send us,” he said. “They simply put us on a bus and came to leave us here at the Nogales border.”