Immigrant shelters in this border city say they’re running low on resources, as the number of Cubans and Central American immigrants waiting their turn for asylum hearings in the United States is overwhelming.
Some have even hung “No vacancy” signs and now fend off allegations of insufficient food and mistreatment amid overcrowded conditions.
Tempers run high among the migrants themselves, who are frustrated with months-long waits to get an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. Some report being victims of crimes during their stay in Juarez – located across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas – and say they’re living either on charity or on the money their relatives in the United States send sporadically.
“We survive thanks to the help of a few people because if you rely on what they give you at the shelter, you starve,” said Reynaldo Moreno Rodriguez, of Las Tunas, Cuba. “We have to buy our own food and cook it.”
Moreno Rodriguez and his wife have been living the past month at the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) shelter in a West Juarez neighborhood, where more than 120 Cubans and Central Americans share four rooms in a protestant church.
“I left Cuba because we don’t have any freedom there. This thing that I’m doing here, talking to you, they can make me disappear for that over there,” he said. However, “of all the places I’ve been, the only country in which I have felt as bad as in Cuba is here in Mexico. Here, they treat us like animals. Look how they have us out on the street. They have kicked some people out. What’s going on?”
As Rodriguez spoke, a woman and two men came out of the shelter with a few plastic bags containing clothes, boarding an Uber that would take them Downtown. The woman, who did not identify herself, said the trio would start to look for housing and planned on complaining at the Juarez Human Rights office.
A woman who identified herself as the assistant caretaker of the shelter denied that anyone is being kicked out or mistreated.
She said many of the migrants are frustrated by the in-house rules and, most of all, by the long wait for their appointment with U.S. immigration authorities. She referred all further questions to the shelter’s pastor, whom she identified as “Eli,” but said he wasn’t there to give a comment.
She admitted the shelter is always in need of food and other resources for the immigrants. “We have the capacity to house 50 people; right now we have 124,” she said.
Having to wait outside the shelter most of the day has its risks, say migrants like Javier Ramirez Pacheco, who is originally from Matanzas Province, Cuba.
Ramirez Pacheco said he was kidnapped by thugs on Thursday, beaten, robbed of 1,600 pesos ($89), and told he would be killed if he called the police.
“This isn’t safe. I can’t even walk up the street anymore for fear of my life. I’m not the only one,” he said.
Frustration boils over
This week, about 30 Cubans showed up at state offices in Downtown Juarez to vent their frustration and level allegations that some people were selling their place in line to asylum appointments.
But Irving Luis Garcia Gutierrez, coordinator of the Migrant Attention Program of the State of Chihuahua Population Council, said it’s “impossible” for people to cut in line.
“We are taking photos of everyone who gets a number to make sure it is the right individual,” he said. “We ask for any documents they may have and add it to their file accurately.”
The State of Chihuahua took over the migrant registration process in Juarez from Casa del Migrante, a nonprofit run by the Catholic Church, on March 26.
Garcia Gutierrez said Casa del Migrante signed up 10,212 Central and South Americans and Cubans for their appointments with U.S. authorities before handing over control to the state.
Of those, more than 3,000 remain in Juarez, but the number grows every day.
“We registered 600 more in just a week,” he said, adding that “there is a level of despair on the part of some migrants when they find out their applications will take a long time to process. Some days they (US authorities) only see 15 or 20 people in line, and some days they don’t see anyone.”
Ivonne Lopez, an official with Casa del Migrante, said the arrangement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection was needed to bring order to an otherwise untenable situation at the international bridges and in her city.
“We did it because no one else stepped up. We handed back control when they did,” she said, referring to Chihuahua state authorities.
The ‘Cuban wave’
Garcia Gutierrez, the state official, said that about 60 percent of the 10,000-plus migrants, who’ve received asylum appointments in the United States through his office and Casa del Migrante, are Cubans.
“There are Central Americans, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and there are also Mexicans from states in the South who have come seeking asylum… but most are Cuban,” he said.
Some of the migrants receive money from relatives in the United States and can afford to rent a room or an apartment, or even wait in other Mexican cities. However, the majority crowd resource-strapped Juarez shelters or mill about low-income neighborhoods.
Those thousands must rely on the goodwill of nonprofits or whatever resources Mexican officials can muster.
“Those in greatest need and the vulnerable populations – families with small children, those with physical and mental handicaps, and the transgender – are sent to shelters,” said Garcia Gutierrez.
One of those shelters is Aposento Alto, three small rooms and a bathroom nestled a neighborhood at the city’s Western edge called Lomas de Poleo, which abuts the desert.
There, Oscar Orlando Gonzalez, from Olancho, Honduras, waits out his appointment with U.S. Immigration authorities.
“I’m number 9,990. They’re at 7,000, I think. I’m patient. I know my turn will come,” the 28-year-old father of two said.
Unlike other foreigners to Mexico living in Juarez, he said he has experienced neither hunger nor mistreatment. However, he has survived a kidnapping attempt at a gas station during his first day on the border.
“I was waiting for my ride to the shelter. Then this cab driver comes to me, tells me he can get me across into the United States that same day. I told him no and he became agitated. He wanted to pull me into the taxi,” he said.
Later in the day, he had to fend off three thugs who surrounded him at the same gas station just south of Juarez. “I was afraid, but mostly for my children,” he said.
He and his wife, Miriam Yuvani Ponce, 23, said they spent a good part of the 1,200-mile trek north praying, with their daughter Milagros, 6 and son Oscar Gabriel, 2, by their side.
“I had told them that if I went North, we were all going, with the help of God,” said Gonzalez. He sold his small house in Honduras for $3,000 to finance the trip.
Gisel Ramirez, the Aposento Alto shelter coordinator, said she and her mother have been able to procure enough resources to house and feed 42 Central Americans, Cubans and Venezuelans for the past four months. However, once the United States begins denying asylum claims en masse or President Donald Trump makes good on his threats to close the border, Juarez will become a city in chaos.
“The shelters are full, more people are on the way,” she said. “Where will they all go? We will face very serious problems with housing, jobs and violence with such a bottleneck.”