NOGALES, Mexico — Horns blared from a speaker and filled the living room with banda music. Elena Ramirez kept a close eye on the stove, occasionally stirring the few dishes cooking on the burners.
Next to her, Antonia Castillo improvised, using two large metal containers and a heavy strainer to make coffee, straining the boiling water from container to container over the sink.
“Ni que Starbucks ni nada,” Ramirez said, Starbucks doesn’t have anything on Castillo’s coffee.
“Anytime before going out, she always says, ‘let’s drink coffee.’ I’m really gonna miss drinking coffee with her and sharing breakfast with her,” Ramirez added.
On the menu for this morning: chilaquiles in a creamy red sauce, eggs scrambled in a tomato sauce, and beans.
The two women worked seamlessly around each other. They’ve had plenty of practice.
Castillo fled violence in Honduras to seek refuge in the U.S., and has been in Nogales just under a year. U.S. border officials sent her with her 15-year-old daughter here, a city she had never set foot in before, under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico.”
Ramirez arrived in Nogales two months later, fleeing violence in the Mexican state of Guerrero after she denounced a cartel member of assaulting her. She uses an alias out of fear that the people she fled will find her here.
She had also hoped to claim asylum in the U.S. But Ramirez and her 13-year-old son arrived here after President Donald Trump’s administration shut down asylum processing at the border in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.
With nowhere to go and without any friends in Nogales, Ramirez turned to Castillo, who she met at a migrant aid center. At the time, Castillo had been living with two other Honduran women and their two children, who she had met on the journey to the border.
A few weeks later, the four women and their children moved into an apartment on the city’s north side, just a few blocks from the border fence that separates Nogales from its twin city in Arizona. They pay what they can, usually with money from relatives living in the U.S., who are willing to take them in if they make it to the country.
Castillo and Ramirez have forged a close bond. As the two eldest in the group of nine — five women and four minors — living in the apartment, they have become motherly figures.
The two women have built a sense of community and family in a place far from home, and far from where they envision their future, in the United States.
“Each day is an adventure in this house, in this home. That’s how we wait for asylum, thanks be to God,” Ramirez said. “At least right now, because at first, God had to tell me ‘Look, here’s your new family so you can have patience, because this will take a while.'”
As President Joe Biden’s administration considers what to do about the nearly 70,000 asylum seekers that the U.S. government sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, migrants such as Castillo are already thinking of a life beyond the hardships they face at the U.S.-Mexico border.
That also means having tough conversations and the possibility of saying goodbye to people, like Ramirez, who they have grown close to during their time in Mexico.
“I will miss her company a lot. Here we have ourselves; I tell her that we’re like sisters,” Castillo said.
“I would like to be able to meet up on the other side, all of us. Hoping that God will allow us to reunite and possibly give us the opportunity to even share a home on the other side,” she added.
Policy was launched two years ago
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, rolled out the Migrant Protection Protocols in January 2019 at the San Diego-Tijuana border region. It was one in a series of tools that President Donald Trump’s administration implemented to crack down on asylum and unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Top officials such as former acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf described it as a “game-changer.” An agreement with the Mexican government has allowed U.S. border officials to send back more than 70,000migrants to Mexico under the program, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
One year ago this month, the policy expanded to the entire southwestern U.S. border and the Department of Homeland Security began implementing it in Arizona. Since then, U.S. border officials have sent back 1,464 asylum seekers to Mexico through two Arizona border cities, San Luis and Nogales, government statistics showed.
That includes Castillo and the other two Honduran women, Maira Sanchez and Alejandra Ramirez (unrelated to Elena Ramirez). The Arizona Republic interviewed the three just days after the U.S. sent them to Nogales, Sonora, on Jan. 27.
Alejandra Ramirez, 21, the youngest of the three, described the challenges in adapting to the frigid winter weather in the city. Her son Matias, just eight months old at the time, was recovering from a respiratory infection.
“My son was shaking from the cold earlier and I felt very bad, so I laid down next to him and he fell asleep,” she said. “But it has been difficult because where we lived it wasn’t very cold, it’s hot year-round.”
Fast forward one year later, their situation, though still uncertain, has been a bit more stable as they’ve found a way to adapt, the three women told The Republic.
