EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Walking near a bus stop in Downtown Juarez, Mexico, Yadier Cova doesn’t want to get his hopes up about a pending asylum claim in the United States.
“I will believe things when they happen, if they happen,” says the Cuban migrant, who’s been stuck in Juarez for more than a year. “Everyone is waiting on the election to see if Biden will help us.”
Like Cova, many asylum seekers who were placed by U.S. authorities on the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program and sent to wait in Mexico share a “guarded optimism” following the reported election of Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States, migrant advocates say.
“For a lot of them, it’s a breath of fresh air. There’s some hope they will finally be heard and they will hopefully be able to wait in the United States and not in Juarez, where maybe they don’t have the services of support they need,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute.
Federal authorities placed some 65,000 migrants from Central America, Cuba and other places on the MPP program last year after they showed up at U.S. ports of entry to file political asylum claims. Some of them had been waiting in overcrowded detention centers where advocates and some Democratic lawmakers said overcrowded conditions and neglect were blatant.
More than 20,000 asylum seekers were released in Juarez but many opted to return home, frustrated by the wait and fearful of being victims of crime in Juarez, a city where drug violence continues to rage despite the COVID-19 pandemic. An unknown number, mostly Cubans, have become a fixture in the Juarez shops, markets and warehouses where they work.
“I think (Biden) proved that he’s going to be able to help these migrants, the MPP and the Cubans that are trying to get (to the United States),” said Emilio Alejandro Plana, a Cuban who’s become an entrepreneur in the Downtown Juarez Market District. “I don’t know if it’s going to get easier for the other countries, but […] I think that a lot of people are going to get an easier way to get through. That’s for sure.”
Cubans like Cova said they’ve struggled to make ends meet, doing odd jobs or finding only temporary employment in Juarez. Others like Plana now run their own businesses.
Holding Biden accountable
MPP is but one aspect of the immigration puzzle that advocates hope Biden will address after he’s sworn into office next year.
“The first thing we need is to hold him accountable to the promises that he made. He’s made a promise to roll back programs like ‘Remain in Mexico’ (MPP), to end the construction of the border wall, to protect ‘Dreamers’ and to implement an immediate moratorium on deportations,” Corbett said.
“Dreamers” are undocumented migrants brought into the country before their 16th birthday and who’ve grown up in the U.S. education system. More than 700,000 of them are still part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Obama enacted through executive order and that President Trump tried to do away with in 2017, only to be blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another Biden campaign promise was to present to Congress a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes the legalization of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States, many of them parents to U.S. citizen children.
“We are really going to have to push hard, both the Biden administration and Congress so that we can get an immigration reform package quickly,” he said. “The package should include a pathway to citizenship […] a thorough reformation of the system of asylum and a complete overhaul of the immigration enforcement system.”
Advocates also want the Biden administration to address the root causes of migration, such as lack of jobs, violence and climate change.
Prior to the pandemic, experts had told Border Report that increasing droughts caused by global warming are displacing farmers in Central America. The increasing frequency of hurricanes is also devastating rural communities in that region and prompting people to consider migrating north. In recent years, out-of-control gang activity, particularly in the Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — is forcing people to flee.
In the near future, the pandemic itself could fuel more migration from Latin America to the United States, as those countries lack a strong social services safety net and the jobs lost there may not come back.
“The long-term effect of COVID-19 is that it’s actually going to be a driver of migration,” Corbett said. “The other drivers include climate change. We are in contact with farmers in Guatemala that have been devastated by hurricanes. Climate change is affecting economic opportunity. Those things are going to be exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Cuban migrant Plana concurs that the ebb and flow of migration to the United States will trend up once Biden takes over the White House.
“Cubans think they’re going to make it to the United States, they feel it’s going to be easier. They feel they’re going to be able to cross. .. they feel they’re going to be able to cross,” he said.