Mexico's Asylum Agency Struggles To Keep Up

Oct 26, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Between the Trump administration's crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border and recent court rulings, it's much harder now to request asylum. So many migrants are now asking for protection elsewhere. Mexico says as many as 80,000 refugees, most from Central America, are expected to seek protection there before the year ends. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the country's refugee agency is struggling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: A young clerk calls over a migrant from the line stretching out the front door and down the block. A steady stream of applicants file up to a bank of laptops set on wooden desks. This room used to be the garage of the building housing Mexico's refugee assistance office in the Southern border city of Tapachula.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Every office, storage closet and hallway is used to deal with the rush of refugee applications. Alma Delia Cruz Marquez runs the office.

ALMA DELIA CRUZ MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says in the first nine months of this year, double the numbers of asylum applicants have come through the door than in all of last year. Two-thirds of all applicants nationwide are processed in Tapachula. And once a migrant has registered with her agency, known as COMAR in Spanish, they can't leave the region until the process is done, which can be many months. That has left Tapachula, in the poorest state of Mexico, dealing with record numbers of migrants, straining local charities and packing shelters well beyond capacity.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Kids ring the dinner bell at the Jesus the Good Shepherd Shelter about four miles outside of town. The shelter was built for 300. Eight-hundred are sleeping there on this night. And there isn't much for dinner - some canned peaches, bananas, beans and tortillas.

MARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Mario, a 30-year-old man from El Salvador who didn't want to give his name out of fear for his safety, is glad for what he can get here. He arrived two weeks ago and is too scared to leave the shelter, except to make his required regular check-ins at the refugee agency. He fled El Salvador after gang members beat him up and stole his motorbike, which he depended on for his messenger job. He managed to save some money and get a bank loan to buy another. Once the gang saw him with the new bike, they came after him again.

MARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: They said if I didn't give it to them, they would kill me and my mom. Before they took the bike, they beat him up, stabbed him in the hand and threw his mother to the ground. He says he thought of going to the U.S. but knows how hard getting asylum there is these days, and he's terrified he would be deported back to El Salvador. He'll wait in Tapachula until he gets his asylum paperwork done, then head north to a Mexican city with more job opportunities.

COMAR's director Andres Ramirez says the refugee agency has to work faster to get people through the process so they can move out of Tapachula, which has become a bottleneck. But he just doesn't have the money he needs.

ANDRES RAMIREZ: Our resources are not that many in the first place. Our operational capacity is limited.

KAHN: The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has provided vital help, personnel and money. Ramirez says with the support, he's been able to cope. Without it, he says his agency would have collapsed. But critics say Mexico should have been more prepared for the crush of migrants.

ENRIQUE VIDAL OLASCOAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This is not a new situation, says Enrique Vidal Olascoaga, a human rights activist in Tapachula. The government should have been more prepared, he says. The UN has provided funding to build a new intake center, which should speed up some of the paperwork. But the agency still needs more. It only has 48 employees nationwide.

For now, there's only one person authorized to give final approval for all asylum applications in Tapachula. And that's Claudia Lisbet Briseno Carduno, who, on top of that responsibility, also oversees the new intake center. I asked her what happens when she's sick.

CLAUDIA LISBET BRISENO CARDUNO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: So far, she says, in her three years with the agency, that hasn't happened yet. The agency director says he's waiting on more than 60 hires He's been promised. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tapachula, Mexico.

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