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EXCLUSIVE: Mexican officials are extorting thousands of dollars from migrants applying for asylum

Corrupt officials and cartels demand as much as $3,500 just for the privilege of standing in line.

by Emily Green
Mar 13 2019, 4:43pm

REYNOSA, Mexico — The “psycho-terror,” as Andreina calls it, started as soon as she stepped off the plane here in February and showed her Venezuelan passport. Mexican immigration officials separated her and the other Venezuelans from the line and pulled them into a room in the airport, one by one.

“They started to verbally attack me, to tell me that they were going to send me back to Venezuela. And then they said to my face, ‘How much money did you bring?’” said Andreina, 42, who is using her middle name to protect her safety.

Andreina opened her wallet — she had $400 to get her from Venezuela to the U.S. Immigration officials took it all. One agent told her “Good luck, get out of here,” and then directed her to a line of taxis that would take her to the bridge linking Reynosa to McAllen, Texas, where she wanted to ask for asylum.

Corruption and organized crime have long been a part of daily life along the Mexican side of the border. But corruption has become even more brazen over the past year, as Mexican immigration officials and organized crime are preying on migrants, charging them thousands for the privilege of simply waiting in line in Mexico to claim asylum in the U.S. The strict limitations on asylum seekers enacted under the Trump administration has turned the process into a lucrative business for corrupt Mexican officials and cartels.

The Trump administration has adopted several strategies to dissuade would-be asylum seekers from entering the U.S. from Mexico, to little effect. With so many asylum seekers arriving, Border Patrol now admits only a few migrants a day, if that, at ports of entry — a policy known as metering. Soon after that practice began across the southern border last summer, Mexican immigration officials began charging migrants up to $3,500 to access certain ports of entry and add their name to a waitlist of asylum seekers.

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Many of the migrants trying to reach the United States are traveling with young children. At the encampment beneath the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge, two young kids eat snacks brought by a volunteer. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE News)

Across broad swaths of the U.S.-Mexico border, applying for asylum has become a matter of not only of waiting but also of paying bribes to corrupt officials — many of whom are suspected of working in concert with organized crime.

VICE News spoke with and reviewed recorded testimonies of 10 migrants who said they were extorted or witnessed others being extorted by Mexican immigration officials in Reynosa and Matamoros, two of the busiest ports of entry between Mexico and Texas. Some were shaken down in backroom immigration offices or at the airport when they arrived. Others were woken up in the middle of the night in the shelters where they had taken refuge, and told to pay up or get out. All were threatened with deportation if they didn’t pay.

“We got to the bridge around 9 a.m. to apply for political asylum,” said Misleydis, a Cuban migrant who arrived at the bridge in Reynosa in late February planning to ask for political asylum. She asked to withhold her last name. “Immediately a Mexican immigration official arrived and took us to an office. He told us we would be deported, that he didn’t want us here. After all the things he said, what he really wanted was money.”

Want asylum? Time to pay

Paying the bribe doesn’t assure the migrants will get asylum in the U.S. It just gives them the chance to wait their turn to apply at a port of entry instead of attempting to enter the U.S. illegally via dangerous treks across the desert and Rio Grande River.

“The U.S. policies of not quickly and effectively processing asylum seekers is feeding the ground for corruption in Mexico”

The Trump administration has implored migrant parents to present themselves and their children at ports of entry to “enter legally and safely” rather than crossing the border illegally. This message took on new urgency after the deaths of two migrant children in December who crossed the border illegally with their parents. But the metering system has exposed migrants to extortion from both Mexican officials and cartels, which have divided up the border into their own areas of dominance.

“The U.S. policies of not quickly and effectively processing asylum seekers is feeding the ground for corruption in Mexico,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney working along the border. She said she told lawyers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the corruption she was seeing at the ports of entry. “They told me, ‘Oh, that’s Mexico. We don’t have anything to do with Mexico. We can’t control what happens in Mexico.’”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which didn’t respond to an interview request. Neither did Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which oversees the ports of entry on the Mexican side. Instead, a representative sent VICE News a March 1 press release that said it had closed immigrant services in Reynosa because of the “lack of minimal conditions.”

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A 16-year-old girl cleans clothes by hand at the encampment beneath the Brownsville - Matamoros International Bridge. The family fled Honduras because her father was physically abusive. The family wants to apply for asylum in the U.S. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE News)

As of last week, around 30 adult asylum seekers and 10 children were still living and sleeping on the bridge in Reynosa waiting their turn to apply for asylum, while Mexican immigration officials milled around. Some had been there for seven days, leaving only to go to the bathroom and relying on church volunteers to bring them food and water so they didn’t lose their place in line.

For months, most of the migrants on the bridge in Reynosa have been Cuban and Venezuelan. People from both countries need visas to enter the U.S. Asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – who comprise the majority of migrants crossing into the U.S. – tend to come with smugglers who take them across the Rio Grande River. Central Americans who go to the ports of entry are at high risk of being deported by Mexican immigration officials because they don’t have the money to pay bribes, and most don't have visas that allow them to remain in Mexico.

When Andreina got to the bridge in Reynosa, she said she was once again stopped by a Mexican immigration official. The agent took her passport and led her into a small office. He asked her how much money she carried with her. “None,” she responded – she had handed it all over at the airport.

To her relief, the official gave Andreina back her passport and told her to try her luck at the port of entry in Matamoros, an hour’s drive away. “If you stay here, something could happen to you,” he told her.

