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The U.S.'s new rules for asylum-seekers are sending more migrants to Mexico City


The Biden administration's new rules at the U.S.-Mexico border make many people ineligible for asylum. One of those rules says you can't request asylum in the U.S. unless you've already requested it in another country and been denied. For many, that means requesting asylum in Mexico. But as James Fredrick reports from Mexico City, it is not clear that Mexico is willing or able to be a safe haven.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: There's a refugee shelter in Mexico City called Cafemin, known as a calm, comfortable place people call home while their asylum case is decided. The scene today is chaos.

Every bit of space in the common area is taken up by people trying to find somewhere where they can lay down. Every bit of free wall space is taken up by people stacking their belongings. And as you can hear, the place is full of children and families.

Over the last week, Cafemin has been overwhelmed like never before. It's built for a hundred people, but 5- to 700 have been showing up at the door every day. It's putting pressure on everything, says Milien Jean, a 26-year-old Haitian here with her husband and 3-year-old son.

MILIEN JEAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says you wait in line for an hour for the bathroom. You wait days for a shower. Drinking water is running low, too. UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, is here today providing meals and information about asylum rules. Jean isn't sure if her family will request asylum in Mexico or try to go to the U.S. But she doesn't have much time to think. The overcrowded shelter is limiting stays to one week. Jean says she and her family will likely be back to sleeping on the street.

MAGDALENA SILVA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "This is extremely painful for me," says the shelter's director, Sister Magdalena Silva. They're between a rock and a hard place. Outside the front door right now are families with babies that were turned away for the day. They're not alone. Every migrant shelter in Mexico City NPR spoke with said they were well over capacity. And they're all angry at the government.

SILVA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Sister Magda says nonprofit shelters are the only ones making an effort. There's not the smallest bit of political will from the government to resolve this humanitarian crisis. As a result of U.S. policy, more people are requesting asylum in Mexico. At the refugee office in Mexico City alone, there have been more than 10,000 asylum requests this year, almost double last year. But beyond nonprofits and UNHCR, there's almost no support from the Mexican government for these people, says Melissa Vertiz from the Working Group on Migration Policy.

MELISSA VERTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says the Mexican government simply receives people, but does not create the conditions that would allow them to stay. The government prioritizes deportation over integration. Several government agencies did not respond to NPR's interview requests, but the Mexico City government has recently opened three temporary shelters for migrants. All this means that Mexico City is now experiencing what's become common in border cities, like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana - makeshift camps of migrants sleeping on the street. For the last few months, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood popular with tourists has had a new fixture.

It's a really stark contrast here. On one side of the street is this park where there are hundreds of migrants - most of them Haitians - camped out. And on the other side of the street, there's a cute, little restaurant, a nice coffee shop. It's just a really striking difference.

This makeshift camp near the refugee office has been cleared by authorities several times, but continues to reappear as migrants have nowhere else to go. I spoke to Milouse Xantus at the camp. She's also from Haiti.

MILOUSE XANTUS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I'm waiting for documents from the refugee office," she says. "We're all waiting for the same thing. The paperwork is confusing." For now, Xantus and her husband just want work permits so their family can afford somewhere to live. Then, they'll decide if they want to stay in Mexico or keep going north.

XANTUS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says it's really hard having her kids sleep in the park. They have no other choice but to live like this until God provides help. At this point, Xantus said she doesn't expect help from any government. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.