Originally, asylum seekers under “Remain in Mexico” were expected to attend their court hearings in U.S. border cities several weeks after they were sent back across the border. Alejandra Ramirez, Castillo and Sanchez traveled 340 miles to Ciudad Juárez for their first hearing in April, just as COVID-19 cases began to surge on both sides of the border.
By then, the U.S. government had frozen all court hearings for the Migrant Protection Protocols, so border officials gave them a notice with a new date. All hearings are postponed indefinitely, so there is a chance their upcoming hearing this March may be rescheduled again.
Migrant and human rights advocates are pushing for the Biden administration to immediately rescind the Migrant Protection Protocols and parole asylum seekers waiting in Mexico to the United States.
“There is great suffering here, there’s great vulnerability here, and danger. And as a country we said we wouldn’t do that, and we’re doing it very intentionally. A lot of effort went into orchestrating all that suffering,” said Sara Ritchie with the Kino Border Initiative, a nonprofit migrant aid center based in the twin cities of Ambos Nogales.
That is the center where Castillo and Elena Ramirez met. They provide meals, warm clothes and legal services, among other things, to deported and northbound migrants.
“What we see that is happening is that the U.S. is not upholding its very own law, and I think that is being overlooked,” she added. “That is being ignored purposely. And I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”
For months, top officials in the Trump administration have warned against ending “Remain in Mexico” or any of the other border enforcement policies they have put in place.
Trump himself reiterated those warnings during his final visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as president on Jan. 12.
“If our border security measures are reversed, it will trigger a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a wave like you’ve never seen before,” Trump said, speaking next to the 30-foot wall installed by his administration in Alamo, Texas.
“This will be an unmitigated calamity for national security, public safety, and public health,” Trump added.
On Biden’s first day in office, the Homeland Security Department announced it would immediately stop sending asylum seekers to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy as of Thursday. But the department emphasized that would only apply to new enrollments in the program.
Homeland Security officials also said they would keep all current restrictions at the border in place, for the moment. Additional details for asylum seekers already waiting in Mexico would be forthcoming, they said.
“All current MPP participants should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials.” the department said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Biden also announced a sweeping plan to reform the country’s immigration system, including boosting immigration judges and funding to tackle the asylum application backlog and resources to address the root causes of immigration in Central America, where most of the participants of “Remain in Mexico” are from.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, told Spanish news agency EFE last month that the administration would need time to develop the infrastructure at the U.S.-Mexico border to boost asylum processing and develop COVID-19 safety guidelines before allowing any individuals waiting in Mexico to be processed at the border.
Migrants are looking to Biden for help
Up until Biden’s inauguration day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the country’s border enforcement agency, had continued sending migrants back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, even though hearings have been indefinitely frozen since March.
As of April, the first full month when COVID-19 restrictions on asylum at the border began, the U.S. government sent back at least 5,493 migrants to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, CBP statistics showed.
Data from TRAC showed that increasingly more of those migrants had been from Cuba, Venezuela and other parts of South America, although the program originally was intended for migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Geovel Samá, 24, a Cuban migrant, was returned to Mexico through Arizona during the COVID-19 pandemic. He fled Cuba in November 2019 because his political activism against the government had led to increased repression.
He traveled to Nicaragua and then made his way north, across multiple countries, on his own. When he reached Mexico, he made his way in December 2019 to the border city of Sonoyta, across from Lukeville, because at the time they had not yet implemented “Remain in Mexico,” he said.
Samá spent several months in the area waiting for an opportunity to claim asylum at the small port of entry. But he got stuck in Sonoyta when the U.S. government implemented pandemic restrictions at the border in March.
The city, which lies along a well-known drug- and human-smuggling corridor, presented lots of risks. During his time there, a group of men robbed him of his remaining money, Samá said. He filed a police report, and that allowed him to get a humanitarian visa.
The constant exposure to extortion and violence along Mexico’s border cities is one of the main reasons why migrant advocates want the incoming Biden administration to immediately end “Remain in Mexico.”
Last month, Human Rights First, a non-profit human rights group, updated their list documenting instances of violence, kidnapping and extortion of asylum seekers sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols in the past two years.
