Not in the countries they fled. Not in the country where they want to be. But somewhere else, in between. The Ugandan bodybuilder wakes early, often before everyone else, and heads out into the streets of Juarez to run. Alphat runs relentlessly.
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People stop to stare, surprised to see a black man with ham-sized biceps and impossibly broad shoulders running through this city. Until recently, most migrants to Juarez came from poor, rural Mexican states, often looking for jobs in the city's hundreds of factories. These days they come from around the world, hoping to reach the U. Mexican officials estimate there are roughly 13, of these migrants in Juarez, a city of 1.
Across Mexico, there are an estimated 50, They arrived after hiking through the jungles of Panama or flying directly to Mexico City. They took buses through Guatemala. They walked. Most migrants at El Buen Pastor fled political violence, authoritarian rulers or the relentless extortion of gang-controlled neighborhoods.
Some have college degrees. Some are barely literate. Many dream of leaving behind generations of poverty. Most have no idea when they'll go anywhere. Alphat runs to escape the stifling closeness of the shelter, and to forget for a few minutes what happened back home.
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A year-old competitive bodybuilder, Alphat also owned a gym and a security company that provided bodyguards. His nightmare began, he says, when he agreed to handle security for a politician who has clashed repeatedly with Yoweri Museveni, the strongman who has run Uganda for more than 30 years. Eventually, he says, he was arrested, beaten and tortured because of his opposition ties. Policemen used string to hang heavy blocks from his penis. While he was in detention, his wife and two young daughters were shot and killed by military policemen, who had warned him to drop his political client.
He has struggled with depression but he doesn't weep when he talks about their killings, doesn't ask for sympathy. He sold his gym and his car and fled to Kenya.
When that didn't feel far enough he found a murky middleman named Moses. At first, he thought he'd find refuge in Mexico. But after being detained, released and then robbed, he took the advice of a Mexican he'd met and rode a bus to Juarez. Here, he'd been told, he could walk to a U. The bridge linking Juarez and El Paso is one of America's busiest border crossings, channeling roughly 20, pedestrians a day back and forth. Alphat's taxi driver, taking pity on him, gave him a five-peso coin, worth 25 cents, to cross the bridge.
Little did he know that the Trump administration was turning away more and more asylum seekers with a vague promise to process them later. So many migrants lined up on the bridge waiting to cross that local Mexican authorities started assigning numbers, like a ticket for service at a deli, updating the number every day on Facebook. In February, the delay was a few days.
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When Alphat arrived on April 23, it was two months. In July, processing had virtually stopped, and he had no idea if his asylum interview would ever happen. But Alphat doesn't complain. Most people don't. It's pointless, and people here are careful not to use up too much energy. Alphat shrugs: "I've been here almost four months, waiting for them to call. Mornings are the worst, when another heat-blasted day stretches out before them and the courtyard is scattered with half-asleep people blinking at the sun.
‘Everybody cries here’: Hope and despair in Mexican shelter
Mattresses are taken in, folding metal chairs are dragged out, clanging across the concrete. Parents snap at their children. A handful of people have jobs, many working illegally as housekeepers or construction workers, though Mexican officials have been more generous recently with work permits — recognition that the migrants are here for a while.
The workers trudge from the shelter to their bus stops through the neighborhood of rocky hills, potholed roads and small concrete homes with barred windows. Marta Esquivel Sanchez is the moody year-old assistant who cooks most of the meals at the shelter and runs it overnight. She is both loved and feared. Her lectures are layer cakes of chastisement, the Gospels and guilt. I get tired," she tells a half-dozen or so women seated on benches in the courtyard on a July morning. She ticks through problems: messiness; noisy children; people who come in past the curfew, "Wise up or watch what happens!
The man who makes all this work is a retired high school math teacher with jet black hair and the thin moustache of a bygone movie star. Juan Fierro is a year-old lapsed Catholic and recovering alcoholic who eventually found direction in the Methodist church. He's also a preacher who can lay a hand gently on believers and watch them slump to the floor unconscious, overcome by the Holy Spirit.
El Pastor is the lawgiver no drinking, no smoking, no fighting and the genial benefactor who supplies everything from food to bus fare to toilet paper. His desk faces the shelter's entryway and on most mornings he sits behind it, hands resting on his generous belly, smiling quietly and keeping track of everything. The walls are speckled with framed letters of appreciation, diplomas from workshops and photographs of him with visitors.
A monitor displays feeds from more than a dozen security cameras.
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He's an unrepentant optimist — the good cop to Esquivel's bad cop. But he's also astonished that in a place full of disparate, frustrated people, there's so little trouble. Prejudices lurk just beneath the surface: Cubans are bossy, the migrants tell each other. Africans smell. Guatemalans are ignorant. In the spring, trouble appeared ready to explode when a Mexican aid organization brought a group of African migrants to the shelter.
A few weeks later, a Central American teenager hurled racial slurs at the Africans and Fierro stepped in. He called all the Latinos together and said talk like that had to stop immediately. Then he took a group of Africans out for ice cream and a drive around town. The Central Americans in particular, many from isolated villages with little exposure to the wider world, are often shocked to be living with black people. For the most part the migrants have learned to get along.
Why bother fighting in a place where everyone is sleeping on the same cheap sponge mattresses, and lining up every morning for the same off-brand corn flakes smothered in sugar? Prejudices melt most quickly among the children, who play together in a tangle of languages and ethnicities and races. The year-old Congolese girl watches the Honduran baby. Sometimes, the adults laugh as they try to learn a few words of someone else's language. The U. Department of Homeland Security insists the January policy returning migrants to Mexico is designed to bring order to the asylum process and "decrease the number of those taking advantage of the immigration system.
Before the new policy, migrants who passed a so-called "credible fear" screening could stay in the U. Now, it's often not clear how the process works. At first, only Central Americans were sent back to Mexico under the new policy. Then, starting in June, Cubans were also sent back. Pregnant women, non-Spanish speakers, and other vulnerable migrants are sometimes — but not always — allowed into the U. A second administration order, on July 16, effectively denied asylum to most migrants arriving at the border from that day forward, insisting they must first seek asylum in another country they had passed through.
That order split the shelter into winners and losers, and punished many of those who had waited for their number to come up.
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Suddenly, people who had asked for asylum before July 16 — even if they had done so after arriving in the U. But nearly everyone who tried to put in an asylum request after that date would first have to apply for asylum in Mexico or another country they had passed through. Last week, the U.
Supreme Court let the July 16 order stand while it considers the case. In a celebratory tweet, acting U. Said another Ugandan, a former used car dealer: "It's very complicated and if you put your brain to thinking about it, you'll just burn out. In June, a union representing U. Fierro, whose family has been on both sides of the border for generations, presumes the waiting list is designed to exhaust the migrants, to push them to the point where they simply give up and go home.