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Elida Jimenez, from Guatemala, has been living in the Agape migrant shelter for months with her husband, her son, pictured, and her two-year-old daughter. Credit: Alejandro Cossio for VICE News.

Migrants at the Mexico Border Aren't Counting on a Biden Win to Change Their Fate

Many are relying on God, not the candidates, for help. “God is the media we listen to. He will decide where we end up.”
November 2, 2020, 3:43pm

TIJUANA, Mexico  - Elida Jiménez, a 36-year-old mother of two small children from Guatemala, has been living in the Agape migrant shelter in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico for months. 

She is wearing a pale, yellow sweater that says “STAY.” 

That is exactly what she wants to do. But not here. She wants to get her family across the dark, ugly, rusty metal border wall that slices between Tijuana and San Diego, and separates the tens of thousands of migrants waiting listlessly in Mexican border cities from their ultimate, American, dream. 

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The next president of the United States will likely determine the fate of thousands of asylum seekers here on the U.S-Mexico border. Already, immigrant-rights advocates are gearing up to lobby a Democratic administration to repeal some of President Donald Trump’s most draconian policies. But migrants here are not anxiously following the election, unlike so many Americans, who will be glued to their screens and phones in the coming days to learn whether Vice President Joe Biden or Trump will be the next president. 

“God is the media we listen to. He will decide where we end up,” said Jiménez in a low, soft voice. 

The reality on the ground here at the border reflects an enduring paradox that has propelled hundreds of thousands of people from Central America as well as nations in Asia and Africa to attempt to cross the U.S / Mexico border in recent years. In fiscal year 2018, Customs and Border Protection registered just under 400,000 apprehensions. In 2019, that number was over 850,000.

The U.S / Mexico border has been effectively shut to non-essential, non-American travel since March, when the COVID pandemic hit. The American asylum system, which had already closed its doors to most migrants, ground to a halt. Tens of thousands of migrants are awaiting interviews and court appearances that keep getting pushed back.

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Cindy Piñeda, from Honduras, told VICE News that she started her asylum application in the U.S. 15 months ago, and has been waiting here in Tijuana ever since. Alejandro Cossio for VICE News.

Cindy Piñeda, from Honduras, was staying in the same refuge as Jiménez, crowded into a small room stuffed with clothes-covered bunk beds piled high with scruffy soft toys. Four families were living there, all with small children who ran around screaming and playing as she talked to VICE News. She said she started her asylum process in the United States 15 months ago and has been waiting here ever since. 

“My court appointment is in January – it’s disappointing but I can’t go home,” said Piñeda.

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In Tijuana, migrants asked what they thought of either Republican Donald Trump or Democrat and former Vice President Joe Biden for president mostly just shrugged their shoulders or looked blank. 

“I don’t think there’s a very real sophisticated awareness of what is going on,” said Father Pat Murphy, an American who runs the Casa de Migrante shelter, currently home to some 60 migrants, a third of which are young children. “They’re not watching PBS. They just want to know when they can apply for asylum.”

Across town, Francky Fertus, aged 31, his wife Maudit, 21 and their two-month-old baby Bryan were sharing a tiny apartment with fellow Haitian Venante Venet and her six-month old baby girl, Gloria. Both babies were born in Tijuana. The families have been here for the best part of a year. The dingy apartment they share is stiflingly hot, and water drips from the improvised sink / stove installed on one wall. 

Fertus was studying medicine before he left Haiti and wants to do the same in the United States, after he gets asylum and then learns English. He seemed undaunted by the challenge ahead: “We want to go to the U.S – there is no life here in Mexico.” He just needs to find a job that earns him enough to keep them all alive until the border and asylum system opens up.

But when that will be, nobody knows, no matter the outcome of the election.

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Francky and Maudit are from Haiti, and have been waiting in Tijuana for months for the U.S. asylum system to open up. Their two-month-old baby Bryan was born in Tijuana. Alejandro Cossio for VICE News.

If President Trump wins, it is virtually guaranteed he will continue his assault on the U.S.’ legal immigration system and efforts to close the southern border to asylum seekers. In recent weeks, he has sought to energize his campaign by returning to his go-to theme that migrants will steal jobs from Americans. 

The COVID-19 pandemic offered Trump the justification he has long sought to suspend asylum hearings at the border. Anyone caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally is automatically expelled within a matter of hours. 

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But the promise of a Democratic president doesn’t represent salvation to the migrants waiting on the border. 

“The truth is that for so many years, the Democrats have promised change for migrants. But they’ve never delivered,” Pastor Alberto Rivera, aged 58, who runs the Agape migrant mission, told VICE News. “Not [Bill] Clinton, and not [Barack] Obama – instead of helping, Obama deported more migrants than ever!”

Some observers question whether Biden would be able to afford to take a starkly different approach to Trump. As the pandemic continues to batter the United States, Biden could say that the justifications for detain and return policies on the border remain. And as countries further south in the region start to reopen after lockdown, experts are predicting that a new surge in migration could coincide with Biden taking power, should he win.

“I suspect that a Biden administration will still use law enforcement as a tool for addressing migration. They're not going to just throw the borders open and say ‘come on in folks, the Trump era is over.' That's going to be one of their biggest challenges,” said Eric Olson, the director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation think tank.

Reversing  some of Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, as Biden has said he would, won’t be easy, especially if the pandemic continues. There is also the risk that doing so may encourage more migrants to attempt the journey to the U.S., which could complicate Biden’s efforts to push through some of the more ambitious aspects of his immigration agenda.

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“It's going to be very difficult to roll back a lot of these policies, especially if the number of apprehensions goes up,” said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central America & Mexico policy initiative at the University of Texas.

During his time in office, Trump has turned away from tackling factors that are the root of migration flows in Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador: problems such as poverty, corruption, criminality and violence. Instead, he made aid to Central American countries contingent on stemming the tide of migration, and forced them into accepting deals to accept asylum seekers from neighboring countries.

The elimination of anti-corruption bodies in Guatemala and Honduras also happened on his watch.

“Every single day those organizations were in charge of investigating high crimes of public corruption involving the presidents and their administrations, their families, deep rooted generational issues of corruption,” California Congresswoman Norma Torres told VICE News. “We walked away from them and didn't provide the political support that we needed to provide for them. We abandoned them. There has to be a return to what we expect as Americans in return for the money we are investing.”

Biden would be expected to turn back to more nuanced and multi-pronged relationships with partners in Latin America, but even if he does, American voters aren’t going to quickly see results — a reduction in migrants arriving at the U.S./Mexico border. 

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Reducing corruption and improving justice institutions in the region to help bring down violence and criminal impunity are long-term goals that still haven’t been remotely realized in any of the countries from which so many thousands of people flee each year.

Which is why few migrants in Tijuana are considering heading home, despite being stranded here for months. 

Delice Alvarez, a 34-year-old mother of two, has been waiting 15 months in the Agape migrant mission, said: “The plan is to wait – even though we’re desperate – there’s no other way out.” 

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Delice Alvarez, a 34-year-old mother of two, has been waiting 15 months in the Agape migrant mission, said: “The plan is to wait – even though we’re desperate – there’s no other way out.” Alejandro Cossio for VICE News.