New year brings fresh optimism for migrants stranded in Mexico

By Abraham Pineda-Jacome and Miquel Muñoz

Matamoros, Mexico, Dec 18 (efe-epa).- Migrants who remain stranded in Mexico after a year of trials and tribulations, including the coronavirus pandemic, devastating storms in Central America and the United States’ hard-line immigration stance, are hopeful that Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House will lead to an easing of his predecessor’s policies and a more promising future.

“I’m tired, but hopeful and trusting in God that they take us in legally,” Onelia Alonso, a Cuban woman who has been stuck in the northeastern Mexican border city of Tamaulipas, told Efe on Friday.

Alonso, who said she began her journey to the US three years ago from Trinidad and Tobago and has an asylum hearing in a US court on Jan. 13, said Biden’s pro-immigrant rhetoric has lifted the spirits of many people on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande after four years of President Donald Trump.

“We’re waiting for news. We’re waiting anxiously for them to tell us ‘you can come across,'” she said on International Migrants Day.

Like around 68,500 other migrants, Alonso is part of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, under which asylum seekers are required to wait in the Aztec nation for the resolution of their immigration court cases in the US.

That often lengthy process was further delayed by the coronavirus crisis.

“The terrible thing is that the pandemic exacerbated the problems that (migrants) already had, pushing them practically to the brink,” Ana Saiz, director of Sin Fronteras IAP (Without Borders IAP), a Mexican civil society organization that specializes in migrant issues, said in an interview with Efe.

She said 2020 has been a “dramatic” year due to the health emergency and the strict crackdown on the flow of mostly Central American migrants through Mexico.

Under the threat of crippling tariffs, Mexico’s government agreed last year to boost its enforcement efforts and allow an expansion of the Remain in Mexico policy.

Although the pandemic caused a drop in the northbound flow of Central American migrants, partly because strict lockdown measures in countries like Honduras and El Salvador prompted people to shelter in place, Mexican authorities still deported 46,648 foreigners and detained 71,282 people for immigration violations between January and October, according to Sin Fronteras IAP.

Some citizens in Central American countries fled their homelands in the wake of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which caused millions to lose their homes and/or means of survival.

“Yes, people who were affected by the hurricanes have been arriving, who asked (permission) to leave because they had been left without any (means of) sustenance,” the president of the Ayundandoles a Triunfar (Helping Them Triumph) association, Gladys Cañas, said from Matamoros.

Central America furthermore suffers deep-rooted problems that include both unfavorable economic conditions for large swaths of the population and deficiencies in the construction of the rule of law, according to Saiz, who says the solution lies in greater investment in that region.

President-elect Biden will take office on Jan. 20 with a promise to facilitate migrants’ asylum processes and take a softer line on immigration generally.

His victory was cause for celebration for migrants stranded in Matamoros, some of whom even burned Trump in effigy along the Rio Grande.

But Leticia Calderon, an immigration expert at Mexico’s Instituto Mora, cautioned that changes to US immigration policy will not be immediate because significant legal barriers will have to be overcome.

“We have to be very careful, because there’s the impression out there that Biden’s going to come in and the doors are going to open. That’s not going to happen. We have to bear in mind that there’s a logic to US immigration policy” beyond who is in power, she said.

Calderon ruled out the possibility of structural changes in the first year of Biden’s administration, although she acknowledged that his campaign rhetoric could have a “pull effect” on would-be migrants.

Saiz, meanwhile, said Biden’s first actions as head of state can send a clear message to leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who in 2019 was pressured into acceding to Trump’s demands for much tighter immigration enforcement on Mexican soil.

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