DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. The situation is getting worse for asylum-seekers who are being sent back to Mexico to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. More than 30,000 of them are waiting in border towns like Nuevo Laredo, where cartels and gangs are wreaking havoc. Now those criminal elements are targeting the migrants who fled their Central American homes and are waiting in these towns, hoping to be allowed into America. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: U.S. immigration agents practiced their riot control on the international bridge between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, one morning this week.
UNIDENTIFIED AGENTS: (Chanting unintelligibly).
BURNETT: They drill regularly with helmets and shields in case desperate asylum-seekers in Mexico rush the port of entry. It's a real concern as desperation grows. Migrants are being told to come back in December for their first immigration hearing. Meantime, the long wait in Nuevo Laredo has become treacherous. To give you an idea how bad things are, a fearsome gun battle erupted on the main boulevard to the airport Wednesday afternoon. Cars careened off the thoroughfare in terror while rival narcos blasted away at each other. A driver posted a video on Facebook.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
BURNETT: The Cartel of the Northeast operates with impunity in Nuevo Laredo. They cruise around town in olive-drab pickups with Tropas del Infierno - Soldiers from Hell - emblazoned on the doors. And extorting migrants is their latest income stream. Three weeks ago, a pastor named Aaron Mendez, who ran the Love migrant house, was kidnapped. One news report says Mendez refused to turn over Cuban migrants to the extortionists, so they grabbed him. A spokesman for the state prosecutor's office says the pastor remains missing, and the investigation continues.
All of this makes father Julio Lopez extremely anxious. He's director of the Nazareth Migrant House. He won't talk about organized crime in his city. It's too risky. But he has plenty to say about the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico program, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols - or MPP. Under the program, some 4,500 asylum applicants have been returned to Nuevo Laredo to wait.
JULIO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) In Spanish, the program has the initials PPM. For me, it's PMM - plan of lies for migrants because there is no protection.
BURNETT: Lopez has seen it himself - kidnapping is rampant. Migrants cower in fear in the city's shelters, including his own. Mexico's National Immigration Institute has been providing migrants with free bus trips to Monterrey and Tapachula in the far south of the country to get them out of crime-ridden Nuevo Laredo.
CESAR ANTUNES: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: A Honduran named Cesar Antunes (ph), reached by phone, was on one of those buses last week and related a terrifying tale. He says pickups full of mafiosos blocked a government-contracted bus on its way out of the city. They ordered a dozen migrants off the bus and into their cars. Antunes says he heard this account from a passenger who was on the ambushed bus.
ANTUNES: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "Nuevo Laredo is more dangerous than San Pedro Sula, Honduras," he says, "which is where I fled." The Mexican government agreed to accept asylum-seekers sent back from U.S. ports of entry and to deploy security forces to its own borders to stop migrants. Customs and Border Protection Chief Mark Morgan called Mexico's cooperation a game changer. As a result, the number of migrants in U.S. Border Patrol custody has dropped dramatically in the last two months. Morgan says he was unaware asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico were targets for criminals. Here he is in a Q&A with a reporter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK MORGAN: In Mexico, I don't know. I haven't heard anything like that. I haven't heard any reported...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You haven't heard any reports of extortion, kidnapping, rape in northern - in northern border towns in Mexico from the MPP program?
MORGAN: Not with respect to the MPP program.
BURNETT: The CBP chief may have gotten his misinformation from Mexican officials, like the office for disappeared persons in Nuevo Laredo. The chief investigator there told me, we have received no reports of kidnappings and extortion of migrants. Those are just rumors. You can't believe everything those people say.
Back in Father Julio's shelter, Liceth Morales (ph), a small woman with a young son and a high voice, is relating what befell them.
LICETH MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "It's dangerous in Nuevo Laredo. Lots of things can happen," she says, her lip trembling. She says they fled out-of-control crime in Honduras, thinking they could find refuge in the United States. But when she arrived at the Nuevo Laredo bus station, she says young men with tattoos and ball caps grabbed her and her son and held them prisoner for three weeks in safe houses. Ultimately, she says, her family in San Antonio paid $8,000 for her freedom.
Finally, she crossed the Rio Grande to the U.S., asked for asylum and was sent right back to Nuevo Laredo. This week, Liceth Morales decided to abandon her asylum request and return to Honduras on that free daily bus to southern Mexico. Father Julio, the shelter operator, says most of the other migrants are doing the same thing - going home. The Mexican government points to crime and violence in Nuevo Laredo as a reason for the migrants to leave.
LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "It's the perfect excuse to get rid of them," the priest says, "because the government doesn't want them here."
John Burnett, NPR News, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHITA'S "MIZORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.