By Lorne Matalon
The city of Juárez, Mexico across the border from El Paso, has long been a migrant gateway to the U.S. Between October 29, 2018 and August 2, 2019, 17,778 people have come to Juárez to try and apply for political asylum in the United States, says Enrique Valenzuela, director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition agency of the Chihuahua state government.
A large share of the migrant flow is coming from Central America and Mexico itself. Juárez, however, has now become a destination for people fleeing any number of conflicts and oppressive regimes around the world. That includes people from Africa.
In one migrant shelter, El Albergue Buen Pastor, people from Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been passing through. Now, the migration mosaic here is changing to include people from African countries such as Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Florant is from Cameroon, in central Africa. He’s undeterred by the Trump administration’s asylum rule change that restricts eligibility for U.S. asylum applications to people who have first been denied asylum in a third country. That rule change, now being applied in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, is under legal challenge, and even the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, has said the change is a “pilot” program and that officials don’t expect it to survive in court. So Florant is still hoping he’ll get the opportunity to make his case.
“As soon as they get my story they will believe me and I’ll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That’s my power,” Florant says.
Florant, who like his friends asked that his last name not be published for fear of retribution against their families at home, is staying in Juárez and hoping to begin his request for asylum in the U.S. from there. Florant is waiting to make what’s called a credible fear claim to U.S. authorities. It’s the first step in the asylum process.
Tamra, from Uganda, knows it may take time, if it happens at all. But she says she’s bracing herself for that interview.
“Painful, very painful. That is why I cannot even share my story,” she says.
Musika from Uganda, says he and two friends had tried to present themselves to U.S. authorities on the Paso del Norte International Bridge as soon as they arrived in Juárez.
We thought it was like, if someone is seeking for help, and he gets to the border, the only thing is to take him in and provide security for the person,” he says.
That did not happen.
“We had to go back and wait for another time.”
Everyone in the group lamented having to make the decision to leave their families and friends in Africa. Human Rights Watch says Cameroon is in crisis, with killings by separatists being met by a government “scorched earth” policy, and that Uganda is plagued by civil unrest.
John is from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. There’s no way to verify his story but he says he’d been psychologically scarred after soldiers took him away from what he says was a peaceful, anti-government demonstration.
“I was personally detained for eight days. I didn’t know where they’d taken me. I was stepped on, beaten,” he says.
Some of the people in this group had flown from Nairobi, Kenya to Brazil and then headed north through Colombia and Central America on a journey that, in two cases, took several months. Some described a rough trip marked by a robbery at gunpoint and police shakedowns. Once in Mexico, Musika described an attack by members of a street gang in Mexico City.
“Because of these gang things, getting us because we are black and we don’t know Spanish, pulling guns on us,” he says. “I don’t want to mention much about that. I just thank God that I am alive.”
The Africans say they’d heard Juárez is a violent place. However, they say they felt safe here, that the challenge in getting here paled in comparison to the threats they claimed they faced at home.
Shelter director Juan Fierro García says uncertainty about eligibility for U.S. asylum, and fears the border could possibly be sealed completely are causing tension. Fierro says President Donald Trump’s threats in March and April to do just that, and the move in July to effectively end asylum, have set off a chain reaction. The courts have reached two separate decisions that collectively make it clear the rule change is not a finished matter.
At the same time, migrants say human smugglers are leveraging the tension, telling people considering the journey north to go now, before any threats are realized. Trump retreated both times on a border shutdown, but Fierro says the threats left their mark.
“The threats caused some migrants to abandon the legal process and cross illegally,” he says.
Tamra from Uganda says she will not do that, but she stresses she won’t return home because, she claimed, she’d be in danger. Human rights workers say that in 2018, Ugandan security forces tortured and arbitrarily detained protesters, members of the opposition and journalists. The same party has ruled Uganda since seizing power in 1986. The International Crisis Group says police are involved in organized crime and extortion rackets. For all these reasons, Tamra says the U.S. remains a beacon for her.
“That’s where I’ll be free and safe,” she says, gazing at the sunlight shimmering and dancing on the office tower windows of El Paso. Had she crossed illegally before July 16, 2019, Tamra could have applied for asylum because she would have been physically in the United States. She would have been able to stay in the U.S. until her application was either accepted or rejected. However, by following the law, and waiting in Mexico for her turn to have an asylum interview in El Paso, she’s now at least temporarily stuck. The rule change to the asylum application introduced in July states that eligibility to apply for U.S. asylum is restricted to those who have first rejected for asylum in a third country, which Tamra and thousands of others have not.