There are now over 1,300 entries. Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher who helped compile the list remotely by reaching out to shelters, attorneys and migrants themselves, said the true number is much higher.
“The reason why we want to update it, of course, is to just have more up-to-date information about what happened to people,” he said. “But also in the hopes that the incoming administration will understand the gravity of the problems that they’re facing, and in particular, just how dangerous the Migrant Protection Protocols have been.”
Wary of those risks and the possibility that criminal groups would use force to recruit him, Samá said he crossed the border illegally into Arizona on July 10.
He walked for eight hours in the Sonoran Desert, when daytime temperatures hover over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and without water, a situation that has contributed to the discovery of over 300 migrant remains in this particular stretch over the past 20 years, according to a mortality map managed by the nonprofit aid group Humane Borders.
“My intention was to find immigration, that is what I wanted,” Samá said. “But I walked a lot because where I crossed, I’m not sure if they couldn’t see me, or if it was too far. So I kept walking up because I didn’t want to stay and wait.”
A Pima County Sheriff’s deputy eventually found him walking along a road and called the Border Patrol. He spent his 24th birthday in detention, he said. Agents sent him to Nogales under the Migrant Protection Protocols three days later.
In the city, the humanitarian visa he obtained after he was robbed has allowed him to work, and to apply for temporaryresidency in Mexico. Still, Samá said it’s a struggle, and he depends on nonprofits like the Kino Border Initiative for support.
Over the past few months, he has closely followed election developments on social media. Biden’s victory, and his promises to end the Migrant Protection Protocols have given him hope.
“I hope God allows everything to go well and that he truly does everything he promised, because it’s not just me, many migrants are struggling,” he said.
That hope is shared by thousands of other migrants waiting along the U.S-Mexico border, even though that could lead to some difficult decisions in the lives they have built in Mexico in the meantime.
Osbaldo Estupiñan Garcia also fled political repression in Cuba. U.S. border officials returned him to Nogales on Jan. 3, 2019, after he spent three months waiting for his chance to claim asylum. He was among the first migrants enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols in Arizona.
One year later, his life had changed drastically. He spoke to The Republic from the home he has shared for the past seven months with his girlfriend, who is from Nogales, and her two children.
With the prospect of leaving Mexico soon, Estupiñan Garcia and his girlfriend have started talking about their next steps. He remains committed to seeking asylum in the U.S. and helping his family back in Cuba. His girlfriend has started looking into getting a U.S. visa.
As he waits for his day in court, whether it’s from his hearing scheduled for March or if Biden acts before then, he said he refuses to lose hope.
“You never lose the faith,” he said. “What does happen at certain times is that you feel demoralized. You think that it feels more difficult and farther away. You see the moment get farther away, but you know it’s there, so you never lose faith.”
Pandemic complicates ending policy
As the incoming Biden administration moves forward in its push to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, COVID-19 will remain one of the biggest roadblocks to fully ending the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Homeland Security officials made clear on Wednesday they would keep in place border restrictions, including Title 42. That policy has allowed the U.S. to turn back since March more than 393,000 migrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border under an emergency authority from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the virus, according to CBP.
States on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are in particularly bad shape, as the spread of COVID-19 continues unmitigated. Border states such as Arizona, California and Texas on the U.S. side, and Sonora, Coahuila and Baja California in Mexico, continue seeing significant spikes in cases.
Criteria set by the Homeland Security and Justice departments earlier in the pandemic called for the resumption of court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols once all 11 border states — four in the U.S. and six in Mexico — reduced the spread of the virus, which appears untenable given that infection rates continue rising.
Mark Morgan, the acting director for Customs and Border Protection, has been one of the most vocal critics of Biden’s pledge to end the Migrant Protection Protocols. He told The Republic that resuming court hearings involved a challenging balance because of the virus.
“We need to look at what’s happening globally with the pandemic, and so we need to be sure that the steps we’re taking are methodical and thoughtful in balancing that very real issue with the global pandemic, but also the real issue that we need to reopen and start the process again,” he said.
Asylum seekers can check the status of their cases, or their next scheduled court hearing, online at the DOJ’s EOIR Automated Case Information site, or by calling an information hotline.
