NUEVO PROGRESO, Mexico (Border Report) — Emma and Leostan Valdez, a married couple in their mid-20s from Camaguey, Cuba, have been camping at the base of the Progreso–Nuevo Progreso International Bridge since May 28, hoping the Mexican government will soon call their numbers and allow them to cross the bridge to claim asylum in the United States.
Sleeping in tents and hammocks under a small crop of trees alongside other Cubans and a couple of Venezuelans they met there, these migrants come from countries not among those that immigrants claiming asylum in South Texas typically hail from. Most immigrants crossing into the Rio Grande Valley since the surge began in 2014 have come from Mexico and the Central America countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
But with all of the Texas bridges on the Southwest border backed up with migrants wanting to claim asylum, Emma, 26, said she believes this is her and her husband’s best chance.
The Trump Administration is clamping down on asylum seekers and has implemented a metering system at international bridges, allowing just two to five per day to claim asylum. This is causing a massive backlog at all of the bridges, and shelters in Mexico. Mexican immigration officials oversee the system, which U.S. immigration advocates claim is rife with discrimination and corruption and preferential treatment is given to those who can pay more.
Cubans used to be exempt from such perils under a longstanding and controversial Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy, which permitted Cubans who crossed into the United States on land, not water, permanent U.S. residency. In January 2017, however, the Obama Administration ended that policy prompting a surge of Cubans to cross west in Laredo. And now they are trying their luck in the Rio Grande Valley.
53 days and counting
“We’ve been here 53 days on this bridge,” Emma Valdez told Border Report on Saturday in Spanish, as she sat in temperatures nearing 100 degrees.
Their washed clothes hung on a rope strung from a tree to the nearby window of a building at the base of the bridge. A portable radio blasted Caribbean music and a card table with dominoes was the only form of entertainment for this new group of acquaintances who each day wait and hope that Mexican officials will call their number.
Emma is No. 7. Leostan is No. 8. They said that Mexican authorities recently told them that they are the last group of migrants who will be allowed to live on the bridge.
“There were more than 100 people from Cuba; now there are just nine people left on the list,” Emma said. “All the other bridges are full. This is the one with the least amount of people.”
All the other bridges are full. This is the one with the least amount of people”Emma Valdez, 26, Cuban immigrant
Emma said they waited at a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for two months but were never issued a number. They then went to the Matamoros bridge across from Brownsville, “where I was No. 1,374,” she said.
Mexican immigration officials would not speak to reporters, nor allow themselves to be photographed, but several people asked by Border Report said that once Emma’s group is called — if they are called — then no others will be allowed to take their place.
Desperate for their numbers to be called, several people have run across the bridge in a phenomenon that federal officials are calling “bridge runners.”
Emma and Leostan, both young and fit, also could make a run for the middle of the bridge, they said. “But we didn’t do it because we want to cross the right way,” Leostan, 25, said in Spanish.
“We have a lot of family in Cuba who also wants to emigrate and if we cross illegally then they won’t have a chance,” said Emma, who worked at a hotel in Cuba and said they left their island nation “because the government is very corrupt.”
Days of waiting and watching others run
The northbound pedestrian side of the Nuevo Progreso bridge is littered with the belongings of people who have waited before. Stacked air mattresses, pairs of shoes, bug spray, jugs of water and clothing is sprawled end to end from the base in Mexico to the midpoint.
Just feet from the middle of this bridge — an area where some migrants of late have sprinted to claim asylum — 64-year-old Alfonso Pena, of Venezuela, laid on a beaten up air mattress on Saturday. Despite his advanced years, Pena also says he could make a run for it. But Pena, who was a taxi driver in Venezuela, said he won’t do that. He wants to cross legally, “the right way.” So far, he has waited 58 days.
The air mattress that he rests on was left by somebody whose number was called up. Eyeing the closeness of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, Pena smiles and shakes his head that freedom is just feet away. But he says he won’t fall to temptation and he’s waited too long to mess up his chances now.
“I’ll be here until they call my name. Today two people were called,” he said. “But we were just told this is the last group able to stay on the bridge because of the tourism.”
‘Get them off the bridge’
Not everyone is empathetic to those camping at the base of the bridge, however. Jose “Chilo” Dominguez, who works for a dentist in Nuevo Progreso, said the asylum-seekers are bad for tourism and business.
“I hope they get them off the bridge because they stop a lot of traffic, the Americans coming over here to us,” he told Border Report.
This vibrant border city is a popular tourist destination for “Winter Texans” (seniors from Canada and northern U.S. states who spend their winters in South Texas) to come buy prescriptions, get dental work done, and buy Mexican trinkets. It has always been a safe, smaller port of entry, where Americans have readily hiked over the bridge and onto the drag for an afternoon of shopping.
But now, Dominguez says, they are being fearful of the migrants camped on the bridge, and the concertina wire and high fencing put up by CBP officers to try and stop bridge runners.
“Sometimes they run across the bridge and when they do that all the traffic stops for an hour or two,” he said pointing to a long line of cars waiting to cross the bridge. “We don’t need that.”