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This week's brutal killings of nine women and children in northern Mexico has brought renewed attention to the widespread violence in that country. The violence is increasingly driving Mexicans to seek asylum in the U.S. Once they get to the border, many face long waits to get in, which leaves them terrified that the criminals they fled will catch up with them. Mallory Falk of member station KERA reports.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Mexico's murder rate is on track to surpass last year's record high.
JEREMY SLACK: We have seen not only violence escalate across the country, but really spread out.
FALK: Jeremy Slack with the University of Texas at El Paso studies migration and drug violence in Mexico.
SLACK: The times when all of the fighting was concentrated in a place like Ciudad Juarez are over, and now we see conflicts flaring up in random cities throughout the country.
FALK: Thousands of Mexican asylum seekers have arrived in border cities in recent months, many fleeing organized crime in places like Michoacan, Guerrero and Zacatecas. But once they arrive, many have to wait to get into the U.S.
Dozens of tents line a small street near a bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Some are covered with blankets or tarps as modest protection from the wind. One asylum seeker sits on the curb, bundled in a soft hooded sweatshirt. She asked that we not use her name because she fears for her family's safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I've been out here on the street for a month and a half.
FALK: The woman says she left her hometown in Michoacan when a cartel began threatening her husband and killed his sister. She says local authorities didn't offer protection.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) You ask for help, and they tell you there's nothing to be done; just stay quiet. But how are you going to be calm if you know that you're in danger? So that's when we decided, well, let's go.
FALK: Now the woman, her husband and two sons are biding their time until it's their turn to cross the bridge.
Mexicans are exempt from the Trump administration policy known as Remain in Mexico. That program forces other asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. But many Mexicans are still waiting days, if not months, to enter the U.S. That's because of another administration policy, known as metering, that limits the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country each day. Jeremy Slack from UT El Paso says that puts them at risk.
SLACK: If you are running or having issues with organized crime, with drug cartels, the chances that those drug cartels have people in Juarez or work with people in Juarez are quite high. So the fact that you can be found in those places - that's a huge, huge danger that they're facing.
FALK: The asylum seeker from Michoacan knows it's dangerous here, but she and her family felt they had no other choice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) It's very difficult, is the truth - taking care of the kids, food, our costs. Sleeping in the cold, especially when the temperature drops, is difficult, but you try to bundle up and endure it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish). Lips.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Lips.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish). Lips. (Speaking Spanish).
FALK: On this day, a priest from El Paso is teaching children the English words for body parts. She hands out chunks of pastel chalk. Kids carefully sketch out eyes, noses, a row of sharp teeth. By the end of the lesson, the sidewalk is covered in art. Small moments like this help break up a pretty monotonous existence.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) You walk to one side of the street; you walk to the other. For a while, you play with your kids.
FALK: The asylum seeker says she can only hope the wait here is worth it.
For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in Ciudad Juarez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.