Four months after fleeing their home in El Salvador, the six members of the Meneses family arrived in Nogales, Sonora on Dec. 25 with documents ready to ask for asylum in the United States.
After his family was targeted by anti-LGBT groups in their home country, 27-year-old Javier Meneses said, he found the help of a Los Angeles-based organization called El Rescate, which has since guided him, his parents, wife and sisters through the legal processes to be able to make their asylum cases.
“One day they kidnapped my sister, but she managed to escape and that’s when we decided to come here,” Meneses said while sitting with his father and wife at the Nogales, Sonora “comedor” (soup kitchen) run by the Kino Border Initiative. “Now we’re number 706 in line to ask for asylum and last time I checked they were at number 690.”
Meneses and his family – not part of the now-famous caravan of asylum-seeking migrants that arrived late last year in Tijuana – were instructed by El Rescate to legally enter Mexico by asking for a visitor visa in Tapachula, Chiapas. From there they traveled to the country’s northern border with the United States to request asylum at a U.S. port of entry.
Speaking in low voices at the comedor last Friday morning, the family members said they felt unsafe in Mexico and were hopeful to soon be allowed into the United States to begin their asylum processes.
However, a new policy that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called “catch and return” might force the Meneses family to stay in Mexico while they wait for their court dates – possibly for months or even years.
On Dec. 20, the Trump administration announced plans to force asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they wait for an immigration judge to rule on their case. In a news release, the Department of Homeland Security cited rising numbers of asylum petitions, and concerns about migrants who request asylum with plans to stay in the United States illegally after making their claims, as reasons for the new policy.
However, while the change is meant to mitigate stress on U.S. institutions, it could affect thousands of non-Mexican migrants already waiting to seek asylum in the United States at the Southwest border, and add strain on Mexican border cities like Nogales, Sonora and the organizations there that provide services to migrants.
“It (the new policy) could have a big effect, because it’s possible that more and more people will be arriving and waiting here for longer periods of time,” said Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that operates a migrant shelter as well as the comedor in Nogales, Sonora.
A network of organizations and volunteers in Nogales provides food, shelter, legal advice and basic medical care to migrants. “All of these different institutions, we’re at our limits,” said Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy for KBI.
Willing to wait
Roberto Velasco, a spokesman for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the policy change “a unilateral measure by the U.S.,” adding that “Our response is according to our law and our commitment to a secure, orderly and legal migration,” according to The Washington Post.
The ministry said in a news release that it would provide temporary authorization for asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while the United States processes their claims, but stated that there was no binational agreement to make Mexico a “safe third country” for migrants.
The local government in Nogales, Sonora is particularly concerned with the effect the policy change could have on security, said Enrique Morales, the city’s communications director, adding that the municipality is prepared to work with local, state and federal authorities on the matter.
“It’s all to support the people in migrant situations, but more importantly to maintain the order and security of the city,” Morales said.
Ultimately, he said, responsibility for dealing with large groups of long-stay migrants lies with Mexico’s federal government.
“In case of a massive influx of migrants, we would look for the coordination of federal authorities through the delegation of immigration because they have the competence for that issue,” he said.
Williams, of KBI, said Nogales, Sonora doesn’t have the infrastructure to support people for many years while they’re waiting for asylum.
“It’s just not practically possible for us as a city. But if the Mexican government is going to agree to this policy, they need to have the plan for how that’s going to look like,” she said, adding: “Essentially what this policy means is setting up a refugee camp in Mexico and that requires government responsibility.”
Moises Gonzalez, 25, said that he left El Salvador with his 7-year-old daughter because he feared that he was going to be a target of gang violence. He said that he was planning to connect with acquaintances in Texas, but wouldn’t be deterred if the asylum process required him to wait for months in Mexico.
“I am willing to wait,” he said.
Thus far, Williams said, KBI has not served any migrants who were returned to Mexico under the new policy.
“The details of the implementation are very unclear,” she said. “(U.S. Customs and Border Protection) hasn’t received guidance on how to implement it, and so it hasn’t started here. All that we’re seeing are people who are being told to wait for CBP to initially process them.”
CBP’s media representatives in the Tucson Field Office, which covers the area including the Nogales ports of entry, have been unresponsive to requests for comment since the partial government shutdown began on Dec. 21.
For the Meneses family, their plan in the face of the new “catch and return” policy is to try their best to prove to U.S. authorities that Mexico remains just as dangerous for them as their home country.
“We saw a lot of migrants in Tapachula and among them, we found many of those people who were threatening us back home. They were with the caravans, acting like victims,” Javier Meneses said.
But if they’re still sent back to Mexico, Meneses said, he doesn’t know what else his family can do.
“They say that asylum processes can take up to three years, so just imagine. Many things can happen to us in Mexico during those three years,” he said.