After more than a year in the Matamoros migrant camp in Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Yasmin was nearly ready to give up on trying to enter the United States. In October, she began planning to head back to her home with her husband and three children if Donald Trump were reelected, figuring they would be stuck in Mexico indefinitely. She and her family had fled San Pedro Sula, about thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico in northern Honduras, in the summer of 2019, after she witnessed the murder of one of her relatives by local gang members. At that time, she had not known about the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which mandate that those who seek asylum in the U.S. await their court hearings in Mexico, rather than north of the border, as had been standard in prior administrations.
For months, Yasmin, whose last name is omitted for her protection, had weathered flooding, soaring temperatures, and then cold, with just a tent for shelter. But the coronavirus pandemic led to a reduction in volunteer assistance for migrants and effectively halted asylum hearings. Many in the camp, which had swelled to more than 3,000 migrants by January, had already returned home, unable to find the means to rent lodging or to pay a coyote to help them cross the border illegally. A friend of Yasmin’s had drowned while trying to swim across the Rio Grande in desperation.
On election night, Yasmin stayed up until 3 a.m., praying that God deliver the presidency to Joe Biden, whom she and many of the seven hundred migrants who remained in the camp believed would put an end to the holding pattern they’d been trapped in. In the cold evening breeze, many of the camp’s residents gathered together, holding a prayer vigil as the first results trickled in through their radios and texts from family members in the U.S. When networks finally called the election for Biden five days later, some migrants in Matamoros celebrated by carting around an effigy of Trump that was later burned on the riverbank. Yasmin felt something she hadn’t allowed herself to feel in months: hope. “It felt like everything we had been through here had been for a reason,” she said. “I have faith that we can make it through and stay here until the courts are open. All we want is to cross into the U.S. without fear.”
In the last month there’s been a renewed sense of energy throughout Matamoros, as migrants talk to their attorneys and actively plan for a future in which they believe they’ll be able to cross into the U.S. and safely await their hearings. A few makeshift schools have opened in the last month for the camp’s youngest residents, including Yasmin’s children. In one class, a fellow asylum seeker works as a music director, helping his students practice tunes on donated recorders and keyboards as they prepare for an upcoming Christmas concert. Some of the adults have formed a school that will teach basic English, so they can better prepare for their hearings and, hopefully, for life in the U.S.
But the camp’s residents are acutely aware that for the next month and a half, they’re still subject to the immigration policy of the current president. Thursday, the Trump administration finalized regulations, set to take effect nine days before Biden’s inauguration, that would make it more difficult for migrants fleeing gender-based violence or gang violence to be granted asylum. Historically, under U.S. law, in order to be granted asylum migrants have had to demonstrate to an immigration judge that they are fleeing persecution and that they have “credible fear” of its continuance or torture if they return to their home countries. Under the new regulations, migrants must now prove that they will suffer a “severe level of harm” if they return. In a 419-page joint response to the roughly 87,000 public comments received about the proposed restrictions, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security acknowledged that the regulations would result in fewer asylum grants, though “neither the DOJ nor DHS can quantify precisely the expected decrease.”
A 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center found that more than 50 percent of Americans support making it more difficult for asylum seekers to be granted legal status in the U.S., and 74 percent believe in reducing the number of migrants seeking asylum in the country. Many argue that the U.S. can’t afford to admit large numbers of migrants and that restricting immigration at the border is crucial for national security.
Immigration advocates are hopeful that the Biden administration will work to reverse the regulations, but doing so could take as many as sixty days, further complicating the cases of those like Yasmin, who said news of the regulations had yet to spread through the camp.
Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration attorney and director of Project Corazon, a group of volunteer lawyers dedicated to helping asylum seekers at the border, represents hundreds of migrants. She spent much of Thursday scrambling to get in touch with her clients and meeting with other lawyers, all of whom anticipate that this will be the first of several last-ditch efforts from the Trump administration to gut asylum protections for migrants. “The worst-case scenario is that if the Biden administration takes too long to reverse this, the asylum seekers sitting and waiting in Mexico will have their cases dismissed,” D’Cruz said.
Migrants in the camp are expecting the Biden administration to quickly implement a flurry of changes. Cindy Andrade Johnson, a United Methodist deaconess from Brownsville who regularly visits the camp, recently helped organize a postcard drive for the asylum seekers to send to the president-elect. “May God lead you to keep your promises, among them restoring the dignity to those of us who have fled bloody dictatorships,” one migrant wrote.
While asylum hearings are stalled indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has committed to ending the MPP during his first one hundred days, allowing those in Matamoros to cross the border to await their hearings. He has also pledged to end prolonged detention, instead allowing migrants access to social services and school enrollment for their children while they await their court hearings.
Yasmin eagerly anticipates such changes. “My kids have already lost so much,” she said. “They’ve spent holidays here. They’ve missed school. They’ve gotten sick. There’s no way for them to make up for lost time, but we just want to help them get back to normal and feel safe.”
Project Corazon is asking the incoming administration to adopt other changes, including opening immigration hearings to the public and ensuring that asylum seekers are appointed legal counsel, which only 7 percent have received during the two years the MPP has been in effect. Many of the lawyers are wary of Biden’s association with the Obama administration. When he served as vice president, three million undocumented immigrants were deported. Biden identified the Obama administration’s immigration policy as “a mistake” during the final presidential debate.
“To dig out of the Trump administration’s policies is going to be a monumental effort,” D’Cruz told me before the new asylum regulations were announced Thursday. “It’s going to take real backing and money. “There’s going to be a rush of asylum seekers, but that just means we need to step up the number of agents to process these cases. It’s not rocket science.”
For now, Yasmin is trying to remain patient as she waits to hear back from her lawyer about how the latest regulations will affect her family. Asylum hearings won’t be able to resume until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowers its assessment of COVID risk to level two—the U.S. is currently at level four—or the Biden administration decides to reopen court hearings in tents, which some advocates argue are safe to operate even during the pandemic.