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The city of Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has long been a migrant gateway to the United States.
In mid-May, Mexican authorities said at least 14,500 asylum-seekers either have passed through Juárez on their way to the U.S. or were still waiting in Juárez for their opportunity to apply.
A large share of the migrant flow is coming from Cuba and Central America. But Juárez has also become a destination for people fleeing any number of conflicts and oppression around the world. That includes people from Africa.
As soon as they get my story, they will believe me and I’ll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That’s my power. – Florant, migrant from Cameroon
In one Juárez migrant shelter, El Albergue Buen Pastor, or the Good Shepherd Shelter, people from Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been passing through in recent months.
The migration mosaic here, however, is changing. It now includes people from at least three African countries: Angola, Uganda and Cameroon.
Florant is from Cameroon, in central Africa. Like the other African migrants, he asked that his last name not be used as he fears retribution against his family in Cameroon. He’s waiting for his turn to speak to U.S. border officials about his asylum claim.
“As soon as they get my story, they will believe me and I’ll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That’s my power,” said Florant.
To complete the first step in the asylum process, Florant must pass a “credible fear” interview with U.S. officials. He must establish that he fears persecution in his home country and that this persecution is a result of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion or because he is of a particular social group.
Tamra, from Uganda, said she’s bracing herself for that interview.
She said it will be difficult to recount what she claims happened to her. “Painful, very painful. That is why I cannot even share my story,” she said.
When they arrive in Juárez, migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. must first give their names to Mexican authorities. Each person gets a number and is put on a list of those waiting to cross the border. Each day, U.S. officials ask Mexican authorities to send over a given number of people identified by those numbers for an initial hearing in El Paso.
Musika, from Uganda, said he and two friends had tried to present themselves to U.S. authorities on the Paso del Norte International Bridge as soon as they arrived in Juárez three weeks ago. But they were sent back.
“We had to go back and wait for another time when we are permitted,” he explained. He is now on that list.
Everyone in the group at this shelter lamented having to leave their families and friends in Africa. But they were fleeing violence and, for some, persecution by the authorities. Human Rights Watch says Cameroon is in crisis, with killings by separatists being met by a government scorched-earth policy. Uganda is plagued by civil unrest and human rights abuses.
John is from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. He claimed he was psychologically scarred after soldiers took him away from what he said was a peaceful, anti-government demonstration.
“I was personally detained for eight days. I didn’t know where they’d taken me. I was stepped on, beaten,” he stated.
Some people in this group flew from Nairobi, Kenya, to Brazil and then headed north through Colombia and Central America on a journey that took several months.
The Africans said they’d heard that Juárez is a violent place. Yet, they said they felt safe here. But the tension is palpable.
[Honest people] don’t slip in the backyard or the window. They go legally, through the front door. – Pedro Luis Tamayo, Cuban migrant waiting in Juárez, Mexico
With the wait for a first asylum interview now several months long, and with concerns that the border could possibly be sealed, shelter director Juan Fierro García said people are growing anxious.
“People want to cross legally,” he said. But in March, when President Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico, things changed. “Some people just left the next day and crossed illegally,” he said.
Central American migrants have been the largest group asking for asylum in recent months, up and down the border. But in Juárez, the migrant population is now dominated by Cubans: At least 80% of those now waiting to ask for asylum are from Cuba, according to Mexican authorities. One Cuban man, 52-year-old Pedro Luis Tamayo, said he’d been a dissident in Cuba. He said even if his application is rejected, he will not enter the U.S. illegally.
Honest people “don’t slip in the backyard or the window,” he said. “They go legally, through the front door.”
A few feet away, Michael from Uganda said he had finally received his number two days before.
“12,631,” he said.
That means at least a two-month wait.
Shelter director Fierro said no one will be asked to leave his shelter, but given the large number of migrants continuing to arrive here, he said they may soon run out of room.
Freelance reporter Lorne Matalon frequently covers stories in Latin America and at the U.S.-Mexico border.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today is the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season. Many communities in Florida’s Panhandle still struggle to recover from Hurricane Michael. Michael was a Category 5 hurricane with 160-mile-per-hour winds. It shredded thousands of houses in Panama City and surrounding communities. It’s an area that’s long had some of Florida’s weakest building codes. From Panama City, NPR’s Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Everyone who was in Panama City when Michael hit has a story to tell, including Christina Harding.
CHRISTINA HARDING: Then we had to tie the door shut because Michael was trying to come in the house with us, which was not what we wanted. And then it was just bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.
ALLEN: After the storm, she stepped outside. She says it looked like a bomb had gone off.
HARDING: This guy right here across the road on the side street here – his house was just completely caved in on the backside. We saw these trailers coming apart across the road.
ALLEN: Harding lost some fencing and a window from flying debris, but otherwise, her house was largely OK. She expected it would be. She helped build it with Habitat for Humanity and knew how strong it was. Many others weren’t as fortunate.
MARGO ANDERSON: We had 254 houses wiped off the earth in our city.
ALLEN: Margo Anderson is the mayor of Lynn Haven, a small community next door to Panama City. She says some of the old homes dating back to the city’s founding came through the hurricane OK, but that wasn’t the case with more recent construction.
ANDERSON: Some of the houses – as we drive around and you look – that were built in the hurricane-preventative times with the trusses that were supposed to work and the windows that weren’t supposed to come out – you will see they didn’t do as well.
ALLEN: Nearly 20 years ago, after Hurricane Andrew, Florida adopted a statewide construction code. That code established minimum wind speeds buildings would have to withstand. But until 2008, much of the Panhandle, including Panama City, was granted an exception to the code. Leslie Chapman-Henderson, who heads the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, says that code exception proved costly.
LESLIE CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: If we had not had that in place for seven years, the homes that were just hit by Michael last year would’ve been so much stronger. But they weren’t because of shortsighted policy.
ALLEN: That policy changed eventually, but wind speed standards along the Panhandle are still lower than many other parts of the state. One reason for that is that the region had never experienced a major hurricane until Michael.
One builder on the Panhandle has always gone well beyond the minimum requirements of the construction code – Habitat for Humanity.
LANCE RETTIG: So these are two new homes that we’re building.
ALLEN: Lance Rettig is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Bay County. He says the impetus for going beyond required construction codes comes from the group’s insistence on building homes habitat strong.
Habitat’s construction manager in Bay County is Ross Potts.
ROSS POTTS: Our houses did really well, in part due to our hip roofs. So there was nothing for the wind to grab and rip off. The steel on the roof that – also key.
ALLEN: And there are lots of other elements making these homes hurricane-resistant – thicker plywood; screws, not nails – one every six inches, fastening windows to the walls; more go-bolts, long, threaded rods that connect the roof beams to the home’s foundation; and screws, not nails, on the roof. It takes a bit more time, Rettig says, but doesn’t cost that much more.
RETTIG: The difference is maybe a thousand dollars. You know, it’s twice as many nails, a little bit of an upgrade in wood and go-bolts that are incrementally not that much of a difference.
ALLEN: After the last Category 5 hurricane hit Florida nearly 30 years ago, the state revamped its building code. This time, Leslie Chapman-Henderson says, there’s been little movement in that direction.
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: After Hurricane Michael, one would expect that the policy direction would be toward adopting stronger codes. We have not seen that to be the case.
ALLEN: A bill introduced earlier this year in Florida’s Legislature included a directive to strengthen the state’s building code. It died in committee after two hearings. Greg Allen, NPR News, Panama City, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.