JUAREZ, Mexico — Mexican authorities are calling for calm after a group of between 250 and 300 Cuban and Salvadoran migrants staged a near-riot early Monday at the Paso del Norte Bridge.
The migrants were upset because U.S. authorities did not call anyone to initial asylum petition interviews on Saturday or Sunday, Juarez officials said. A crowd began to gather on the Mexican side of the bridge on Sunday night, and advanced toward the American side early Monday morning.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded by deploying officers in riot gear and temporarily closed the bridge. All traffic lanes, including pedestrian lanes, were reopened at 5:25 a.m.
Mexican officials said the migrants waiting in Juarez for asylum appointments are getting restless, and officials fear further acts of civil disobedience.
“We are calling on those people who are waiting to be called to their appointments to keep calm and not participate in these type of actions,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez.
The center, run by the State of Chihuahua, is managing the waiting list of asylum seekers, serving as a go-between the migrants and CBP. The center issues numbers to the migrants, and CBP typically calls 15 to 20 numbers per day.
Valenzuela said there is growing tension among migrants enduring months-long waits. Many of them are running low on money and feel increasingly frustrated, he said.
Maury Silva, a 35-year-old Cuban migrant who has been sleeping on a park bench near the bridge, agrees that tempers are starting to run short.
“People don’t see any results. They’re getting desperate,” he said. “We are running out of money, that’s why we’re out here on benches. We can’t rent hotel rooms anymore and it’s dangerous to be on the streets here.”
A group of men and women gathered with him Monday near the Migrant Assistance Center denied taking part in the bridge protest, but said they are running out of options in Juarez.
“They are taking advantage of us here. We go to the stores to buy water and they charge us 10 pesos when we see that they only charge the Mexicans five,” a Cuban woman who declined to give her name said.
Another woman in the group said she suffered extortion at the hands of Mexican federal police, who demanded to see her humanitarian visa. She said she showed it to them but they still wanted to “fine” her $400. She said her mother in the United States had to wire her money to Juarez.
Silva said he, too, has endured extortion attempts. “I don’t think all Mexicans are like that, but since I crossed into Tapachula (on the southern border of Mexico), they have been trying to take advantage of me,” he said.
Mexico keeps tightening grip
In addition to anxiety over long waits for appointments and fending off street thugs and crooked cops, the migrants in Juarez now have to worry about increased enforcement of Mexican immigration law.
Last week, police and Mexican National Guard soldiers raided hotels near the Juarez airport, taking 12 Cubans into custody for not having travel visas. Word of the raid sent shockwaves through the Cuban migrant community, members of the group said.
On Monday, Mayor Armando Cabada reported the arrival of an additional 1,500 National Guard troops to the state, which will allow Mexican immigration officers to staff highway checkpoints around the clock.
“We are seeing a decrease in new asylum seekers. Whereas before we used to register about 130 new migrants per day, on Saturday we only saw seven. It fluctuates, but since the National Guard was deployed, there’s been days, like June 20, when we only got six,” said Dirvin Garcia Gutierrez, coordinator of the Migrant Assistance Center.
Mexican immigration officers and soldiers are now in all bus stations and airports in the state and are operating roadside checkpoints in the cities of Parral, Ojinaga, Villa Ahumada and Jimenez, Garcia said.
The migrants detained at these checkpoints are typically sent to detention facilities in Veracruz or in southern Chiapas state, and later returned to their home countries, he said.