Pending an overhaul of the program under Biden, CBP said that “when conditions are deemed safe,” the Homeland Security and Justice departments will issue a public notification at least 15 days before court hearings resume, with “location-specific information” for asylum seekers.
Many migrant advocates are concerned that not all of the migrants sent to Mexico under the program will have the opportunity to have their day in court to make their claims for asylum.
TRAC data showed that 27,000 asylum seekers under the program had been regularly attending their hearings before the pandemic restrictions, while 12,000 more are waiting for their first hearing.
Others have given up and gone back to the countries they were fleeing, or moved elsewhere in Mexico in search of better economic opportunities or more safety.
Austin Kocher, a researcher with Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, said he was concerned in particular about the quality of the data and information that the U.S. federal government keeps, which could cause asylum seekers to fall through the cracks.
He pointed to issues with the family separation policy at the border, where the lack of proper data kept hundreds of parents from being reunited with their children. Over the course of his work at TRAC, Kocher said he has found all kinds of sloppiness with data management.
“One of the just really widespread issues is the government just does not care right now about the quality of its own data, of its own record keeping,” Kocher said. adding that it was a disservice to the public’s right now what their government is doing.
“We don’t know because so many of their record-keeping practices are either secretive, or they’re sloppy. Or they’re both, they’re secretive and they’re sloppy,” he added.
Nico Palazzo, an attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, has similar concerns. He helps asylum seekers sent to Mexico under “Remain in Mexico” and says many of them either don’t have access to the internet or don’t know how to follow up.
Palazzo, like other immigration attorneys, has been relying on social media apps such as Whatsapp to stay in touch with clients in Mexico because of pandemic restrictions and concerns. Since March, he has successfully paroled only one individual enrolled in the program into the U.S.
Palazzo accused Trump of weaponizing the pandemic against asylum seekers and of creating a humanitarian crisis in border cities such as Juárez, which was also ravaged by virus. That has left many migrants in desperate situations, he added.
Migrant advocates have put together recommendations for the Biden administration on how to wind down the program. One of the key points Palazzo is pushing is for the government to parole more asylum seekers and release them into the custody of relatives, rather than hold them in immigration detention centers.
“The fight against MPP has to be coupled against the mass detention of people who have committed no other crime than seeking asylum,” Palazzo said. “Yes, it’s great to get people of out MPP. But putting them into a detention center is not the solution, putting families in family detention center is not the solution.”
Activists vow to keep keep pressure on Biden
Back in their shared apartment in Nogales, Castillo and Elena Ramirez remained upbeat and optimistic as they sat down for the meal they cooked for the entire household.
Once everyone finished eating, they danced to punta — the traditional, percussion heavy music from Honduras — as Matias, now 20 months old, ran around the apartment, eliciting more laughter and smiles.
Challenges and concerns persist. For one, the three Honduran women only have temporary status in Mexico. Sanchez, who was missing on that morning, and Elena Ramirez are the only one working. And COVID-19 remains a very real threat, on top of existing concerns over safety and security.
The four minors living in the house, the eldest of which is now 15 years old, have missed an entire year or school. Like other migrant families waiting in Nogales, they are unable to enroll their kids in school in Mexico.
Their hope is that their circumstances will change as Biden takes office.
Even Elena Ramirez, who is not enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols because the program does not apply to Mexicans, could also see relief. Biden has pledged to end the metering policy under which she would have to wait months before gettingan asylum screening.
“Truthfully, my sense of urgency, rather than being about me is more about my son. Because there are no opportunities here. By that I mean safety, which is what I’ve come here seeking,” she said.
Amid such hardship over the past year in Nogales, in addition to the close ties they have forged with each other, the women have found purpose.
Sanchez in particular has been active in advocacy work at the border. She helped organize and even spoke at several rallies in Nogales, calling on the Biden administration to resume asylum processing.
“It’s important because we’re helping ourselves, and because we make ourselves heard, in case they forget about us or they don’t remember that they implemented this policy and they have us waiting here, separated from our families,” she said. “So through marches and through the work of reporters, we’re making ourselves heard.”
Now that Biden has taken office as the new president of the U.S., Sanchez and the women she’s grown close to vowed to keep the pressure on him until he keeps his word.
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