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More Asylum-Seekers To The U.S. Are Stuck In Mexican Shelters


The House passed a $4.5 billion humanitarian aid bill yesterday to address the crisis at the border. Migrants continue to arrive at the Texas-Mexico border every day, and that's where NPR's Joel Rose is now. He's been reporting from both sides of the Rio Grande.

Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel. Good morning.

KING: So you have been in the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. What have you been seeing since you've been down there?

ROSE: Well, I'm still seeing migrants crossing the border, as you say. Just yesterday, I saw a group of more than a dozen walking along the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande and then climb through a gap sort of around the side of the border fence and turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. Border Patrol says they're still taking in about a hundred - sorry - about 800 people a day in El Paso sector on average. That's down slightly from last month, but it's still way above the number of apprehensions that we were seeing in this sector six months ago or more.

And the big difference now is that fewer and fewer of these migrants are allowed to stay in the U.S. Hundreds are being sent back every week to Mexico. And this is because the U.S. has dramatically expanded what's known as the Remain in Mexico program, which forces asylum-seekers to wait outside the U.S. for their day in U.S. immigration courts.

KING: Right. A big policy change there. President Trump has been praising Mexico over the past few days for doing more to stop the number of migrants coming north. I mean, he threatened tariffs on Mexico, you'll remember, of course, if they didn't do something. Is Mexico actually doing more to stop migrants, or is this just a change in where the migrants are staying? As in, now they're staying in Mexico instead of coming into the U.S.?

ROSE: Well, it's unclear what Mexican authorities are doing at the southern border of the country with Guatemala because the migrants are still getting here to Juarez.

KING: Yeah.

ROSE: But as we said before, Mexico has agreed to expand Remain in Mexico, and they're also trying to stop these migrants from crossing into the U.S. There is a highly visible military presence on the Mexican side of the border. It's Mexican National Guard and Army forces. And residents and officials say that's something they have never seen before. When you ask the soldiers, they say they are not there to arrest anyone. They're just there for their protection, is what they say. But they're very intimidating. They're in military uniforms. They're carrying long guns.

And they are directing these migrants to get onto the waiting list to be able to cross into the U.S. at an official port of entry. The thing about that list is that you could spend months on it waiting for your turn in line only to be processed by U.S. immigration authorities and then returned to Mexico.

KING: So what happens to migrants who either can't cross or who do cross and then are sent back to Juarez under this Remain in Mexico policy? What's life like for them?

ROSE: It's an incredibly difficult situation. Many of them have no money, especially if they spent what little they had to make the trip, many from Central America or even farther away. And there aren't nearly enough shelter beds for everyone in Juarez. I visited a couple of shelters this week. They're, you know, pretty spartan compounds with bunk beds, and they're mostly full. Migrants from Cuba, Central America and Africa. I saw families with young children.

Even if migrants are lucky enough to find beds in these shelters, many of the migrants feel trapped there. They told me they don't know the city and they feel unsafe in Juarez. They report lots of robberies, even kidnappings. I spoke to Taylor Levy. She's an immigration lawyer in El Paso. And we spoke at the International Bridge, where she was trying to help migrants who are headed to court in the U.S. Here's what she had to say about Remain in Mexico.

TAYLOR LEVY: I mean, it's just a complete farce. The amount of fear - I worked with asylum-seekers for 10 years. I have never seen people as scared, as just, like, viscerally terrified, while they're begging me, please don't let me get sent back, please don't let me get sent back.

KING: I mean, this would not seem to reflect all that well on Mexico, or at least on Ciudad Juarez. What are Mexican officials saying about this?

ROSE: Well, they acknowledge that the number of migrants is more than Juarez was prepared to handle. I talked to Enrique Valenzuela. He's a state immigration official. And he says that so far more than 6,000 people have been returned to Juarez under Remain in Mexico, and officials there are bracing for even more as the program ramps up.

ENRIQUE VALENZUELA: This is a situation that, even though we did not cause locally, we have been coping locally. We have been working to gather any kind of resources we can get a hold of to provide for these shelters.

ROSE: Valenzuela told me they're trying to identify more shelter space, and he promises that migrants will be able to get work permits soon. But we have heard that before from Mexican officials, and the migrants I spoke to say they have not been able to get those permits.

KING: NPR's...

ROSE: And some are so frustrated that, you know, they've given up, and many have gone home.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose.

Thanks, Joel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.