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They risked Covid, cartels — now U.S. asylum-seekers in Mexico put hope in Biden

"I wanted to go to the U.S. because they are supposed to respect human rights," said a Venezuelan asylum-seeker. "Trump didn't do that to us, but we are hoping President Biden will respect that."
Image: Angelica Matos
Angelica Matos, who is from Venezuela, has sought asylum in the U.S. but has had to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Angelica Matos, who fled Venezuela, where her husband was tortured and jailed, has endured fears of violence and the spread of Covid-19, all in the hope that the United States would again open its doors to asylum-seekers after the Trump administration's restrictive policies.

Others who had similar hopes gave up. But after a year and a half of waiting in Mexico, Matos is clinging to a kernel of possibility that the new president, Joe Biden, will once again give people like her the refuge and safety that could come if they are granted asylum.

"I am very hopeful, and I can talk as an immigrant, and as all the immigrants that are here waiting for this government to start telling us what is going to happen to us, because we are in immigration limbo," Matos said.

Biden has said he would undo the Trump administration policy that keeps Matos in Mexico — what's known as the Remain in Mexico policy and is officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols.

The Trump-era program, which took effect in 2019, requires asylum-seekers to remain outside the U.S. while they await their court hearings, where they argue their cases for refuge. Many stay in Mexico, along the U.S. border.

The policy created a bottleneck of human beings at the border, which critics denounced as a humanitarian crisis but supporters praised as a deterrent to immigration. It is not illegal to request asylum at border entry points, but under President Donald Trump, people were turned away.

In general, asylum is available to people fleeing persecution or who have well-founded fears of persecution if they return to their home countries.

Biden signed an executive order Tuesday calling for a review of the policy.

He stopped adding people to the program, but he also has allowed for the immediate removal of people crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without authorization.

The Biden administration has urged people at the border to stay in Mexico for now, and he has warned people coming from other countries, including those in caravans, that "now is not the time to make the journey."

Some things have changed since Matos got to the border.

An encampment where many people live in tents is surrounded by razor wire, which its residents requested for safety and which has made life there a little less dangerous.

Donations of supplies gathered by nonprofit groups have also fostered a little more civility in what has become their temporary community.

Matos works for one of the nonprofits as a translator. She had been a journalist in Venezuela.

"I wanted to go to the U.S. because they are supposed to respect human rights," she said. "Trump didn't do that to us, but we are hoping President Biden will respect that...We hope they respect human rights, and we hope to have liberty, to be free in our profession."

'The hardest part ... is the uncertainty'

Sam Bishop is a project coordinator for Global Response Management, the nonprofit Matos works for. The group has helped provide medical treatment for the migrants, including those who have become ill with Covid-19.

"I think the hardest part for migrants over the last year and a half is the uncertainty," he said.

At one point in 2019, the camp swelled to more than 3,000 migrants. The latest estimate is 700. The pandemic, fear of cartels and frustration with the U.S. system thinned the crowd considerably.

A camp in Matamoros, Mexico houses families seeking U.S. asylum.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

Covid-19 didn't ravage the encampment as badly as some thought it would — being outdoors may have been a factor, Bishop said. But there were at least a couple of hundred cases. An unknown number of people do not disclose their illness for fear of being isolated, he said.

"People who have remained behind have really clung to hope," Bishop said. "That said, they are also realistic about the situation. No one is jumping up and down thinking they will get in tomorrow."

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Sergio Córdova, a co-founder of Team Brownsville, a volunteer group that has provided food and supplies from the start, said: "You can imagine going on a yearlong camping trip with no tent, no supplies, nothing. It took nonprofits that stepped up and provided [what] these people needed to survive, to live, eat — and water."

Because of the pandemic, the group cut its travel across the border and has, instead, funded counterparts in Mexico to buy and distribute food.

Córdova said he hopes the camp will be empty one day, but he said he understands that there essentially is no immigration to the U.S. now and that the system needs a top-to-bottom rebuild. He said it can be fixed, but not overnight.

"The process during the Trump administration has been inhumane," he said. "I have seen animals treated better."

Gabe Gutierrez reported from Matamoros. Suzanne Gamboa reported from San Antonio.

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