NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- In the large, open patio of the El Buen Samaritano shelter in this border city, migrants sat in plastic picnic chairs and f
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — In the large, open patio of the El Buen Samaritano shelter in this border city, migrants sat in plastic picnic chairs and formed a large semi-circle around Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz as he fielded questions about the latest changes in U.S. immigration policies.
Some of the migrants balanced babies on their knees, others coddled toddlers. A crumbling two-story concrete building stood nearby, where the migrants eat rice and refried beans with tortillas and sleep on cots or mattresses on the floor.
No, Ortiz told them, they haven’t opened the international bridge to asylum-seekers. Yes, the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP — the controversial Trump administration-era policy that forced migrants to wait in Mexico until their hearing dates — had been paused. But Ortiz didn’t know how U.S. officials planned to process them.
He asked how many of them had been at the shelter for more than a year. All 19 migrants raised their hands.
“No more to do now but wait,” he told them.
President Joe Biden’s administration has announced in recent weeks a series of immigration-related executive orders and memoranda aimed at reversing many of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. But at the border, migrants’ soaring hopes in Biden’s election are fizzling to frustration as the White House has indicated policies will be rolled out slowly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bumps in immigration policy shifts are common when new administrations take over, said Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. But few transitions have been so starkly different than the one between Biden and Trump, making rollout trickier, she said.
“I believe people are moving as expeditiously as possible,” said Brown, a former Homeland Security official. “But expeditiously as possible for the government is sometimes longer than anyone really wants.”
The White House announced Friday it will begin next week processing the estimated 25,000 migrants with active cases in the Migrant Protection Protocols program through three ports of entry, then expand the process to other border cities in Mexico. The government hasn’t released the names of those cities.
The migrants will be tested in Mexico for the coronavirus, then allowed to travel to their U.S. destinations to await their hearing.
The policy change came as welcomed news for thousands of migrants, many of whom had waited for more than a year in dangerous and at times squalid conditions. Some migrants lived in makeshift camps in Mexican border towns with no running water and sleeping in pup tents.
There is friction, too, where policies meet reality at the border. Rank-and-file border agents are tasked with implementing policy reversals amid a ceaseless pandemic and a rising number of migrants showing up at the border — with some inconsistent results.
In south Texas, U.S. Border Patrol began releasing some Central American families into the United States in recent weeks. But in West Texas, Border Patrol continues to return all eligible migrants to Mexico, said Enrique Valenzuela, who runs a Chihuahua state migrant aid agency in Juárez.
“Biden’s election has created hope for many migrants,” he said. “But things haven’t changed. Mexico is still receiving retornados,” or migrants who are returned to Mexican border cities.
White House to migrants: ‘Now is not the time to come’
Biden’s early policy reversals include pausing the controversial MPP program for new arrivals, halting construction on Trump’s border wall and placing a 100-day halt on most deportations, not at the U.S. border but from within the country’s interior. A Texas federal judge last month temporarily struck down Biden’s deportation moratorium, allowing the deportations to continue.
The White House confirmed Wednesday it will continue turning away most migrants at the border due to concerns over the coronavirus, essentially keeping in place a Trump policy that quickly turned back nearly all asylum-seekers.
“Due to the pandemic and the fact that we have not had the time as an administration to put in a humane, comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border, now is not the time to come,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
In a statement provided Thursday to USA Today, U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed that some migrants had been released into the United States to await court dates but also said the policy of quickly returning migrants to Mexico or their home countries remained in force.
In one example, hundreds of Haitian migrants seeking asylum or other relief in the United States met different fates last week, with little explanation. The same week that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 350 Haitian nationals to Haiti, including a 4-month-old infant — before stopping a fourth deportation flight — U.S. Border Patrol agents returned another 140 Haitian nationals to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, prompting shocked advocates to rush to their aid.
“There’s hope, certainly, that things are going to get better, but the message changes constantly,” said Jennifer Harbury, a civil rights attorney and activist in the Rio Grande Valley. “Nobody knows what’s going on.”
Those already at the border awaiting their hearing rely on activists, social media sites and faith from above to guide them through the flurry of changes.
Rosa Dalila Moran, 33, has been at the Nuevo Laredo shelter since December 2019. She left her native Santa Ana, El Salvador, she said, when local gangs killed a colleague at the Ministry of Education office where she worked and then threatened to kill her. She fled with her husband, Edgar Ascencio Hernandez, son Hector Alejandro, 8, and daughter Andrea Cristina, 5.
After crossing into the United States, they were placed in the MPP program in Laredo, Texas, and escorted back into Nuevo Laredo. A hearing set for April 2020 was postponed after the border closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she was elated when Biden was elected and hopeful when she got a new hearing for Feb. 4 – the first scheduled under the new administration.
But when she called to confirm, an automated reply told her the hearing had been moved to May.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting,” Moran said. “Sometimes it feels like the waiting will never end.”
Moran said she feels safe at the shelter and the other migrants waiting there have become like family to her. But the monotony of spending each day in the same half-block property, with no clear path out, was mauling her nerves. The worst part, she said, was knowing her children were missing valuable education.
“I want to give them security,” Moran said. “I want to see them grow up in a place with opportunity and without the constant fear that my son will be taken by gangs.”
Senior administration officials said international organizations will work to identify those who have been in the MPP program the longest and who are among the most vulnerable. The administration aims to “start small,” an official said in a press call, focusing on two or three ports of entry to start. They plan to process up to 300 migrants a day per port, the official said.
