Medellin, Colombia – When Jose Luis Pino walks outside in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, he is too scared to speak.
After spending more than one year on Mexico’s border with the United States, the 38-year-old asylum seeker has learned that migrants like him are easy prey for the drug gangs and traffickers that reign over the region. His Venezuelan accent is like a target stuck to his chest.
“Anyone can attack you, extort you,” he said. “We’re just trying to survive until our court date.”
He is among more than 67,000 asylum seekers including Cubans, Venezuelans and Central Americans who are stuck on the US border due to a Trump administration policy, Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico”.
Under the policy, asylum seekers are processed in the US and given a date to return for an immigration court hearing, and then sent back across the border to Mexico.
But in Ciudad Juarez – one of the most dangerous cities in the world – some migrants and refugees face an even more precarious situation than the one they fled: kidnappings, extortions, killings and sexual abuse.
Migrants are dispersed across the border, but Ciudad Juarez has become a hub for asylum seekers because nearly a third of all MPP cases are scheduled to be heard in El Paso, Texas, the city just across the US border.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made their situations more precarious. As part of its response to the pandemic, the US in March closed its borders to non-citizens and residents, and also postponed all immigration court hearings. Authorities in July announced plans to resume hearings once certain health criteria are met, but the hearings have yet to resume. For many of those stuck at the border, their long wait has become indefinite.
“We’re living in the same darkness that we had in Venezuela, but we do still have a little bit of hope, a tiny light at the end of the tunnel,” Pino said, referring to the US elections on November 3.
Ahead of the vote, many asylum seekers are looking northward with a mixture of hope and fear.
The hope is that if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, the Democratic candidate will fulfil campaign promises to immediately put an end to hardline policies like MPP. The fear is that if President Donald Trump wins a second term, their situation could worsen.
The Trump administration began Remain in Mexico in January 2019, saying the policy was necessary to stop the exploitation of asylum law and cut overcrowding in detention facilities.
Critics like Ruben Reyes, director of American Immigration Lawyers Association, say the administration uses it and other policies like “safe third-country” agreements to make it impossible to seek asylum in the US.
“The purpose of this administration’s policy with asylum seekers is to put one more finger around the necks of refugees,” Reyes said. “To try and make it so difficult, so onerous, so awful that they just give up.”
Under Remain in Mexico, only 585 people, fewer than 1 percent of cases, have been granted asylum.
Pino, his wife and 12 and six-year-old children arrived at the border in August 2019 after fleeing political persecution in Venezuela. Their case has been pushed back three times by US authorities, and their next court date is scheduled for March.
Meanwhile, they live in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, surviving on what they earn from work painting houses, cleaning cars and odd jobs Pino picks up from day to day.
In December, he said armed men forced him and other migrants into a truck as he left a supermarket, trying to extort them, later robbing and assaulting him.
Other asylum seekers living in a makeshift camp along the Texas border in Matamoros, Mexico have faced squalid conditions, as well as threats and extortion by armed groups. Bodies of dead migrants have washed up along the nearby Rio Grande.
Reyes, AILA director, said the outcome of the US election could mark a turning point.
“For the entire gambit of immigration as it exists in the United States, it’s pretty much all on the line,” he said.
Biden has pledged to end the Remain in Mexico programme and attacked the president during the final presidential debate last month. “This is the first president in the history of the United States of America that anybody seeking asylum has to do it in another country,” he said.
The Democratic candidate’s words offered a glimmer of hope for Alexander Perez de Corcho, his wife and daughter, Cuban asylum seekers who, too, have waited more than a year, facing similar extortion and violence in Ciudad Juarez.
“We know it’s just a campaign,” Perez de Corcho said. “but we have hope that he (Biden) will help us.”
After speaking out against the Cuban government, Perez de Corcho said he was followed, detained and tortured by Cuban officials, and eventually threatened with death.
He said he hoped their case might receive more support because of the US’s longtime stance against the Cuban government.
“If we return to Cuba, you can be sure that in the airport, they’ll be waiting for us,” he said. “Here, we’re scared. We’re terrified. But at least we’re somewhat free.”
MPP has also been the subject of fierce legal battles, which the US Supreme Court last month announced it would hear. Arguments are likely to happen next year, so if Trump loses his bid for re-election, it could render the cases moot.
Aid providers like Sara Ritchie, a leader at Kino Border Initiative, a migrant kitchen based in a Nogales, Mexico, worry that some of the damage done may be irreparable.
She has watched asylum seekers who once regularly relied on their facilities disappear, forced to abandon their cases as things grow more precarious.
“Some have decided to wait it out,” Ritchie said. “And the ones who haven’t, we’re not sure what fate ended up awaiting them.”
But Perez de Corcho said they have no other option but to hold onto fleeting hope because the only thing that scares him more than the violence on the border is the thought that if Trump is re-elected, their limbo could stretch on for years.
“He (Trump) will continue doing whatever he wants, and no one is going to stop him,” he said. “We have this fear that if he wins again, things are only going to get worse.”