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Cubans, now without visa-free entry to the U.S., must wait out the asylum process in Juarez as part of Trump administration protocols. The Globe joined one couple on their quest to get their case approved amid increasingly difficult odds

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Cuban asylum seekers Gabriel Pascual Rodriguez and Lisandra Benitez Oliva eat breakfast in Juarez on the morning of their first court hearing in El Paso.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

The couple had brought almost nothing with them, not even their wedding rings. And now, in a rented bedroom on the Mexican border the night before their first court hearing in the United States, Gabriel Pascual Rodriguez could not remember how to knot a tie.

He had worn one only twice before, for his graduation from dentistry school and when he’d gotten married in December, 2018, almost exactly a year to the day. That was back then, before they were forced to flee Cuba in August and plunge into an uncertain future seeking asylum in the U.S.

It had been four months since Mr. Pascual Rodriguez, 26, and his wife, Lisandra Benitez Oliva, 25, both dentists, had arrived in Ciudad Juarez, on Mexico’s northern border with Texas, and surrendered to U.S. border officials.

“Why do you Cubans always turn yourselves into authorities?” the Mexican detainees caught crossing the border illegally had joked inside the El Paso detention centre.

For decades, Cubans migrants had been granted unique privileges. If they managed to make it to U.S. soil, they could be admitted without a visa and became eligible for permanent residency after just a year and a day.

But in 2017, the Obama administration had ended that visa-free entry as part of its efforts to restore diplomatic ties with the Communist island nation, forcing Cubans to join the long list of those seeking asylum through the courts.

As of January, 2019, the Trump administration began requiring asylum seekers to wait out the process in Mexico, under a program called the Migrant Protection Protocol. Now, there are more than 7,300 Cubans like Mr. Pascual Rodriguez and his wife languishing in Mexico, along with tens of thousands of other migrants, hoping for a shot at a new life in the United States. But for many, the door into the U.S. appears to be closing entirely.

After a brief stay in detention, the couple were handed a package of paperwork and a court date for December, and then driven back across the border, where they joined more than 56,000 other asylum seekers waiting in Mexico.

“I just want this to be over,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez said. He had not been able to find decent work since arriving in Mexico, and the couple rarely left their rented accommodations in Juarez, fearful of being attacked or robbed. The city of 1.3 million was one of the most violent in the world, with more than 1,400 murders in 2019. There had been more than 600 reported cases of rape, robbery and other violent assaults against migrants returned to Mexico by the Trump administration.

“I just want to go through the whole thing already,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez said. “Four months here and you feel like you’ll rot away. Like you’re doing nothing useful.”

The couple had been warned that their chances of being granted asylum were slim. Just 3 per cent of those who had gone through the full MPP court process had been given permission to stay in the United States. Most had been deported to their home countries.

More than half were still waiting for hearings, according to government data analyzed by Syracuse University. Nearly a third had not shown up at court and were ordered deported in absentia. Many more appeared to have withdrawn their applications.

Mr. Pascual Rodriguez and his wife knew some of this from the thousands of Cubans living in Juarez who had opened small restaurants and souvenir shops in the city. Many had abandoned their asylum claims – and with them, the temporary work permits that had allowed them to stay in Mexico until their U.S. court proceedings were finished. That meant they were now working illegally in hopes the Mexican government would allow them to stay. Officials in Juarez said they had seen a surge in marriages as migrants looked for ways to gain legal residency in Mexico.

Still, there was hope. The couple’s lawyer had called three days earlier with news that the judge in their case had granted asylum to a Cuban doctor a week before. So, they had cleared out the small bedroom and bathroom they’d been renting, and set aside their most important belongings to be sent to them in case they were allowed to remain in the United States.

The morning of their court hearing, Ms. Benitez Oliva removed four small photos of her family from the wallet she would be leaving in Mexico, sliding the pictures inside the cellphone case she planned to bring across the border.

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Ms. Benitez Oliva holds photos of her family. From top: Her father, shortly before his death in 2011; her father as a young man; her paternal grandmother before her death at age 108; her older brother, now 40 and living in the U.S., as a young man.The Globe and Mail

Ms. Benitez Oliva had been forced to give up a promising ballet career at the age of 15 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she had lost her father to lung cancer two years later. But these four months in Mexico often seemed harder. “I always had my family with me,” she said. “Here, I am alone.”

Mr. Pascual Rodriguez slipped on a brown leather coat, a gift from one of the clients he’d met while working a second job in Havana as a tour guide. The coat had been too warm for Cuba, but it was barely enough to protect against the -4 winters in northern Mexico.

