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U.S. Begins Letting In Migrants At Mexico Refugee Camp

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's effort to admit U.S. asylum-seekers has triggered a rush to the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. has begun letting in people President Trump kept in Mexico, but others are desperate to get in next, and more people are arriving. This story stretches across multiple nations, and it begins with a U.S.-based immigration lawyer.

AMY MALDONADO: My name is Amy Maldonado, and I'm a pro bono attorney with ALDEA - The People's Justice Center.

INSKEEP: And her clients are affected by the Trump administration policy called Remain in Mexico. Asylum-seekers who used to be allowed into the U.S. were turned away at the border in recent years and told to wait for a court to consider their claims.

MALDONADO: People like our clients have been there since mid-2019 or later and have been living essentially outside in a tent camp in Matamoros without services, without jobs, without, you know, support. And it's been really, really difficult for them.

INSKEEP: Now a new president has resumed the old approach. Asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico were told they could start to enter the United States slowly.

MALDONADO: They didn't want all those people rushing the border. And so they set up this website where you would register.

INSKEEP: Which crashed at first.

MALDONADO: It was really bad. It was - it did not work at all.

INSKEEP: But then - well, listen to Maldonado tell of her client from Honduras. Manfredo (ph) is his name. He arrived as a teenager in that camp in Matamoros, Mexico, and was stuck until last week.

MALDONADO: One morning, I contacted a Honduran mom who had basically been kind of taking care of him in the camp with her teenage son. And she told me, I think he is in the U.S. and I said, what? And so I contacted him, and he had been called and they basically told him to immediately come down on one of the very first days they let anybody across in Brownsville. And they COVID tested him. And when he tested negative, he came across the border, at which point he had no money, he had no place to stay.

INSKEEP: We called Manfredo, whose full name we're not using because his lawyer fears it could affect his immigration case, and he spoke through an interpreter.

MANFREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: He says he was ecstatic when he heard the news. He left the camp right away and raced to the U.S. border crossing.

What did you carry with you across the border?

MANFREDO: (Through interpreter) Nada, nothing (speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: Just a backpack with a shirt and some papers, he said.

Are those all your belongings in the world?

MANFREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He says, yes.

INSKEEP: When he reached U.S. soil, the nonprofit that found him a lawyer also got him a plane ticket. And he's now living with relatives in Florida.

MALDONADO: So he will have to present a case to the judge. If he wins his case, he will get a green card. If he doesn't win his case, he's got an appeals process. And ultimately he would have to leave if he doesn't win.

INSKEEP: Now, the odds for asylum-seekers are long, but the courts are so slow that he may live in the United States for years awaiting his court date. So the Biden administration's new policy just changed Manfredo's life. But the story is different for other people behind him, including some people in the camp he just left. NPR's John Burnett was at that camp this week and is on the line. John, what'd you find?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. Well, the most infamous refugee camp on the U.S.-Mexico border is almost empty. A month ago, it was teeming with more than 600 migrants. And today, there are only a few dozen people left. Now it's looking like a deserted shanty town with all these colorful camping tents flapping in the Gulf Breeze, and no one's inside them. City workers are hauling out great piles of garbage and personal belongings. U.S. immigration agents began processing the folks there first, in part because so much international attention was focused on this wretched camp with its snakes, mosquitoes and mud.

INSKEEP: So that explains why Manfredo was so quickly able to cross the border. But who are the people who have not been able to cross?

BURNETT: Well, they're mostly Central American migrants who've already lost their asylum cases. One of them is Danilo Peraza (ph), a 28-year-old Honduran. I'd been to the camp many times over the past two years, and I'd met with him before. And, boy, did he have a rough time. The first time I met him, he was lying in his tent recovering from a vicious mugging. His face was a swollen mass of bruises. Gangsters had tried to extort him. Peraza is still there because a U.S. immigration judge didn't believe his story that he fled Honduras to escape the thugs there and the corrupt police in his country. And then now he's lost his appeal. So Peraza says the mood there is bittersweet.

DANILO PERAZA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: He says there's sadness because he and others were left behind. But there's happiness because so many have been able to leave and finally get into the U.S.

INSKEEP: Why is he remaining in that awful camp, though?

BURNETT: Well, Peraza says he believes God will still deliver him across the border if the Biden administration will have mercy on people like him who suffered in that camp for so long. And the camp has been there for nearly two years and, you know, close relationships have been forged in adversity. Some people fell in love, including Peraza.

PERAZA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: He says, "I was with my girlfriend for more than a year. She and her daughter crossed the border last Friday. She didn't want to go without me. She cried and cried and cried. But I had to convince her that she had to go."

INSKEEP: OK, so those are the people from one camp. But we mentioned at the beginning that other people are arriving, John. Who's coming toward the border?

BURNETT: Well, Steve, everywhere I went, I met migrants from Central America who were flocking to the Mexican border since Biden took office, hoping to get across, this in spite of the fact the administration has said emphatically, don't come. We're trying to rebuild a broken immigration system, and it takes time. Stay in your own country, and we'll let you apply for humanitarian relief there. Remember, they're only allowing in asylum-seekers who've been waiting at the border enrolled in that Remain in Mexico program. It's supposed to be closed to everyone else because of the pandemic. Here's what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had to say about that earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: If they come, if families come, if single adults come to the border, we are obligated to, in the service of public health, to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC's Title 42 with authorities and return them to Mexico. And we have done that.

BURNETT: This is what that policy of expulsion, a holdover from the Trump days, looks like.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: In the Mexican city of Reynosa, just across from Hidalgo, Texas, about 150 mothers and young children are sleeping on the cold, hard plaza of a federal building. They're filthy and miserable, their sneakers still caked with the mud of their failed trek north. They crossed over the Rio Grande in the last couple of weeks with the false expectation that every family with kids would be allowed to stay under new Biden policies. But they were sadly mistaken. Here's Olga Damasio (ph). She's a firefighter from Guatemala, traveling with her 10-year-old daughter, Malee (ph). She describes her detention by Customs and Border Protection.

OLGA DAMASIO: (Through interpreter) They dumped us here three days ago on the bridge. They left us here without any explanation. We thought the new president would create new opportunities for migrants. But from what we've seen, there's nothing for us. We were detained for two days. They had us sleep on the floor. They looked at us like we were animals. Where we are now, the Mexican officials have said if we don't leave here, they'll spray us with water. It's lamentable. We're not criminals.

BURNETT: Damasio and another woman I met said they heard on the news in their home countries that Biden was letting migrants in, but they misunderstood how the new rules would work. There is a lot of confusion. Several mothers I spoke to insisted that U.S. border agents let some recent arrivals stay but told them they can't come across because their kids are too old.

ERRIS COTO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Erris Coto (ph) from Honduras was traveling with her 8-year-old twin boys. She says she never imagined U.S. authorities would choose who gets to stay and who gets thrown out based on a child's age. They're all children and they all need help, she says. I asked CBP to comment on what these migrant women told me, and they said under the new public health rules, they consider who gets expelled on a case-by-case basis.

INSKEEP: John, is the Biden administration making any other changes in an effort to keep up with the flow of asylum-seekers here?

BURNETT: What we understand, Steve, and we got news last night from the administration, is that three detention centers formerly used to hold families will be converted into processing centers to more quickly release these asylum-seekers into the country with orders to appear in court. And that's so these women and children won't be held for long in those Spartan Border Patrol cells I mentioned earlier. So you have a White House trying to quickly rebuild immigration policies in ways they say are more just and compassionate, but at the same time, they're dealing with this surge of people at the border.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much for your reporting.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett, who's on the U.S.-Mexico border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.