‘It’s life and death for migrants’
Another burning question among migrants and advocates is what the Biden administration plans to do with the scores of migrants who tried to apply for asylum through a port of entry but were turned away because the border was closed due to COVID-19 concerns.
Osmani Perez Barriales, 46, had been at the Nuevo Laredo shelter since March. Originally from Havana, Cuba, Barriales tried to flee the communist island years ago on a makeshift boat. He was captured by Cuban Coast Guard and deemed a “counterrevolutionary” and was the target of government harassment and persecution, he said.
Recently, a high-ranking Cuban military official accidentally hit and killed his father-in-law with his car, he said. When Barriales tried to file a claim against the official in court, he was threatened with jail and told his family will be prosecuted, as well, he said. In March 2020, he left Cuba, flying to Monterrey, Mexico, on a tourist visa, then taking a bus to Nuevo Laredo. He said he was turned away at the border by U.S. border officials and has been living at the shelter ever since.
Unlike others at the shelter, he hasn’t been processed by U.S. immigration officials and doesn’t have a court date.
Though he supported Trump’s strong anti-Communist stance, Barriales said he was encouraged by Biden’s election. He said he understands the U.S. government needs time to sort things out and hasn’t even considered crossing the Rio Grande to reach Texas.
“If all my life I’ve had to live in hiding, under surveillance, do you think I’m going to try to enter the United States illegally, a country of laws?” Barriales said. “No. I’ll enter legally or I won’t enter at all.”
But not all migrants are as patient.
Scott Weaver, an Austin-based immigration attorney, represents around 60 clients, mostly Venezuelans, scattered throughout Mexico awaiting U.S. asylum proceedings. Some of his clients have been kidnapped and exploited by cartels while awaiting their hearing.
Desperation and misinformation are propelling some of his clients to leave the shelters and try to cross illegally into the United States – with mixed results, Weaver said. One of his clients crossed, was picked up by U.S. border agents and placed in expedited removal proceedings, he said. He later passed his “credible fear” interview and bonded out, Weaver said.
Weaver said he’s advising all of his clients to stay put for now until Biden’s policies become clearer.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “Even though there’s been this flurry of activity, there’s nothing really concrete for my clients at this point. We’re just waiting on the Biden administration to do something concrete and we hope they have the follow-through, the political will to do what needs to be done.”
Harbury, an activist with Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV, an immigrant advocacy group, applauded Biden’s reversals of Trump’s immigration policies but said implementation of the new policies has been erratic.
In recent weeks, immigration officials have deported immigrants from Cameroon, Uganda and Haiti, she said, even though many believed at the time Biden had halted deportations, she said. She and other advocates have been in talks with members of the Biden administration and have advised them to speed up directives to border officials, Harbury said.
Migrants awaiting hearings in Mexico often can’t work and are under constant threat of drug cartels, who extort them for money and kidnap or kill them if they don’t pay, she said. Last month, 19 people, including several Guatemalan migrants, were found shot to death and burned in a charred pickup truck in the northern Mexican town of Camargo, across the Rio Grande from Texas.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we can’t wait an extra few months,” she said. “It’s life and death for migrants.”
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the chasm between hope and reality at the country’s northern border Thursday, in a morning news conference.
“President Biden has told me that it’s going to take them time to define his immigration policies, to create order. It’s not ‘ya,’ everyone can go to the United States to be legalized,” López Obrador said using a Spanish word that signals urgency.
“Because you can’t just – it has to be understood – modify an immigration policy one day to the next,” he added. “Migrant brothers, please take this information and don’t be fooled by human traffickers that paint a rose-colored world. It’s not like that.”
‘They’ve been here a long time’
For the past four years, Charlene D’Cruz, an attorney with Lawyers for Good Government, a Brownsville, Texas-based immigrant advocacy group, struggled to help immigrants with disabilities stuck at the border under stringent Trump-era policies. When Biden was elected, she hoped more relief would come quickly for those with disabilities or serious illnesses but so far that help has been sporadic and slow.
Many of her clients are stuck across the river in Matamoros in a sprawling makeshift camp for migrants awaiting their U.S. hearings. Last week, she managed to get an immigrant woman with breast cancer and a deaf young man and his sister out of the camp and into the United States.
But other clients – including a 3-year-old boy with ventricular septal defect, or holes in his heart, and a 47-year-old Cuban man with severe heart disease – remain stuck in the camp, despite various legal petitions to get them out, she said. Under U.S. policy, people with disabilities are supposed to be allowed into the United States rather than await their hearings in Mexico.
One of the things she hoped the Biden administration would fix was the lack of information – but that trend has continued, she said. She currently has four requests for the release of disabled or sick migrants sitting in the hands of U.S. immigration officials since Jan. 29. So far, no answer, she said.
“The lack of information, lack of clarity, lack of transparency,” D’Cruz said. “This constant opaqueness – it has got to stop.”
Ortiz, the Baptist pastor, shuttles between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo several times a week to ferry supplies, share the latest immigration news and lead prayers with migrants. He’s done it so often that the local Mexican cartel, the Cartel del Noreste, knows to leave him alone.
He applauded Friday’s announcement that U.S. officials will soon begin processing migrants stuck in Mexico awaiting a hearing, though he still sees hurdles ahead: Challenges in transporting migrants to processing centers and cartel members who may prey on migrants as they’re being processed in Mexico.
Still, the news was a bright ray of hope after a long two years where he’s seen mothers with small children kidnapped by cartels and others beaten nearly to death or killed.
“They’re so desperate to go,” Ortiz said. “They’ve been here a long time.”
Follow Jervis and Villagren on Twitter: @MrRJervis, @laurenvillagran.