A family from Nebraska who’d taken one of his tours and remained close with the young couple had tried to mail them a suit and dress for the hearing. But they couldn’t get the package across the border. So Mr. Pascual Rodriguez made do with what he had, enlisting his landlord to help knot his tie.

He picked up the folders of court papers. Inside were immigration documents and a half-dozen subpoenas from Cuban intelligence agents offering proof of why the couple had been forced to seek asylum. They also included affidavits from a handful of American and Canadian clients – some of whom had offered to fly to Texas to testify on the couple’s behalf. “Sending them back to Cuba would be a demise to their lives as well as ours,” wrote Steven and Christine Zeleny, the clients from Nebraska. “Please, we are pleading and begging and standing up to say that Gabriel and Lisandra’s lives depend on this outcome.”

They hoped it would be enough. “We might try to appeal to the judge’s good feelings,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez said as they headed out the door in time to arrive at the U.S. port of entry by 4:30 a.m., the cutoff to be transported to morning court. “Let’s see if she is going to let us go in and finish the process inside.”

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The couple ride in a pickup truck on their way to the U.S. border.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

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Signs point toward the border crossing.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

The pair had led a relatively privileged life in Cuba. They met in medical school and worked together in a large dental clinic at a hospital in Havana, earning the equivalent of US$42 a month. On the side, Mr. Pascual Rodriguez, fluent in English, made 20 times his government salary giving tours to the swelling numbers of U.S. cruise-ship passengers who began to arrive after former president Barack Obama took steps to restore relations with Cuba in 2016.

“I think new things are going to happen in Cuba,” Ms. Benitez Oliva told an American television news crew that year, when Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to visit in 88 years. “It’s a slow process, but we have to start in some moment. And I think this is the moment.”

Tourists would often ask about what life was really like in Cuba. And even though his employer had a policy of forbidding guides from discussing Cuban politics, Mr. Pascual Rodriguez had talked openly about the country’s single-party government, complaining about rigged elections and rampant corruption.

Until one day in December, 2018, when two plain-clothed police officers arrived in Old Havana, where Mr. Pascual Rodriguez was waiting to start a tour, and said he needed to come with them. At the station, intelligence officers put him in a cell, accused him of harassing tourists and interrogated him about which U.S. organization was paying for his information. He was arrested again three months later and forced to sign a restraining order preventing him from visiting the city’s tourist areas.

The couple moved to Mr. Pascual Rodriguez’s hometown in the country, but the surveillance didn’t stop. He received six subpoenas in two months, sometimes requiring him to show up at the local police station late at night.

According to documents they prepared for their asylum claim, the couple faced constant requests from hospital administrators to have their paperwork reviewed for mistakes. Mr. Pascual Rodriguez was banned from treating patients and reassigned to a mosquito control unit, spraying pesticides for a third of his salary. “That’s when we said we have to find a way to make a life again somewhere else,” he said. “Because it seemed like we were not going to have a life there.”

They paid US$600 for an appointment at the Mexican embassy to request a tourist visa under the guise of vacationing in Cancun.

Once in Mexico, they paid US$6,000 to a human smuggler who promised them an easy passage: a flight from Cancun to the border at El Paso and a priority spot on the list – now numbering more than 19,000 people – for an appointment with U.S. immigration officials at the bridge crossing. After a few days in detention, they would be headed to family in Florida to await the outcome of their asylum petition.

It had not turned out that way. The driver had instead pulled up 200 metres from the bridge and told the couple to run into a drainage ditch, past Mexican authorities and toward a U.S. Border Patrol pickup truck on the other side.

After three days at the El Paso detention centre, they were driven back to Juarez to await their hearing on Dec. 17.

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Mr. Pascual Rodriguez and Ms. Benitez Oliva walk on the streets of Juarez.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

Life in Mexico was not easy. The couple found Juarez too violent, so after a week, they relocated to Mexico City. Mr. Pascual Rodriguez applied for a series of professional jobs – dental assistant, call centre worker, manager at a Walmart. But employers balked at the temporary work visa U.S. asylum seekers received along Mexico’s northern border, and Mr. Pascual Rodriguez was not interested in working illegally as a street vendor.

He and Ms. Benitez Oliva spent their days watching news of the impeachment proceedings in Washington, and studying the thick medical textbooks they would need to memorize if they ever hoped to qualify as doctors in the United States. Mr. Pascual Rodriguez dreamed of becoming a surgeon, something the Cuban government had refused to allow him to study for. Ms. Benitez Oliva hoped to become an orthodontist.

