NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — Abel Oset was seized with panic. After an 11-country odyssey that began when he and his namesake son fled Cuba, and included a moment on U.S. soil, he was crossing back into America. But he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay.
The two were going to plead their case in a court inside a tent in Laredo, Texas, beamed via video conference to a judge in another city — the latest attempt to clear a massive backlog of asylum cases.
They were among more than 100 people on Tuesday’s docket — though only 38 had arrived. So much depended on this hearing: Oset dreaded the very real possibility — probability, actually — that he and his 22-year-old son would be sent back over the international bridge to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and its cartels and violence.
Awaiting his hearing in the predawn hours, Oset lay on the floor of an immigration building. He spoke of the criminals who stalk the bridge, picking off immigrants. He and his son were targeted by kidnappers twice but had no money and were turned loose with warnings not to return.
“Those who arrive are being taken, one by one,” he said.
Some people awaiting hearings arrived at the bridge before sunset Monday from Monterrey, hundreds of miles from the border. Others left city hostels early to avoid moving at night.
At least 42,000 people have been forced back into Mexico after crossing the border, according to the U.S. government. Many say they fled violence or threats in their home countries and hope to get political asylum.
The Department of Homeland Security said it planned to spend $155 million to build and operate the tent courts but expects the costs to be less. Critics have denounced the proceedings because they are closed to the public and difficult for attorneys to access.
President Trump’s top lieutenants on immigration and border enforcement toured the tent complex in Laredo on Tuesday, defending their “remain in Mexico” policy. The complex includes several rooms where court hearings are held, people wait and children can read storybooks in Spanish.
During the tour, there were 15 immigrants in a processing room and two dozen in a room where people await a decision on their case. With the temperature outside approaching 100 degrees, air-conditioning units blasted cold air through the tents, creating a din that makes it difficult to hear.
Many of the people making court appearances complain of the dangers they face as they are forced to wait in crime-ridden Nuevo Laredo. The U.S. government has warned Americans not to travel to the area, citing safety concerns.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan defended the remain in Mexico policy, calling it a reasonable alternative to separating and detaining families in the United States.
“You are seeing a team effort across four agencies and two departments to run an expeditious lawful process so that families are staying together during their process so that they can wait in a non-detained setting for their hearing,” he said.
“We’re getting more integrity into the system to deter those who don’t have valid claims from making the journey,” McAleenan said.
For Trump, curbing immigration remains his signature issue. A major aim of his programs is to deter people from coming to the southern border.
Mexico has cracked down on emigrants coming to its southern border, and the United States is working on such agreements with other Central American countries.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week made it vastly more difficult for people to win asylum, allowing the new rules to take effect during litigation challenging them. The new rules bar anyone who passed through another country from claiming asylum, though some other protections may still be available.
The Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory, prohibits deporting people to a country at war. Though there is no open, nation-based warfare in Central America today, refuge-seekers from the Middle East and Africa also are seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Oset hoped that because he came before July 16, when the regulations took effect, he would pass. But he had to persuade the judge he was afraid to return not only to his home country, but to Mexico.
“I fall into the old law, and I think that can help us,” he said.
He got lucky; he and his son were allowed into the United States, but 10 other adults and three children in the group were returned.
The two arrived at the border in April. They fled Cuba when a neighbor reported him to state security for watching a documentary about the Castro family’s possessions, and he was beaten, Oset said. He was returned to Mexico to wait for his asylum hearing.
Immigrants and advocates trying to help in Mexican border cities have reported families sleeping in overcrowded shelters, boarding houses or outdoor camps. Many have been bused south by Mexico to cities considered safer, though there was no guarantee that they would be able to return. And there have been multiple, near-daily reports of kidnapping, rape and extortion in Mexican border cities, inflicted by gangs and by police.
The U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley chief recently testified that the agency was sending more than 1,000 people a week to Tamaulipas.
Margarita Arredondo, pastor of an evangelical church, converted her home into a shelter and helps immigrants make their hearings.
“You have to give them protection because Mexico is not a safe country; that is very clear,” she said.
According to data from Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, nearly half of those who were sent to Mexico from the United States returned to their home countries.
“They don’t want us anywhere — Mexicans reject us, too,” said a 29-year-old Honduran woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was afraid.
She said she had just learned about the murder of a friend in Intibucá, where she fled, leaving two children behind with her mother after the gangs threatened her.
She has no documents, common among people who flee their homes quickly out of fear.
Her eyes fill with tears when asked what she will do if she is returned to Nuevo Laredo.
“God will see,” she said.