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President Trump is threatening to raise tariffs on Mexico unless it stops Central Americans from trying to get to the U.S. Thousands of those migrants are now living and waiting in Mexican border cities. NPR's John Burnett reports on the backup in one border town.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: There are two bridges connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, where up until now, migrants had been able to cross and request humanitarian protection. Since last year, federal agents have been stationed in the middle of the bridges. They're posted a few feet inside the United States like formidable doormen at a trendy Manhattan nightclub - only here, the stakes are higher.
Their job is to limit the number of asylum-seekers who get to cross. Customs and Border Protection says it doesn't have enough room or personnel to process but a few migrants a day, if any. So the applicants take a number and wait in Mexico. One day last week, at the top of the list, was 24-year-old Kimberly Lopez, who said she was fleeing marauding gangs in Honduras.
KIMBERLY LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Sometimes the wait is three days, sometimes more. It depends on the U.S. immigration police. Every two hours, I go ask them if there's space - if there's not, I have to wait longer.
BURNETT: Lopez is part of a remarkably organized community that has sprung up on the Matamoros side of el Puente Viejo, the Old Bridge. The migrant at the front of the line has a stool to sit on and a big golf umbrella to protect against the subtropical sun. Other migrants bring them food and water while they wait up to 16 hours a day.
A short distance away, about 50 migrants - mostly Cubans fleeing privation on the island - are camped out in blue pup tents. They're a subset of the 1,500 migrants who've massed in Matamoros, waiting to cross into Texas. Here at the Old Bridge encampment, they cook lechon asado - or pork - on a communal hot plate and bathe in buckets.
MICHEL BLANCO FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "It's a rustic bathroom," says Michel Blanco Fernandez, a 25-year-old baker from Havana who's been waiting here with his wife for more than two months. But we're OK here. Blanco says their main concern is how the line into America has been moving slower all the time.
BLANCO FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "We're almost sure this is a maneuver by the immigration agents," he says. "They want us to give up, to say, I don't want to suffer anymore. I'm going back to my own country. But we have faith that we can eventually cross, even if it takes months."
Like many immigrant advocates, Efren Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project believes the U.S. government does have the resources to process more asylum-seekers. But instead, agents have turned ports of entry into choke points. It's called metering.
EFREN OLIVARES: Why don't they stop this so-called metering policy at the bridge, at the port of entry? If they were to do that, you wouldn't have the number of apprehensions that you have because people wouldn't be forced to cross between ports of entry through the river.
BURNETT: That's the gnawing decision these immigrant communities have faced - wait to cross the bridge legally or take a risk rafting across the Rio Grande. Marianela Yedra and her husband have decided to wait. They fled Venezuela with their two children headed for Orlando, Fla., to stay with relatives and get treatment for Marianela's breast cancer. They feel insecure here. They say a Nicaraguan girl was almost abducted by thugs when she went to the store to buy a soda. But Yedra's family is reluctant to pay human smugglers.
MARIANELA YEDRA: (Through interpreter) I'm afraid because we've heard the people who take you across the river are mafia. They can kill you, and Lord knows what else. They say it's quicker - 500 per person. I tell them, no, no, we'd rather wait our turn. I'd rather wait here with my family even though it's inconvenient and I'm sick.
BURNETT: About a mile from the Old Bridge is el Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge. There's no orderly encampment here. Dozens of migrants staying in shelters and hotels around town gather every day in the sunbaked plaza, in a sour humor. They come to wait and for food and clothing handouts from an unemployed lawyer named Glady Cana. She pulls up in a battered white van and flashes and angelic smile.
BURNETT: Cana hands out apple juice, canned ravioli and T-shirts. A group of Cubans complains to her that Mexican officials are mismanaging the list of more than a thousand migrants waiting to cross.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: No one knows who's supposed to cross that day, and they suspect people are jumping to the top of the list. Cana promises to bring up their grievances to the Mexican officials.
GLADY CANA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: There has been trouble at the New Bridge - drinking and fighting and littering. Cana says she knows they're tired of waiting, but she's worried that some may try to cross the river.
CANA: (Through interpreter) I ask you all to maintain order, remain calm. The river is very dangerous. You all don't know about the undercurrents. Please don't do this, guys. This is the slow way, but it's the right way. Have patience.
BURNETT: The waitlist posted on a bulletin board takes up 24 pages. The names of those who were allowed to cross the bridge had been blacked out. Beside the names of those who gave up is written the word rio for river. John Burnett, NPR News, Matamoros.
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