Mr. Pascual Rodriguez also spent hours researching immigration lawyers before finding one willing to take his case at a price he could afford. Not one person on the list of pro bono lawyers U.S. officials handed out at the border had called him back. Others wanted US$8,000 up front, along with another US$3,000 for flights to El Paso and accommodation.

In November, they returned to Juarez to await their court hearing. They spoke to family members daily, careful to share only good news. They vented their fears and frustrations during conversations with the Zeleny family in Nebraska, with whom they spoke up to 20 times a day.

On the morning of the hearing, as the pickup truck transporting them to the bridge wound through the empty streets of Juarez, Mr. Pascual Rodriguez played a message the Zelenys had left the night before: “Hey guys, I just pray that our Lord guides your path and guides your words and guides you to the place that you belong. His path is pure. It’s going to take you where he wants you to go.”

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Mr. Pascual Rodriguez and Ms. Benitez Oliva walk with other asylum seekers across the Mexican border toward El Paso.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

At the bridge to El Paso, floodlights illuminated the early morning sky. Mr. Pascual Rodriguez surveyed the crowd of Cubans and Central Americans, many with young children. He recognized a few faces from his time in U.S. detention. “Those here for court, we are leaving now,” a border guard called out in Spanish.

The group stepped forward. Before they could enter the United States, they would need to pay a toll of 10 pesos (69 cents) to leave Mexico. Several people scrambled to borrow money or make change.

Shortly before 5 a.m., the group walked down the bridge and into an immigration office, where they were seated beneath smiling portraits of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.

In U.S. custody, border guards stripped the migrants of all but their most essential clothing. Belts, jewellery, dress shirts, cash, rosaries, even shoelaces were placed in plastic bags labelled Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Pascual Rodriguez was allowed only a T-shirt, pants and his leather jacket. His carefully knotted tie went into a plastic bag, as did Ms. Benitez Oliva’s phone, the photos of her family still tucked inside.

The migrants joked that Patrick Crusius, the Texas man accused of murdering 22 people inside an El Paso Walmart last summer, whose trial they had seen on the news, had dressed better for court. “He looked like a doctor,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez said. “We looked homeless.”

Vans shuttled the migrants over the border to the El Paso courthouse, where two small courtrooms, each seating roughly 30 people, had been set aside to hear the more than 120 cases on the docket. “It’s really packed today,” a court officer said, refusing a reporter entry to the hearings.

The couple, the only ones who had come with a lawyer, were up first. In took less than 20 minutes for the lawyers to exchange paperwork and agree on a date for the couple’s next hearing – a full trial on the merits of their asylum case. But it would not come until September, 2020, nine months away and more than a year after they’d first arrived in Mexico.

They spent the next seven hours in separate cells inside the packed detention centre, watching as dozens of migrants requested interviews with U.S. authorities to prove they weren’t safe in Mexico and should be allowed to wait out their cases in the U.S. None was successful.

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The couple walk past a migrant tent encampment near the U.S. border.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

By 9:30 p.m. – 16 hours after they’d crossed into the United States – the couple were back in Mexico, taking a taxi to their rented room in Juarez.

They had emerged dejected by the thought of having to wait another nine months in Mexico for their next court date. But during those hours crammed inside the detention centre, Mr. Pascual Rodriguez had, for the first time, begun to swap stories of his immigration experience with other migrants.

Some told him they had come to four, five, even eight court hearings hoping to present their case, only to be told to fill out a new pile of paperwork, find a lawyer and try again in a few months. Most told Mr. Pascual Rodriguez they were giving up on getting into the U.S. legally and planned to either find a way to stay in Mexico or cross the border on their own.

Already, word of the difficult new reality of claiming asylum appeared to be spreading. Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border plunged from a peak of 144,000 in May to just 42,000 in November, the lowest in more than 18 months.

“The process that most immigrants without lawyers are going through, it’s not going to go anywhere,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez had concluded. “If you don’t have a lawyer, you have fewer rights than a dog has in the United States.”

Back in Juarez, the couple arranged to extend their rental. When they’d first arrived, they hadn’t wanted to spend more than a week in the city, but now it seemed bearable.

Mr. Pascual Rodriguez’s first order of business was to look for work. He had given up hope of finding a professional job in Mexico and noticed a small plaza around the corner where a few stores were hiring. Ms. Benitez Oliva planned to spend the day at home, sharing the results of their court hearing with friends and family.

It was not the outcome they’d been hoping for, and September was months away. But it was something. And now they realized they had gotten much further in the process than many others. “I don’t complain after seeing what people were going through,” Mr. Pascual Rodriguez said. “We’re not at the bad part. At least we have a date when this is going to be over.”

With a report from Luis Miranda

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