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Military police wearing the insignia of the National Guard patrol near the border bridge that crosses the Rio Grande river, in Matamoros, Mexico
Image: picture-alliance/AP/E. Espejel

Migrants still hope for asylum in US

Oliver Pieper
August 22, 2020

In 2018, a group of Central Americans set off for the US, desperate to claim asylum. Their arduous trek made headlines. Today, many of them are still stranded on the US-Mexican border.


In early March, Maria, a 45-year-old Nicaraguan whose name has been changed for her safety, learned she will not be granted asylum in the United States.

Global attention, which once focused on the migrants' plight, has since shifted to other crises across the world. Desperate migrants like Maria and thousands of others from countries including Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, seem all but forgotten.

Often having fled violence and poverty in their home countries, many were robbed, beaten, and raped on their arduous journey up to the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where, six months later, many are still stuck.

Their chances of making it across the border to the United Sates are slim because of US President Donald Trump's tough stance on immigration. To make matters worse, the new coronavirus has proven to be a serious threat.

Read more: At US border, locals push back against Donald Trump's wall

Maria, holding a Nicaraguan flag,
Maria, holding a Nicaraguan flag, a symbol of a country she does not want to return toImage: Privat

Stranded at the border

Maria has been in Mexico for one year. She would like to cross over into the US and join her mother in South Carolina, over 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away. But US authorities have repeatedly rejected Maria's asylum application. While she said she could return to her native Nicaragua, she adds she neither wants nor can sensibly risk doing so.

"They would throw me in jail because I'm not on the side of the government," Maria said, adding that one of her cousins, a 36-year-old, was murdered. "The same thing could happen to me."

Two years ago, Maria and thousands of her compatriots fled Nicaragua because they opposed the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega. Until then, Maria had spent 22 years working for the country's Health Ministry and had been part of the political opposition.

Initially, Maria fled to Panama. Yet she did not feel safe there and set off by foot with her daughter and two granddaughters towards the US, though an area controlled by drug cartels.

Each morning, they got up 4 a.m., marching on, crossing mountains, and resting by rivers. "I don't wish the things we experienced on this journey on my worst enemy," Maria said, she called the journey excruciating but was unwilling to add any more detail to how she and her relatives reached the US border in early August.

COVID-19 and migrants in Mexico

Slim chance for asylum

Desperate to reach safety, they waded into the Rio Grande, which forms a natural frontier between Mexico and the US. "We swam across and immediately reported to the immigration department," Maria said, adding that US authorities appeared surprised they had come forward rather than traveling further into the United States.

Three days later, US authorities sent Maria and her family back to the Mexican border town of Matamoros, where she has waited with hundreds of other people ever since.. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the US has temporarily stopped processing asylum applications and court cases are being postponed.

Maria has so far had four requests for asylum rejected. Her next hearing is scheduled for September 11, but she said she knows the odds are stacked against her with Trump in power and campaigning going on the for the November presidential election.

Medical aid for refugees

For now, Maria will stay in the Matamoros camp. Because of her health care expertise, she has been tasked to run the camp pharmacy by Global Response Management. Maria also works in a camp library and assists teachers.

Still, waiting to learn if she would be admitted to the US has taken its toll.

"I would much rather be somewhere else," she said, adding that she experiences discrimination constantly. "But I tell everyone we are not bad people. We want to work."

Read more: The Mexican men who want to end violence against women

Maria in the camp pharmacy
If her life were a book, Maria said she would call it 'The unexpected journey'Image: Privat

US volunteers

In March, US medic Ryan Kerr of the Global Response Management (GRM) decided to spend a few more weeks helping care for Central American migrants living in a makeshift camp along the US-Mexican border. And he knows exactly what Maria means. The 30-year-old lives just across the border in the US town of Brownsville.

"Here in the US, people look down on Mexicans," he said. "Across the border in Matamoros, Mexicans look down on Central American refugees."

Kerr has worked as a medic across the US, with stints in intensive care units and even as part of a helicopter rescue team. He said tending to people stranded just across the border is one of the toughest jobs he has had so far.  

When his organization set up camp in Matamoros in September 2019, the migrants there did not have drinkable water, food, toilets, or access to medical care. Since arriving, they have treated over 3,000 individuals and set up a coronavirus ward.  

Many have given up

Over the past months, many refugees have given up on their hopes up reaching the US and left the camp.

"When I came here in March, there were 2,500 people living here; now, there are less than 900," Kerr said.

Many of those who left are trying to reach other parts of Mexico to establish lives for themselves. Some of those who remained, meanwhile, have US immigration lawyers helping them.

Medic Ryan Kerr
Kerr said the medial center treats anyone who in need of careImage: Privat

"They are determined to make it into the US and have a better life," Kerr said.

Maria will soon face her fifth hearing to make for asylum in the US. "If this does not work out, I will return to Panama," she said. Maria said she feels scared at the thought of living there again but cannot return to her native Nicaragua, where the situation gets worse daily. Instead, she said she hopes finally to be granted asylum in the US.

Ryan Kerr, meanwhile, would like to give Trump, who effectively shut the border, a tour of the Matamoros camp. "I wouldn't say anything to Trump," Kerr said. "I would just show him the medical center where I work and how the people here have to live. I wouldn't need to say anything."

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