Editor’s Note: Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator whose work focuses on migration, human rights and gender equality. She is based in Mexico City. Driver is the author of “More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.” In this piece, Driver is using first names only, so as not to compromise any future asylum cases. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the photo that became imprinted on our collective consciousness overnight, a father and his 23-month-old daughter are face down in the water, their drowned bodies nestled together, embracing even in death.
Oscar Alberto Martínez and his family, originally from El Salvador, were staying in a migrant camp, waiting for an appointment to receive asylum in the United States, when he and his daughter Angie Valeria drowned, according to his wife. Sadly, their deaths do not surprise me. I have spent the past two years reporting on asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border from Tijuana to Juárez to Piedras Negras to Nuevo Laredo to Reynosa to Matamoros. The Trump administration has made a continuous push to limit the right to request asylum – the primary tactic being cruelty under the guise of policy.
Martínez and his daughter died waiting to request asylum, a process which current administration policy has fundamentally changed. And the waiting can mean the difference between life and death.
When Martínez and his family arrived in Matamoros, they joined the mass of individuals waiting to request asylum. In May 2019, I reported from Matamoros with National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer, and I met asylum seekers who had been living in tents for months beside the Brownsville and Matamoros Express International Bridge while waiting for the opportunity to request asylum. The asylum seekers I interviewed had become victims of a policy that the Trump administration calls “metering.”
Here is what “metering” looked like for asylum seekers in Matamoros and neighboring Reynosa. Asylum seekers would hear via word of mouth that there is an asylum list. In some places, that list was managed by the directors of migrant shelters, and in other places by migrants themselves or by Mexican immigration officials. Once asylum seekers got their name on the list, they were given a slip of paper with a number on it. In Matamoros, asylum seekers told me that US Customs and Border Protection officers asked them to send one migrant to walk halfway across the international bridge each hour between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day to see if there was room for them.
There were days and weeks when US Customs and Border Protection officers accepted no asylum seekers, and many who were required to send someone to check in every hour reported feeling depressed and desperate. And when US Customs and Border Protection officers did accept asylum seekers, they would request, for example, five pregnant women. This meant that if a family was next in line to request asylum on the list, they would be skipped over in favor of the pregnant women.
Nayeli, 12, who had traveled from Honduras with her mother and brother, told me she had been waiting on the asylum list for almost two months. She worried about being kidnapped while living in a tent in an area known for cartel violence. Michele, 25, who had traveled from Cuba to request political asylum in the United States, had also been waiting for two months, and he was worried because he had run out of medication for hypertension and didn’t have money for more. He thought with all the stress he might have a heart attack. Michele, like the others on the asylum list, had no idea when he would be allowed to request asylum. He described the experience of trying to request asylum as “psychological warfare.”
As I witnessed, asylum seekers often arrive at the border with nothing, having experienced significant trauma. For families like Martínez’s, the stress of providing safe housing, food, and any other necessities – especially when the process of requesting asylum has turned into a torturous guessing game – can be overwhelming. Given that many migrant shelters are full, asylum seekers either find the money to pay for a hotel for months or, like so many I interviewed, live in tents. Beyond those dangers, by forcing asylum seekers to stay in Mexico, the United States is limiting their right to due process, including access to attorneys.
Asylum seekers now face a reality in which they or their family members are living in conditions that put their lives at risk before being allowed to request asylum in the United States. Due to shelter overcrowding in Mexico, they often have nowhere to live and thus end up in tents or camping under bridges. In Tamaulipas, a state controlled by drug cartels, migrants are likely to be threatened or kidnapped by cartels. And given that asylum seekers have little or no money, any medical issue can turn into a life or death situation for those who can’t afford medicine or a hospital stay.
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In Matamoros, in June, temperatures top 100 degrees, and parents and children alike deal with heat stroke in places where they usually have limited access to water. Multiply these situations times two or three months, and you can imagine the desperation that asylum seekers feel. In the face of such a choice, many like Martínez and his family are driven to take measures like swimming across the Rio Grande.
The asylum process exists to provide protection from persecution, and it is a measure designed to safeguard the lives of the most vulnerable. If Martínez and his daughter had been allowed to request asylum at a US port of entry upon their arrival, as was their legal right, they might still be alive today. Instead, they found themselves facing exactly what asylum seekers flee: conditions that can lead to death.