MEXICO CITY - After waiting for a year and 10 months in Mexico to cross into the U.S., Alida Jeannethe Barritos and her husband walked across the bridge Thursday into Brownsville, Texas in less than an hour.
“It’s so pretty here,” she said in an interview from a Greyhound bus winding its way to Kentucky. “We are so happy. And with God’s help, we can continue to move forward and help our families.”
Barritos, 45, and her husband were among the first group of 27 migrants from the Matamoros border camp to enter the U.S. under a new immigration policy introduced by President Joe Biden that will gradually allow thousands of asylum seekers to wait for their immigration hearings in the U.S., instead of in Mexico.
The change brings to an end former President Donald Trump’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program that sent 70,000 migrants to Mexico to wait for a decision in their immigration cases. The program was widely criticized by migrant and human rights advocates for sending asylum seekers to Mexico’s most dangerous cities, where many were preyed on by cartels,kidnapped and extorted.
Biden started gradually rolling back the program last week, with some asylum seekers under MPP permitted to cross into San Ysidro, California. But the rollout was delayed for several days in Matamoros because of a winter storm and other problems. The Matamoros encampment has become emblematic of MPP, where, at its height, some 2,500 children and adults seeking asylum in the U.S. were living in makeshift tents on the steps of the Rio Grande River.
Barritos and her husband were making coffee in their tent there when a United Nations employee walked over early Thursday morning. “You are one of the people selected to cross today,” the worker told them. “You have 20 minutes to pack up.”
Barritos’ husband was so nervous that he dropped to the ground - they had been waiting in Mexico since July 8, 2019, after fleeing Guatemala because a gang was threatening to kill them, they said. “It was a total surprise. You can’t imagine the happiness we felt when they told us that,” Barritos said. “We had been waiting for so long.”
The Biden administration is prioritizing asylum seekers who have been waiting the longest under MPP. It is only accepting those migrants with active cases - around 29,000 of the 70,000 put into the program.
Some activists are calling on the administration to also open the process to migrants who had their cases closed because they missed their last court hearing. Many returned home after being kidnapped or extorted, rather than continue to wait for their hearing in dangerous Mexican border cities.
“Although some people with pending cases may have given up after waiting for their hearing or due to violence in northern Mexico, it remains a legal and moral imperative that the U.S. government abide by national and international refugee law and provide these individuals with an opportunity to request asylum,” said Austin Kocher, a research assistant professor with Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which tracks MPP cases.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard held a virtual meeting to discuss, among other things, “an orderly and humane approach to migration,” according to a statement from Blinken’s spokesman.
For Barritos, waiting a year and a half in Mexico paid off. She said it didn’t take long for the couple to pack – they already had prepared a suitcase for this day. But they left almost everything else behind: The tent; the makeshift kitchen; sheets, even shoes. She gave it to another asylum seeker who arrived at the camp a few weeks earlier.
The couple was given a covid test, and then taken to the bridge separating Mexico and the U.S. Within an hour, they had documents indicating they could legally be in the U.S. while they pursue their immigration case.
Their first meal in the U.S.: a ham and cheese sandwich. “We were so hungry - it was delicious,” Barritos said. She called her younger brother who lives in Kentucky. He bought them bus tickets to Kentucky, where he lives.
“We never lost faith and hope that we were going to cross,” she said. “That all the suffering we went through wasn’t going to be in vain.”