By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Lizbeth Diaz
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexicans seeking refuge in the United States to escape violence and lawlessness in their homeland fear worse dangers if they are sent to Guatemala under a new Trump administration scheme to crack down on asylum seekers.
Under U.S. rules made public on Monday, Mexicans requesting protection at the U.S.-Mexican border can be flown to Guatemala to seek refuge there instead.
U.S. President Donald Trump last year reacted to a surge in Central Americans requesting asylum with a series of policies aimed at keeping them out of the United States. The latest rules apply to migrants from Mexico as well as Honduras and El Salvador, according to guidance documents, and will likely have the effect of suppressing Mexican access to U.S. asylum.
It was unclear when the United States would begin sending Mexicans to Guatemala. The Mexican government estimated that 900 Mexican asylum seekers could be affected from February, without giving a timeframe or explaining how it reached that number.
Mexicans who say their homes are unsafe due to drug gang extortion said the policy leaves them few options.
"I can't go home, they've already kidnapped my brother and son," said Carlos, a Mexican seeking to reach the United States via the border city of Tijuana. He said he had fled criminal gangs in the southwestern state of Guerrero.
"They're after me. If I go back they're sure to kill me. If I'm not safe in Mexico, I'll be even less safe in Guatemala," he said, requesting his last name be withheld for security reasons. Reuters could not independently corroborate his story.
Since the end of Guatemala's civil war in 1996, the country has consistently had a higher homicide rate than Mexico, its more prosperous northern neighbour.
In the last few years, the difference has narrowed as Mexico's murder tally, fuelled by turf wars between drug gangs, rose to record levels and Guatemala's declined.
Guatemala, however, is poorer and dangerous, and Mexicans generally have fewer contacts there than in the United States.
Eugenio, 48, arrived in the border city of Ciudad Juarez with his family four months ago and has been on a waiting list for the chance to present his case to U.S. officials ever since. He estimated his turn will come up later this week and the prospect of being sent to Guatemala was high on his mind.
"Going to Guatemala is like walking straight into the lion's den," Eugenio said, explaining he feared that the criminals he said had threatened his family in central Mexico could track him down across the fluid southern border. If he failed to get asylum in the United States, he said, he would try Canada.
At the end of December, after reports first emerged that Washington was considering sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala, a group of Mexican migrants filed a complaint with Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) requesting help blocking the plan, saying it would put them in danger.
Mexico's government on Monday said it "rejected" the new U.S. policy but acknowledged that the decision was up to U.S. authorities.
Sitting in a chilly camp in Ciudad Juarez, one woman from the state of Zacatecas, who declined to give her name, said she was trying to reach the United States because she had family there, and would be safe.
"I'm not going because of the American dream, I'm going and taking my kids because we need security, we need safety," she said in tears, describing how she had fled a job as a scientist in a laboratory after she starting being followed and receiving phone threats.
She described the new policy as pressure aimed at making people like her give up her asylum claim.
"They know we won't want to go to another country where we won't have family support," she said.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Dave Graham and Rosalba O'Brien)