President Joe Biden promised a more humane immigration policy, but at the American southern border thousands of asylum seekers are still living in precarious conditions.
Miriam Zugey (29), mother of five, fled the Mexican state of Guerrero because of the always threatening violence. The payment demanded by organized crime she could not pay for her corn trade. When her husband was beaten up to get a broken nose as a warning, she fled. With the whole family, including her husband, god in his life, says she is living in a tent under an overpass, in a literal stone’s throw from the border, in Tijuana, a city that, for the Us, San Diego is displayed.
She is still threatened, says Miriam. They know she’s in Tijuana, gang members let her know in ominous messages. In America, she’d feel a lot safer than on the streets. But she can’t go to America for protection. The US asylum system was largely suspended last year by former President Donald Trump, and his successor Joe Biden has so far left it that way. ” I hope he helps us, very much, ” says mother Miriam about the current US president. “I hope he’ll be happy for the people here.”
She and about two thousand others settled right next to the American border post. A temporary tent camp was created after Joe Biden took office as president. The residents have heard his promises about ‘dignity’, ‘protection’ and ‘rights’ for migrants in the campaign and hope that he will reopen the American border for refugees. When that happens, they want to be at the front.
There are not many sanitary facilities in the tent camp – there is a pipe where water comes out and there is a row of mobile toilets. ’ Don’t be a pig, keep it clean’, someone has marked it with angry cock paws. Residents call the camp La Esperanza, Hope. The first tents came in February, when Biden announced that he would break rules by which the Trump government had sent thousands of people to Mexico. There they had to wait for their asylum procedure. One of the meager camps they stayed in, in Matamoros just outside Texas, ran out.
But in Tijuana a new camp arose, full of people who in those days also called in hopeful at the border. Biden would give them a chance, they thought based on rumors. But they are often still not allowed to enter the US. Biden retained a different rule from the Trump era.
Because of the pandemic, border agents are allowed to send adult migrants directly away, back to Mexico, without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum. That would protect public health. Meanwhile it turned out that the CDC did not consider it necessary to suspend the asylum system in this way. Immigration hardliners in the Trump administration pushed through the measure at the time, former colleagues said.
The situation of the waiting people in Tijuana is so far hopeless. For most, there is still no prospect of the start of an asylum procedure, let alone a crossing to American territory. There is also a lot of support for non-churches, but no international organization or government has arranged anything here. “People are hungry,” says a Honduran man trying to sell some fruit and eggs.
“It is very cold at night, very hot during the day, the health situation does not look good. It is impossible to keep away, people are exposed to corona and other infectious diseases. And organized crime is strong, ” says Ginger Cline, lawyer for Al Otro Lado, an American organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers in Tijuana.
The street campers talk about hurricanes that razed houses in Central America, about lack of jobs, and about gangs and threats, when they explain why they stay here. Or worse, about murdered uncles and cousins. About what would happen if they returned to El Salvador or Honduras and got back in the crosshairs of the gangs that run the place. ” They make you disappear, ” says Wiulliams Ribeiro (27) from Honduras.
”They’re killing my whole family,” says David Vides, who hangs around aimlessly with William. He’s 20 and had two options in El Salvador if he wanted to stay alive: join a gang like that or leave. “I didn’t want to, so it was better that I went.” But it’s not safe in Tijuana either. ” We are also afraid here, ” says David Vides. Many migrants have relatives in the US, and Mexican cartels are trying to extort them.
David, his sister Anna and Wuilliams were kidnapped. For a month they were held in Mexicali, further down the border, they say. Hands tied, mouth taped. Their kidnappers demanded $ 8,000 from their families, per person. But they don’t have a rich uncle or father in the states. Fortunately, a tenacious mother in El Salvador warned the Mexican security services. Eventually, they were liberated by elite forces.
Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy group, released a report in April with hundreds of such testimonies. Asylum seekers were attacked or kidnapped in Mexican border cities, while coronavirus rules prevented them from entering the US to seek asylum.
The pressure on Biden is growing. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said this month that his policy has ‘serious humanitarian consequences’. Since last week, a group of human rights organizations has been calling on him to stop using the coronavirus as an excuse to keep refugees out.
Two doctors advising the Department of Homeland Security sent an alert letter to Congress. Last year there was little reason to keep out asylum seekers because of corona, now even less, write Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson. People can be tested and even vaccinated. The US also distributes free vaccinations to tourists.
Critics of Biden, especially from the Republican Party, complain that he has ‘opened up’ the border. They point out, among other things, the large numbers of minors who have crossed the border in recent months. However, unaccompanied minors are given the opportunity by Biden to wait for an asylum procedure in the US.
The real problem, according to human rights organizations, is that the border is closed to people fleeing violence. The only way to reach safe America is illegal. Smugglers-coyotes, they are called here-offer the residents of the camp in Tijuana to cross the border clandestinely in exchange for a lot of money. If desired, they only take your children with them: they do get a chance in the US.
A lot of people go into that. In twenty years, U.S. Customs did not stop as many border crossings as in March and april. In that last month there were 173,460. Often they report themselves to agents, in order to start their asylum application. Among them are more and more people who do not come from the Spanish-speaking region south of the US, but from less obvious countries such as Haiti, Cuba, India and even Romania. Roma groups from that EU country have been detained on US territory.
A 33-year-old Russian from Tatarstan explains in Tijuana that he left because of racism against Asian Russians like him. He traveled to Latvia and took the bus to Berlin. There he got on a plane to Mexico City. Fifteen months ago he arrived in Tijuana, which should have been the last stop on the way to dreamland America. But he’s still here. “I hate it here, I don’t want to be here,” he says. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs – I only have good plans. A girlfriend, a wife, a family – that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Many migrants, like him, left behind in Tijuana, want to follow the rules, they say. “Why don’t you pay a smuggler, people ask me. But what if they leave us in the desert or hurt my daughter? Sometimes they kidnap you or rape the women. And it is better to do it as it should’, says Roberto Fuentes (24), Mexican from Guerrero.
He’s got a new neighbor in the camp. Together they kill time on the edge of a sidewalk. Sergio Olmedo (22) proudly retrieves his nine-month-old daughter from the tent where his wife is sleeping. He’s putting kisses on the cheek of Little Madison Jeanet. They tried to kidnap her at home in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, her father says. That was the last straw. A week ago he joined the refugees who camped directly at the gates to America. “Waiting here is better than being there,” he says. “We’re adults, we can hold on. But we come for a better life for our children.”
Roberto Fuentes clings to Biden’s image as pro-immigration President. “Biden says he’s going to open the border again for Mexicans,” he concludes. “And he has worked with Obama, at least Obama is not a racist. I think Biden can help us.”