Andreina may have been lucky. Telemundo aired a report in February showing videos of migrants who said they were being held in a subterranean prison in the Mexican immigration center in Reynosa and told they couldn’t leave until they paid $3,500.

One church activist who volunteers multiple times a week on the bridge in Reynosa said Central Americans who arrive are generally removed immediately by Mexican officials and held in the immigration offices until they are deported.

Instead, Andreina was left to negotiate on her own in Reynosa, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico and located in a state, Tamaulipas, that carries the State Department’s most severe travel warning.

Cartels and corrupt officials

Criminal groups use kidnapping and extortion, often of migrants, to bankroll their organizations. On March 7, a group of armed men stopped a commuter bus en route to Reynosa and kidnapped 19 men, believed to be Central American migrants travelling north to the United States. Despite these dangers, the Trump administration is currently in the process of rolling out a policy across the southern border that requires migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum claim is processed in the U.S.

Andreina took a bus to Matamoros, which is only marginally safer than Reynosa, and arrived around 11 p.m. to the ad hoc shelter that has sprung up beneath the bridge separating the town from Brownsville, Texas. This time, a fellow migrant told her: “If you stay here, they are going to charge you. A person from migration is going to come. If not today, then tomorrow.”

As warned, a Mexican immigration official approached her the next day. “He said to my face, ‘You know how things work around here?’” she recalled. The official told her she had to pay $250 to add her name to the list of asylum seekers. Andreina’s husband — who had fled Venezuela to the U.S. six months earlier — wired her the money.

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In Reynosa, around 30 adult migrants and 10 children are living on the bridge, waiting their turn to apply for asylum in the U.S. They routinely live on the bridge for up to 10 days, leaving only to go to the bathroom, for fear of losing their turn. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE

“We are completely helpless,” she said. “People kept arriving every day, and [the official] kept charging. He knew who had arrived, who had paid, and who hadn’t paid. It was as if he had a camera in his eye.”

Human rights workers suspect Mexican immigration officials of working in tandem with organized crime. In 2011, Mexican prosecutors investigated six immigration agents in Tamaulipas for kidnapping 120 migrants trying to seek asylum in the U.S. and turning them over to cartels.

“The cartels control almost all migrant movement in Reynosa”

“The cartels control almost all migrant movement in Reynosa. When it comes to migrants crossing in-between ports of entry, and to some extent migrants crossing at the bridge, very little happens there without the cartel’s approval,” said Ellie Ezzell, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin who is investigating migratory patterns along the border.

The Mexican Institute of Migration has taken some steps to combat the corruption. At the end of February, it dismissed two officials — one in Reynosa and one in Matamoros — that many migrants told VICE News were the ringleaders.

But lawyers and human rights workers doubt the corruption will end with their dismissals. Rafael Alonso Hernández López, president of the Citizens Counsel of the National Institute of Migration, said firing a few corrupt officials doesn’t take care of the problem. “There needs to be an exhaustive investigation that can lead to other consequences, whether that be criminal charges or disqualification from being a public employee,” he said.

The extortion and threats have left migrants, already scarred from the situations they are fleeing, even more traumatized.

“You guys know how things work here?”

One Venezuelan man, Joharvy, arrived in mid-February with his brother and his brother’s family. The 28-year-old, who didn’t want to use his last name because he was scared of Mexican immigration officials, had fled Venezuela in 2017 and moved to Ecuador with his family.

But he said they suffered discrimination in Ecuador, which has seen a massive influx of Venezuelans over the past year as the situation there deteriorated. In early February, the family pulled together all their money and started the trek to Reynosa. They had heard it was dangerous but that migrants were able to get through. But when they got to Reynosa, they heard about immigration officials extorting migrants. So they headed to Matamoros. “We thought things here were going to be normal. We put our names on the list,” Joharvy said.

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At the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge, kids play with each late into the night. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE

They checked in to a motel near the bridge because there wasn’t space at the shelter. The next day, they got word that an immigration official was looking for them to charge them money. After they spent two days trying to avoid him, the official sent an intermediary, “Tony.” He was a “big guy, with light skin and thick fingers,” Joharvy recalled. Tony told Joharvy and his brother to come with him for a ride in his Suburban.

“And the words he used were, ‘You guys know how things work here?’ And my brother said, ‘Yeah, we put our names on the list.’ And he said, ‘No, things are not that way. If you all want to stay on the list, you have to pay.’”

But it wasn’t just a question of staying on the list. Tony told them that if they didn’t pay, he would take their passports and rip up their paperwork showing they could legally be in Mexico. Tony demanded $250 per person, which amounted to $1,250 for the group of five. They paid him with $20 bills that they had brought with them from Ecuador.

Even then, the family waited for weeks to be processed for asylum. Joharvy’s brother, who was traveling with his wife and young son, passed into U.S. custody after three weeks. Joharvy and his brother-in-law spent a month in Matamoros waiting for U.S. officials to allow them to pass.

“I never in my life thought I was going to get here and be extorted,” Joharvy said. “But what was I going to do? I was scared. After so much effort to get here, I prefer to give him all our money than have to return.”

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A migrant washes her hair at an encampment in Matamoros beneath the bridge connecting the city to Brownsville, Texas. The encampment arose after the Trump administration started limiting the number of asylum seekers it accepts at ports of entry to just a day of that, if that. Migrants in Matamoros routinely wait a month or more for their turn to apply. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE News)

Cover image: Migrants wait in the cold on the Reynosa-Hidalgo bridge while in line to be received by U.S. immigration authorities. EL UNIVERSAL/EELG (GDA via AP Images)