He waited 19 days for an appointment to apply for asylum in the United States, hoping to stay safe until his number came up.
It was a daunting challenge: He had to wait here in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, a place where kidnappings, extortion, robbery and murder are common.
So the asylum-seeker, Jorge, who had made it this far from Cuba, used a simple strategy to stay out of harm’s way. He never went outside.
He hunkered down in a migrant shelter until the appointed time to present himself to American border officials in Laredo, Texas.
Then, after his appointment this week, he was swiftly returned to the Mexican side of the border where, under a Trump administration policy, he has to wait until his next appointment with the American authorities — two months from now.
His personal security plan remains the same: Stay inside.
“I never lived the experience of crime here,” said Jorge, 24, withholding his last name to protect his family in Cuba. “And I don’t want to experience it, either.”
This week, Nuevo Laredo became the latest city in Mexico to be added to a program, informally known as “Remain in Mexico.” Under the policy, thousands of migrants, including many asylum-seekers, have been required to stay in Mexico while they await their immigration hearings in the United States.
The program was rolled out in January, with the Mexican government’s cooperation, in an effort to take pressure off the U.S. detention system and dissuade migrants from making the trek to the United States.
Since then, more than 18,000 migrants, many of them asylum-seekers, have been returned to Mexico through border crossings in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ciudad Juárez — despite objections from human rights advocates who argue that the program is putting migrants at great risk in cities with high levels of violence.
That opposition has grown in recent weeks as news spread that US authorities planned to expand the program to this dangerous city in the lawless northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
In Nuevo Laredo, members of the dominant organised crime group openly prowl the streets in trucks bristling with weapons, residents say.
The State Department’s own advisory for Tamaulipas warns against all travel here. “Federal and state security forces have limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state,” it says.
“For us, for everyone, it’s very dangerous,” agreed Pastor Aarón Méndez Ruiz, who runs the Casa del Migrante Amar, a shelter in Nuevo Laredo.
Migrants have long been frequent targets of crime here. The risks are high enough that rather than let Mexican deportees walk from the border bridge to the state migrant reception centre nearby, officials transport them in vans.
State officials have also arranged for bus companies to have buses pick up migrants directly at the reception centre instead of allowing the migrants to go to the main bus terminal, a hunting ground for criminal groups.
Criminals were making such easy prey of migrants coming and going from one migrant shelter that the federal police posted a permanent, round-the-clock sentry across the street.
The Rev. Julio López, who runs that shelter, Casa del Migrante Nazareth, advises migrants not to leave the building with their cell phone. The reason: In case they are kidnapped, their abductors will not be able to locate their relatives in the United States and demand hefty ransoms.
Doctors Without Borders reported that more than 45% of the hundreds of migrants it treated in Nuevo Laredo between January and May this year had suffered at least one act of violence in the city.
“The majority of our patients don’t go out in the street due to the imminent risk of kidnapping,” said María Hernández of the group’s Mexico chapter.
The expansion of the Remain in Mexico program was part of a migration-enforcement deal struck last month between the Mexican and US governments. As part of the accord, which was intended to help curb the northbound flow of unauthorised migrants toward the United States, Mexico deployed more than 20,000 security forces to help stop illegal migration.
This week, the US Department of Homeland Security said that overall apprehensions of migrants along the southwest border had dropped sharply from the month before, suggesting that the new cooperation between the Mexican and US governments might be working.
In addition, some migrants, facing long waits in Mexico as their immigration cases unfold in the United States, are giving up and going home. The International Organisation for Migration chartered several buses over the past two weeks to transport about 140 migrants back to Guatemala and Honduras. None of them had planned to seek asylum in the United States, IOM officials said.
The first people returned to Nuevo Laredo under the Remain in Mexico program were sent across the border from the neighbouring city of Laredo, Texas, on Tuesday: 10 Cubans and Venezuelans.
Reinier, 38, another Cuban asylum-seeker, was among them. Though he had been forewarned of the policy, returning to Nuevo Laredo was “a blow,” he said, adding that he would have preferred to remain in US detention because it was safer.
During the six weeks he had waited in Nuevo Laredo for his appointment, he rarely left the shelter because of the danger on the streets. Now he said he had to endure two more months in Nuevo Laredo before his first court date.
The return of the migrants here this week has followed a pattern: They are escorted halfway across the border bridge by US border officials, who hand them off to Mexican border officials. After the migrants are processed, they are released without any guidance or further assistance from the government.
“I felt abandoned, unprotected,” Reinier said in an interview at the Nazareth shelter, also withholding his last name to protect his family in Cuba.
López, the shelter’s director, said he was outraged by what he considered the American and Mexican governments’ neglect of migrants returned under the policy, which is officially called Migrant Protection Protocols.
“There’s no protection,” he said. “There’s no security.”
Stories of the hazards that migrants encounter in Nuevo Laredo abound in the city’s six shelters. Migrants lucky enough to find jobs are often picked up by their employers and driven to work, then dropped off at day’s end out of concern for their safety.
Joel, a Honduran migrant who withheld his full name out of concern for his safety, said he had travelled to Nuevo Laredo with a plan to cross the Rio Grande illegally and sneak into the United States. But on his arrival at the city’s bus terminal, a group of strangers hustled him into a truck and spirited him away.
Joel, 25, said he was held for nine days, during which the kidnappers dialled American numbers they found in his phone, hoping to find a relative to pay a ransom of $8,000. Failing to locate anyone who seemed able to pay, he said, the kidnappers released him with the threat that if they encountered him again, they would kill him.
Rattled by the experience, and realising that crossing the border was going to be more difficult than he had predicted, Joel is trying to figure out how to return home.
“I may turn myself in to immigration officials,” he said.
Méndez, of the Amar shelter, expects an increasing number of asylum-seekers forced to wait in Nuevo Laredo to give up their pursuit of asylum as they come to realise how difficult it is — and how weak their cases are.
“Many are going to desist,” he predicted. “Many people, for lack of proof, are going to return to their countries.”
José Luis Navarrete Flores, 31, a Mexican who has been waiting here for three months with his wife and three children for their asylum appointment in the United States, said there was no way he would give up. But he said he might consider moving to a safer city with more work opportunities.
“More than anything, it’s the fear of going out in the street,” he said.
Jorge, the Cuban asylum-seeker sent back to Mexico this week, said two more months of waiting in Nuevo Laredo would be a small sacrifice. He gestured toward the United States, several hundred yards from where he sat in the shelter.
“I’ll be staying there for the rest of my life,” he said, his certainty belying the distance that still separated his hope from reality.
© 2019 New York Times News Service