‘They finally stop living in fear’: Advocates reflect on return of asylum-seekers to US

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Families with small children among first to come over; claimants include adults persecuted for political views or ethnicity

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – As the first two busloads of returning asylum-seekers – mostly families with small children — arrived in El Paso on Friday, Linda Rivas reflected on the significance of the event.

“People don’t often understand that (those) coming to the U.S. seeking asylum have suffered something in their home country that makes them want to flee,” said Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Being forced to remain in Mexico made it worse for them […] there were rapes, there were kidnappings. That is why today is so momentous; because they finally get to stop living in fear.”

The 25 Central American nationals crossing from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas on Friday are among the first of an estimated 25,000 asylum seekers who may be eligible to continue their claims from inside the United States. The Department of Homeland Security placed nearly 70,000 claimants on a program called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) beginning on January 2019.

MPP forced entire families to wait for the outcome of their cases in Mexico, a country many of them had never set foot on before deciding to come to the United States. The cities they were returned to – Tijuana, Juarez, Laredo, Matamoros and others – are battlegrounds for drug gangs and considered among the most dangerous in the world.

Now the Biden administration is rolling back MPP and freeing the remaining hardy souls from added hardships they did not expect to endure, advocates said.

“This is an incredible day for these individuals who, after waiting a year and a half and suffering for so long are finally going to have a warm meal, a safe place to sleep tonight and a little bit of peace,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso. “It’s the beginning of their asylum journey and hopefully soon they’re going to get to see her families” in the United States.

Lopez couldn’t suppress emotion when asked how she felt after watching the buses leave the port of entry taking the asylum-seekers to shelters. “It’s been a happy day … I’m honored.”

None of the asylum-seekers paroled into the United States on Friday will be staying in El Paso; most have family members in the interior of the country who’ll take responsibility for them until their claims are resolved, Lopez said.

“This is a country they hope will offer the protection that neither their own countries nor Mexico could provide,” Rivas said.

She added that migrants seeking asylum are fleeing situations such as severe domestic violence their countries are unable to protect them from to outright persecution for their political views.

“Sometimes it’s because of their race. Today we encountered Indigenous people on MPP that suffer in their own country because of the fact they are Indigenous,” Rivas said.

Neither the advocates nor federal authorities allowed reporters on Friday to interview the returning asylum-seekers coming out of the port of entry.

The 25 and others who follow are being taken by volunteers to one of the shelters run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that has readied a “COVID-19 proof” environment for the returnees. The organization says it will be receiving 25 migrants from Monday through Friday through March 10, then 50 per day and 75 per day at the end of March.

As of Thursday, 8,600 asylum seekers had signed up on a United Nations run page to be taken out of the MPP program and allowed entry into the United States. Dozens have already been allowed into San Ysidro, California and Brownsville, Texas.

Lopez and Rivas said not all who have applied for asylum will get it.

“They will not fit the asylum (definition) not because they’re not telling the truth or because they haven’t suffered in their home country,” Rivas said. “It’s because the laws are so narrow … we’re in a completely different world now and we need an asylum system to match.”

Lopez urged returning MPP migrants to increase their chances of success by hiring a lawyer. “Your chances to win your case increase five-fold,” she said.

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