Legal limbo brings anxiety, stress to asylum seekers riding out pandemic in Mexico

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Newcomers' needs have evolved from basic food and shelter to employment and assimilation in border town that welcomed them when U.S. shut its doors

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JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Juarez officials say the COVID-19 pandemic is making life harder on thousands of migrants waiting here for a resolution to asylum claims in the United States.

Courts closed for an extended period of time due to the pandemic, many Juarez businesses that gave them temporary employment suspended operations and the uncertainty of their legal status is affecting their mental health, government officials and migrant advocates said this week.

“Many of those who are (asylum seekers) whose cases have not been resolved are in a sort of limbo. That has an emotional impact. People are developing stress, anxiety,” said Dirving Garcia, coordinator of the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez. “They have been impacted in employment, access to education (for themselves or their children), assimilation to the community and access to certain government services.”

Juarez in late 2018 and most of 2019 witnessed the arrival of thousands of Central and South Americans, Cubans and citizens from many other countries who sought asylum in the United States.

Those numbers greatly diminished after the U.S. made new claimants wait in line in Mexico and returned those who’d already applied by placing them in a program called Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.

Garcia said officials in Juarez assisted almost 27,000 migrants in 2019 compared to just 7,000 so far this year. Many of those who came opted to take a bus back home and some decided to enter the U.S. on their own, but many opted for riding out the process.

Providing for the latter in the middle of the pandemic has become labor-intensive, the official said.

“Before, they needed food, a roof, safe transportation and to guarantee their place in line,” Garcia said. “Now it’s more complicated. We have to integrate them to society and that involves providing education, housing and work.”

Central American migrants participate in a roundtable in Juarez to talk about the legal limbo they find themselves in while waiting for a resolution to asylum claims in the United States. (Courtesy State of Chihuahua)

The Migrant Assistance Center reopened a remodeled building last week near the Paso del Norte Bridge and held a roundtable with several Central Americans who shared what it’s like to be living in a temporary limbo.

“I’ve been in Chihuahua for two years now. I have applied for documents (in the U.S.) twice and both times was rejected,” said a man from Honduras. “I hear comments that criminals came (in the migrant caravans). … I think if they made the journey it’s because they are people in need. Let’s not judge people before getting to know them. Let’s give them a chance.”

Honduran activist Marcia Martinez agrees that migrants whose journey has been interrupted are having a difficult time.

“They don’t leave because they want to. They leave because of poverty, violence, insecurity,” she said during a Zoom teleconference. “Their anguish begins since they leave their homes, their communities. They feel sad but hopeful of being able to help their families.”

When the dream is shattered abroad, the migrant usually returns to a worsened economic family environment, so activists like her strive to provide as much accurate information as possible to those who are thinking of going to the United States, she said.

“Migration is not going to stop. It will continue. Every day new groups leave (Honduras) and all we can do is inform them about the dangers they will face on the road. It is not an easy path,” Martinez said, referring to extortion, robberies, rape and constant thirst and hunger.

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