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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, June 18, 2019 1:00 am

Mexican city fears Trump deal will crush it

Maria Sacchetti | Washington Post

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – This gritty, industrial city on the banks of the murky Rio Grande is bracing for the Trump administration to dump thousands of migrants from Central America and other lands here under a new agreement to curb mass migration to the United States. But frantic Mexican officials say they likely cannot handle the rapid influx, as they are desperate for more shelter space, food and supplies.

With days to prepare, a top state official said he expects a fivefold increase in the number of migrants who will be sent to Juarez as a result of the expansion of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, which is under court challenge, sends migrants who are seeking refuge in the United States back across the border into Mexico to await their asylum hearings.

More than 200 migrants were sent back to Juarez on Thursday, double the previous day, and officials expect as many as 500 migrants each day will be returned from El Paso, Texas to Juarez in coming weeks.

“We didn't expect this many, but it's our job and we're trying to handle the situation,” said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua State Population Council, which registers migrants in Juarez. Valenzuela said Mexico's federal government brokered the deal to accept the migrants with the White House, part of a diplomatic effort to avoid President Donald Trump's threatened tariffs on Mexican goods. “We had no say. We had no choice.”

Returning migrants from the United States into Mexico is the cornerstone of an agreement between the two countries to stanch historic flows of migrant families and unaccompanied minors into the United States. Migrant families with young children are overwhelming almost all aspects of the U.S. immigration system and are frustrating Trump's campaign promises to block illegal immigration.

The agreement already is testing the infrastructure in Juarez, a city that is crowded and lacking in shelter space. Juarez has about a dozen migrant shelters – most run by churches – with room for 1,500 people.

That many people could be turned away from the U.S. border every few days, and Valenzuela said the city could use 20 to 30 more shelters to house potentially thousands more migrants.

Valenzuela estimated that as many as 70,000 migrants could be returned from the United States to Juarez this calendar year, a number that would equate to about 5% of the city's population. Borderwide, Mexico has accepted about 10,000 migrants this year.

Mexico has deployed police and newly created national guard units to the southern border with Guatemala, intensified highway checkpoints, and directed border cities to host asylum seekers who make it to the United States and are turned away.

Mexico's crackdown aims to deter migrants from attempting to enter the United States, though officials say it is too soon to tell whether it has had any effect on the number of people crossing from Juarez into the southwest Texas city of El Paso.

Several migrants said in separate interviews that Mexican federal police and other public security forces had demanded bribes of $15 to $20 per person to reach the U.S. border. As buses passed through in recent days, the bribes of hundreds of dollars meant their travel north was essentially unimpeded if Mexican authorities were paid off.

Migrants in Juarez said returning asylum seekers to Mexico could deter future migrants because conditions there are dangerous and inhospitable. Juarez, once the world's murder capital, can be a frightening alternative for migrants who had dreamed of reuniting with friends and family in the United States.

When the ramp-up began Thursday, stunned migrants, some of whom had spent days in border jails, trudged out of Mexico's immigration office into the sweltering sun. Many had not showered in a week.

“The American Dream has turned into hell,” said Damarys Perez Carrillo, 38, who said she fled Guatemala after her brother-in-law was murdered.

She could not find her 22-year-old nephew Eddy, who was separated from her after they surrendered to Border Patrol in Texas.