VOA News Center Immigration Reporter Ramon Taylor, and VOA Spanish Service reporters Jorge Agobian and Celia Mendoza contributed to this report.
Like border cities everywhere, Nuevo Laredo is a portal. People and merchandise cross the five road and rail bridges between the U.S. and Mexico every day, in both directions, for work, school, business meetings, shopping, family visits, doctor appointments – the quotidian building blocks of life along the Rio Grande.
Pay 25 cents and you can walk right across Puente #1, as it’s known colloquially, in a few minutes if you’re in a rush and there’s no line at the immigration agent desks.
Formally the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, it links Laredo’s historic city center neighborhood of San Agustin, to the commercial strip of shops, pharmacies and low-key lunchtime restaurants on Nuevo Laredo’s Avenida Guerrero.
It’s at the end of this bridge, when entering Mexico from the U.S., in the parking lot built for buses and trucks at the Mexican immigration agency’s customs office, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have dropped off migrants and asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) policy to wait for their immigration court dates.
“In Nuevo Laredo, we’re used to seeing a lot of migrants (traveling through), historically,” said Raul Cárdenas Thomae, secretary of the Nuevo Laredo city council. “But in the last few months, the number of people crossing into the U.S. has definitely increased.”
Register in Mexico
At first, asylum-seekers would register with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which in turn would share lists of the asylum-seekers with the U.S. government, Cárdenas Thomae said. The list would allow the asylum-seekers to schedule an initial hearing with a U.S. immigration judge.
Beginning on July 9, however, Nuevo Laredo began receiving people from the other direction under the Trump administration’s new policy. Since then, more than 3,000 asylum-seekers who had crossed into the U.S. and are awaiting immigration court dates have been returned to Mexico under the MPP policy.
Moreover, migrants aren’t the only — or even the main — issue for local government for this city of about 400,000.
Nuevo Laredo maintains a prickly balance among massive amounts of transnational business, politics, migration and organized crime, and it’s long been a base for the Los Zetas cartel, whose activities are deeply entrenched in the city’s fabric.
Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas Cuéllar said every city has its dangers, its risks. But the city is not the one that is pushing migrants to leave, he insists.
“We obviously can’t force anyone not to be in the city of Nuevo Laredo, but what we can be strict about is that the laws are followed; that there is an order that doesn’t disrupt the rights of others,” he told VOA.
Officials didn’t know how many people to expect. At one point, local officials understood they might receive as many as 15,000 returnees, Cardenas Thomae said. Moreover, they don’t know how long people will stay — or even if they will stay.
The Homeland Security Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple VOA requests for comment on Mexico’s busing plan and concerns over how people would be able to return for their U.S. court dates.
Calling the busing plan “voluntary,” said Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights organization, “seems hard to justify when the people aren’t even very clear on what they’re going into.”
Meyer traveled to Chiapas this month to see the buses from Nuevo Laredo arrive, after a more than 30-hour trip. Mexican immigration agents at the border with Guatemala seemed confused about what they should advise the busloads of people, she told VOA.
The arrival also raised issues for the migrants themselves, each theoretically with a U.S. court date in the coming months. Being closer to home could mean a place to shower and regroup, or pick up more paperwork for their cases. However, they often don’t understand that even a brief return home could weaken their asylum cases, Meyer said.
Behind the scenes, CBP officials, journalists, shelter directors, politicians, and immigration lawyers are asking questions about how MPP functions. Unlike CBP and DHS officials, though, Nuevo Laredo municipality officials were willing to not only talk, but sit down for interviews on camera and address MPP.
The migrants themselves don’t have access to these discussions, though, or to people whom they could ask questions. They have some paperwork that in some cases they don’t understand, or don’t trust, such as a list of free or low-cost lawyers from CBP. The migrants have often thrown away their cellphones before crossing the river and haven’t seen the news in weeks or months.
Immigration attorneys acknowledge that even if the migrants could get cellphone service in Mexico, and can pay for phone credit, there’s a good chance they couldn’t get a lawyer. Border attorneys are stretched thin, and the length of some asylum cases — which can take years — makes it difficult for outside lawyers to connect with potential clients.
US Border Patrol
The long wait may push people to reattempt a stealth border crossing, possibly in a more dangerously remote area.
“I envision a time where everybody… (is) going to try and traverse and evade apprehension and become part of this smuggling effort that happens on this side of the border, as opposed to just on the Mexican side of the border,” Del Rio Sector U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said.
Meanwhile, the migrants and asylum-seekers are still arriving to Nuevo Laredo, and still deciding how and where to wait out the months until their first hearing.
Lilian, a Honduran woman traveling with her 9-year-old son, said the group dropped off at Puente #1 on August 8 was told if they didn’t get on the buses to Chiapas, they would be put out on the street.
She and her son, along with a woman and her children in the CBP facility, did not get on the bus, but headed to another Mexican city.
“What I don’t want is to go back to Honduras. … If we go to Chiapas, how much is it going to cost me to come back? I don’t have that kind of money,” said Lilian, who was given a November court date.