JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – More than 200 migrants have come to this border city since December, hoping U.S. authorities will let them in based on hardships faced in their home countries.
Their arrival takes place just as the Biden administration prepares to re-admit other asylum-seekers previously returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.
These latest newcomers include transgender women fleeing persecution in Honduras and El Salvador, men and women from Guatemala fed up with gangs and violence, and Cubans following the steps of thousands who’ve fled political oppression on the island.
Some paid a heavy toll passing through Mexico, where smugglers and drug cartels took what little they carried. One, a mother from Guatemala trying to join her husband in the U.S., lost her 12-year-old girl on the way.
Another, a trans woman from Honduras was sexually assaulted several times before finding safety in a Juarez migrant shelter less than 100 yards from the Rio Grande.
All expressed hopes of being let into the United States now that Joe Biden is in the White House and has begun to roll back President Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
‘We trusted them … and they took my daughter’
“Virginia” was always protective of her children, a girl 12 years old and a boy of 10. She tried to shield them from street gangs and other dangers lurking in their hometown in Guatemala. But when an ex con attacked her outside her house, she realized her own life was in danger.
“He chased me for three blocks with a knife. This was a man who was released from prison a few days before. He was in jail 17 years,” said the woman who asked that her real name not be used.
The three set off for Mexico on Jan. 11 and reached Juarez eight days later only to find that the U.S. is still not taking in new asylum seekers and scaling a 30-foot steel bollard wall wouldn’t be easy.
It was just a few blocks from the Rio Grande that a woman approached Virginia and told her that, for $1,000 she and her husband could take her to another part of the border where getting across illegally is easier.
“I trusted them with my family […] and they abandoned us in a hotel in Monterrey,” she said. Later, they came for her daughter. “At 5 p.m. they took my daughter without telling me, without permission. She is gone. Since the 25th (of January) I have not heard my daughter’s voice. That hurts me. I’ve spent days crying. It’s as if we still (lived) in my country.”
Virginia said she sought help from Mexican police. Not hearing back from them, she returned to Juarez where she intends to file an asylum claim at the U.S. port of entry in El Paso, Texas.
While waiting at a Juarez shelter, she called her husband in the United States, who told her their daughter called him. “She told him they have her in Piedras Negras, in a neighborhood or a place called El Castillo. Then the call cut off. They probably cut her off,” Virginia said. “That’s why I left my country (the crime). I try to go to the other side to my husband and this happens.”
The interview ends with Virginia breaking off in tears.
‘They try to make you feel like trash, like you’re worthless’
It was three years ago that Grecia Herrera noticed the arrival in Juarez of several transgender women from Central America. The women came physically and emotionally scarred and had no place to go. That’s when she opened the first transgender shelter on this part of the border.
“Some left because of the homophobia, the violence in their community and the lack of jobs. They want to be safe and free on the other side, or at least not live in fear for their lives all the time,” said Herrera, a nurse and transgender activist.
But like most asylum-seekers who came to the border in 2018 and 2019, many of the trans women who came to Juarez became discouraged at long waits in Mexico and the feeling that the Trump administration didn’t want them. Herrera said most of her charges went back to their countries, settled in Mexico or made a run across the border.
Her shelter, a four-story building with a large LGBT logo on top overlooking the Paso del Norte International Bridge, lately has been filling up with families and single males. More than 200 have come since December alone, drawn by the prospect of an easier path into the United States now that Joe Biden is in the White House. A few trans women, though, are still arriving.
“People like me are deemed despicable. Our lives are in danger. They tried to hurt me. If I didn’t leave, it would’ve gotten worse,” said Lola, a copper haired transgender woman from El Salvador.
She said her own father rejected her and thus made her way north past roving gangs in Central America and soldiers guarding the Mexico-Guatemala border.
“It was very dangerous. I slept on the floor, hitchhiked in buses. When you are set on your objective, you go on,” Lola said. “In Mexico there are good people and bad people. Some have helped me, others have tried to kidnap me, to hurt me. Others just try to make me feel as if I’m worthless, as if I’m trash. But one has to go on.”
Daniela, a transgender woman from Honduras, said she’s in Juarez because of homophobic violence inflicted on her in her country and in Mexico.
“I was abused at least on five occasions. I was beaten many other times. Staying alive being who you are is a matter of luck” in Latin America, she said. “I ask Joe Biden to support our community. We are human beings; we deserve equality and respect. I hope Biden will support us because in our countries we have no rights.”
Getting across one way or another
Carlos prided himself in being able to provide for his young family through his work. After three years of working in a factory in Guatemala City, the father of two and his wife opened a grocery store on their block. That’s when the “Maras” came a-calling.
“They (the gangs) told me I had to pay a tax, or they would kill me. When I said ‘no,’ they threatened to kill my family,” said Carlos, who declined to give his full name or appear on camera.
The budding entrepreneur was told to pay $200 a month – essentially, all his profit – and twice that much at year’s end, as “the boys” expected a Christmas bonus. Later, a different gang cornered him as he walked to his job at the factory and told him he must pay a “transit” fee or risk a beating or being killed.
“My salary is barely sufficient to live on. It was better to leave my country than to support the gangs. It was an easy decision to make,” Carlos said.
His trip through Mexico has been filled with tension. The bus he was traveling on to Juarez was stopped at a highway checkpoint south of Chihuahua City set up by men with guns. He said the gunmen boarded the bus, ordered off everyone “who looked like they had money” and drove them away in vehicles with tinted windows.
Carlos believes he was spared because he was dressed in worn travel clothes and looked haggard from the trip. Now that he’s within sight of Downtown El Paso, Texas, he hopes to file a claim for asylum in the United States or else attempt to cross on his own “as many times as it takes.”
His wife and young children are counting on him.