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A 19-Year-Old Asylum-Seeker Forced To Wait In Mexico Was Killed Days Before He Was Scheduled To Enter The US

"I lost him in my arms."

Last updated on May 18, 2021, at 6:51 p.m. ET

Posted on May 18, 2021, at 3:07 p.m. ET

Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

Asylum-seekers are seen after crossing the Rio Grande to turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, on May 11, 2021.

A Cuban asylum-seeker who was forced to wait in Mexico under a Trump-era policy was fatally shot Monday night in Ciudad Juárez a few days before he was to be allowed into the US, according to United Nations officials.

Cristian San Martín Estrada, 19, had been waiting in Mexico since 2019 after asking US immigration authorities for asylum, according to his uncle. As part of the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, Estrada was sent back to Mexico after seeking refuge at the border while a US judge adjudicated his case.

"We condemn the murder in Ciudad Juárez of Cristian San Martín Estrada, a Cuban asylum seeker under the MPP, who would have reentered the US in the coming days," tweeted United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mexico. "We trust that the authorities will investigate thoroughly to clarify this unfortunate event."

In recent months, the Biden administration has started to roll back the “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP). The policy led to tens of thousands of asylum-seekers being forced to stay in Mexico as they waited for their day in a US court. Often left with nowhere to go but squalid camps in Mexican border cities, immigrants have been kidnapped, raped, and tortured, according to cases reported by human rights advocates.

Immigrants have been anxiously waiting on the Mexican side of the border as they register on a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website to get back into the US under the rollback. After registering, the refugee agency said, immigrants would be given a date to show up at an official border crossing and allowed into the US after being tested for COVID-19.

Estrada's uncle told independent journalist Judith Torrea that his nephew had been waiting for his chance to be allowed into the US in Nogales, Mexico, and had been told by UNHCR to travel to Juárez to be processed. The uncle, who did not give his name, is a US citizen who had traveled to Ciudad Juárez so his nephew wouldn't be alone.

The uncle said he was sitting on a bench near a pharmacy at around 9 p.m. with Estrada when he heard three shots and saw his nephew clutch his back where he had been struck.

"All I could do was grab him and try to pick him up," the uncle said. "I lost him in my arms."

The Trump administration implemented the controversial "Remain in Mexico" program in early 2019 as the US saw a spike of families crossing the border to claim asylum. In the early days of the policy, which was one in a series of others seeking to restrict asylum at the border, the administration was seeing upward of 100,000 border crossings a month.

Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney who has spent years working with immigrants in Ciudad Juarez, said Estrada's killing was a preventable tragedy. In addition to the immigrants placed in MPP waiting in Mexico, every day the Biden administration continues to send asylum-seekers back to the same dangerous border areas, Levy said.

Citing an obscure public health law known as Title 42 to contain the coronavirus, the Biden administration immediately expels immigrants at the border, blocking them from accessing the asylum system. The practice was started by the Trump administration in March 2020.

"There is no reason why our nation — which prides itself on being a beacon of hope and opportunity — is knowingly putting people in danger," Levy told BuzzFeed News. "The Biden administration must fully rescind Remain in Mexico and Title 42 expulsions immediately before more lives are lost."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.