U.S. Agents Blocked This Family from Seeking Asylum. Then Mexico Detained Them.
Mexican authorities appear to have joined in Trump’s immigration crackdown by blocking non-Mexican migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.
On a hot June day, Wendy Leiba approached the international bridge that connects Hidalgo, Texas, to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, with three of her four children in tow. Behind them lay the 1,500 miles between the Rio Grande Valley and the coastal Honduran town where gangsters had killed four of her husband’s cousins and threatened her and her kids. Her husband and youngest child, a 3-year-old girl, waited in a nearby nonprofit shelter in Reynosa as she gambled on the mercy of the United States. But the bridge was as far as she would get.
At the footbridge’s halfway point, which is marked with a yellow line dividing the two countries, she says a handful of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents stopped her. They wouldn’t let her apply for asylum at the port of entry, because they claimed there wasn’t room to process her — an increasingly common refrain as the Trump administration has made it harder to enter the United States legally while also cracking down on illegal crossings. So, for four hours, she and her kids sat on the bridge, waiting in the Tamaulipan heat.
Eventually, she says, a CBP agent conferred with a Mexican immigration official on the bridge. According to Leiba, who requested a pseudonym out of concern for her family’s safety, the two officials agreed that the Mexican agent would take custody of Leiba and the two younger kids, 6 and 7 years old. Leiba says the three of them were then separated from her oldest son, 15, and taken to a government-run shelter in Reynosa that doesn’t allow detainees to leave.
Leiba says she had no idea where the rest of her family was during the week she spent in custody. Had they tried to cross the border on their own? If so, how would she reconnect with them? And what had happened to her oldest son? Only later did she learn that he had been placed in a separate government shelter for older kids. “I was crying day and night,” she told the Observer in an interview in Reynosa Wednesday. “In there, you can beg all you want, but it doesn’t help.”
Since the announcement of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in April, stories have emerged of U.S. immigration agents taking the unusual step of physically preventing asylum-seekers from entering the United States, on the premise that processing facilities are full. But at least in the case of the Hidalgo-Reynosa bridge, Mexican officials appear to have given aid to Trump by detaining and reportedly deporting migrants from Central America and other parts of the world.
Sister Edith Garrido, who runs a charitable migrant shelter in Reynosa, told the Observer Wednesday that Mexican agents had in the last couple weeks begun cracking down on non-Mexican asylum-seekers, something she’d never seen before. In early June, dozens of migrants were camped out on the bridge to Hidalgo, waiting to request asylum. But at least for much of Wednesday, there were no migrants on the bridge, which Garrido attributed to the Mexican crackdown. Jennifer Harbury, a longtime Rio Grande Valley attorney, said she’s also heard reports of increased immigration enforcement on the Mexican side.
A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, instead referring the Observer to Mexican officials. Reached by phone, an immigration official in Mexico City promised to call back with a response, but has yet to do so.
According to a 2018 Amnesty International report, Mexico routinely deports Central Americans without due process at its southern border, and actually apprehended almost 60 percent more Central Americans in 2015 than the United States. (None of which has impressed President Trump, who falsely claimed on Twitter that Mexico does “very little, if not NOTHING” to stop migrant flows.)
Leiba and her family now face a difficult choice. After a week in Mexican custody, she and her kids were released. The whole family is now together at a nonprofit Reynosa shelter — where they can come and go as they please. But Leiba says Mexican officials told her that if they’re detained again, they’ll be deported. So they have to decide: Should they try crossing the bridge again, to seek asylum in the United States, and risk being deported by Mexican officials back to Honduras, one of the world’s most dangerous countries? Or should they cross into the United States illegally, and risk the chaotic policies of the Trump administration?
Hugo, Leiba’s husband, said that crossing illegally isn’t an option for them right now, because they don’t have any money to pay the smugglers and kidnappers who control access to the river. And they don’t want to stay in Mexico, which is dangerous for Central Americans. Hugo, a pseudonym, says he even caught sight in southern Mexico of one of the men who killed his relatives in Honduras. Plus, he has friends in Ohio, who he says can get him a job.
Back home, Hugo earned $250 a month as a truck driver. He says that in the United States he would do factory and construction work until he could get a trucker’s license — anything to support his four kids. But for now, he doesn’t even know when they’ll leave the shelter: “We just have to see if things change.”
Top: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents question people on an international bridge in El Paso on June 19, 2018. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)