CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Roberto Escalona Moreno says he witnessed a double murder on the street last week near the hostel where is staying. The Cuban immigrant has been assaulted, and his friends have been shaken down by police, he says.
Moreno, 22, is among more than 30,000 migrants who are pressing for asylum in the U.S. but are stuck in Mexico's drug- and gang-infested border cities under Trump administration policies intended to stem the flow. They say the months of waiting are increasingly putting them in harm's way.
"It's not safe here," Moreno said, less than an hour after witnessing the deadly shooting in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Cartel violence in Juarez is down from its height five years ago, but it is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with gangs vying for control of drug trafficking routes.
Juarez, with a population of 1.4 million, recorded 1,259 homicides in 2018, or more than four times the death toll in New York City, which has six times as many people. Other border cities, such as Tijuana, are murderous places as well.
Last week, a man was gunned down in Juarez at his child's preschool graduation, and an unrelated 4-year-old girl died in the attack, according to local reports. Federal police recently freed three kidnapping victims, including a Honduran migrant, from a home filled with alleged gang members.
People hoping to enter the U.S. are forced to wait south of the border because of twin U.S. policies — one sharply limiting the number of asylum applications per day that border stations accept, the other requiring many of those who have applied to bide their time in Mexico while their cases make their way through the legal system.
The U.S. government is expanding the remain-in-Mexico policy to Nuevo Laredo this week, raising new concerns about bloodshed. Nuevo Laredo is in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a place so violent that the U.S. State Department bars most travel there by government employees under a level-four warning — the highest degree of concern.
"Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common," the warning reads. "Gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments."
Migrants who are fleeing violence in their home countries are dismayed that they are being forced to wait in Mexican border cities with similar dangers.
The remain-in-Mexico policy is drawing opposition from American asylum officers, who filed a court brief this week arguing that Mexico isn't safe for asylum seekers.
"Despite professing a commitment to protecting the rights of persons seeking asylum, the Mexican government has proven unable to provide this protection," they said.
The debate over immigration in the U.S. flared over the past few days with the publication of a chilling photo of a drowned father and daughter in the Rio Grande; an outcry over reports of hungry and unwashed migrant children in a Texas detention center; more turnover inside the Homeland Security Department; and debate on Capitol Hill over $4.6 billion in border aid.
Moreno waited in Juarez for two months just for the opportunity to present himself to U.S. officials in El Paso and apply for asylum. Now he is back in Juarez, where many Cubans stay in a cluster of hostels on the northeastern edge, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city.
He said he was having breakfast outside with some other Cuban migrants when they saw two men run past on the other side of the street. Moreno got up and heard gunshots. When he got to the corner, he saw a body on the concrete.
Moreno also said was accosted on the street by people he believed wanted to rob him. And one of his friends said Mexican police spotted him on the street, detained him and took 500 pesos from him.
El Paso-based immigration lawyer Linda Rivas said a client of hers was kidnapped and raped in Juarez after asking U.S. officials not to send her there.
The burgeoning population of migrants along the border is also competing for beds in shelters and under-the-table jobs. Mexican officials do not issue work permits to waiting migrants.
Formerly a food-stall worker in Cuba, Moreno has found employment cleaning houses, making 200 pesos, or about $10, per day.
Edgar Canales, 46, worked construction in Havana and has been able to find work earning 1,200 pesos ($63) per week by building and maintaining gutters. He waited two months in Mexico to get to the front of the asylum line, then returned to Mexico with a court date in five months.
"I went nuts," he said. "Even with the violence that's here, we have to wait like seven months. It's crazy."