Meet the migrants in Mexico hoping for a new life in Biden's America

Thousands of asylum seekers are living in desperate conditions but US president is slow to respond to border crisis

Roberto Rivas carefully places the few clothes he had left in a small backpack. The Venezuelan, 55, fills each pocket to the brim, maximising what he can bring on his journey to the US.

Mr Rivas fled the country of his birth more than 18 months ago, embarking on a perilous journey to Mexico’s Reynosa, a border city that lies just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas.

“The country is in a difficult state,” he said of the crisis that has gripped Venezuela for more than a decade. “My political view is different from the government. Because I defend human rights, I have been persecuted. I was run over by a car.”

For the past 18 months, Mr Rivas has lived in Senda de Vida Casa del Emigrante, a shelter on the banks of the Rio Grande, waiting for the US to make a decision on his asylum case.

He was a civil servant in his home state of Zulia before he fled.

In January 2019, the administration of former president Donald Trump enacted the Migrant Protection Protocols, sometimes called the “remain in Mexico” policy.

Under the programme, migrants who arrived in the US to seek asylum were sent back to Mexico to wait until asked to appear at an immigration court. This was different from the previous policy, which allowed asylum seekers to stay with family in the US while they waited for their hearings.

The programme created a logjam of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers stranded in cities throughout northern Mexico. In recent months, there has been a sharp rise in the numbers of people seeking asylum, like Mr Rivas, compounding an already dire situation.

Roberto Rivas sits in his bunk bed at Casa Del Emigrante Senda De Vida. Willy Lowry/ The National

Many of the asylum seekers who have recently arrived in towns like Reynosa have been told by the "coyotes", the people who smuggle migrants into the US, that the border is now open under President Joe Biden.

Although Mr Biden’s government says it wants to enact fair immigration policies for asylum seekers, it has yet to put any new practices in place and has told people wanting to come to the US to wait until a new programme has been set up.

Pastor Hector Silva, who runs the Senda de Vida shelter, said the number of people coming into Reynosa has increased dramatically since Mr Biden won the 2020 election.

“Thousands of people have come here to Reynosa,” he said. “The border is getting full.”

The influx of new arrivals, he said, was creating dire living conditions in one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.

“I can see children living under the bridge – they don't have anywhere to eat, sleep or take a shower,” said the pastor.

A shrine to migrants along the banks or the Rio Grande River in Reynosa, Mexico. The US is on the other side of the river. Willy Lowry/ The National

The softer stance towards asylum seekers is only one of the reasons for the migration surge along Mexico’s northern frontier.

In November 2020, storms Eta and Iota tore through parts of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

More than 200 people were killed in the storms and more than half a million were displaced.

The damage caused by the storms and the economic fallout from the pandemic have pushed many north.

Plaza Las Americas, a small public park near the international bridge that connects the US and Mexico, has become another temporary refuge for dozens of migrants in Reynosa.

Trying to keep his nine-day-old baby out of the sun, Fidelis Guzman stands in the shade of the park’s gazebo.

Dozens of other asylum seekers lay around him on makeshift bedding, their belongings clutched tightly to their bodies.

The 26-year-old fled his native Honduras after gangs killed his mother.

Like many others, Mr Guzman and his wife started their journey north after Mr Biden assumed office. “We came up because we heard the border was open,” he said. “But the US immigration people sent us back to Mexico.”

While Mr Guzman was hoping to cross into the US legally, he’s now contemplating other options, including attempting an illegal crossing. But that trip might have to wait.

"We have no family to help and the coyotes are telling us it will cost $2,000," he told The National.

But the steep prices haven’t stopped hundreds from making the journey.

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that US border agencies could soon have to contend with higher numbers of illegal crossings than at any point in the last 20 years.

In February, border agents apprehended 100,441 people as they tried to cross into the US. The data for March has not yet been released, but analysts say it could be as high as 150,000.

Over the course of only a few mornings, The National witnessed about a hundred interceptions at the Texas border.

Members of the US National Guard and Border Patrol discussing in La Joya, Texas near the US Mexico Border. Willy Lowry/ The National

According to a US Customs and Border Protection representative, the vast majority of people apprehended by border agents are returned immediately to Mexico under Title 42, a programme which allows the US government to expel people who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease was present.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the US government under Mr Trump used the law to remove asylum seekers from the US who were apprehended near the border.

That means these people were not allowed to file asylum claims. Their biometrics were taken and then they were dropped back off in Mexico.

Border agents say this is still happening under Mr Biden.

That’s what happened to Sylvia Ibarra and her 8-year-old daughter. In late March, she crossed illegally into the US and turned herself in, hoping to make an asylum claim.

“I tried telling them the reason I’m here, but they didn't want to listen to me,” she said, “They didn't even ask me anything.”

Sylvia Ibarra holds a picture of her husband who was killed by gangs in Guatemala. She and her daughter have already tried entering the US once, only to be turned away before being able to file asylum. She hopes to try again soon. Willy Lowry/ The National

Ms Ibarra said she and her daughter were held at a detention site for 12 hours and then returned to Mexico.

Like Mr Guzman and many others at Plaza Las Americas, Ms Ibarra fled her native Guatemala because of gang violence. She said gang members killed her husband two years ago.

The threat to her life, coupled with economic hardships caused by the pandemic, pushed her to make the arduous journey north.

Mr Biden has said he needs time to properly address the situation along the border and has urged asylum seekers to be patient and not attempt to enter the US until new policies are put in place.

But, holding a picture of her murdered husband, Ms Ibarra said trying to cross into the US is her only option.

The cartels prey on migrants in the border cities of northern Mexico. In January 19, a number of bodies, including those of 13 Guatemalan migrants on their way to the US, were found in a pickup truck in Camargo, just an hour’s drive from Reynosa.

The cartels control the border crossings, charging migrants hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to guide them. The punishment for trying to go around the cartel is often death or kidnapping.

As distressing as the situation is in Mexico, many migrants cling to the hope that they will one day be allowed into the US.

Mr Rivas is among the lucky ones.

In March, his asylum claim was approved after his first attempt to cross into the US in October 2019. On March 30, he landed in Orlando, Florida, and walked into the warm embrace of his sister, niece and grandnephew, ending a long and painful stretch away from family.

He plans to live temporarily with his sister in Orlando, but hopes to eventually settle in Washington with his son.

He is already looking forward to finding work and starting his new life in the US.

“I want to work in anything, a job where I can contribute with my own hands to the country,” he said, his voice rising with excitement.

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