In border towns, asylum-seekers call on Biden for immediate action on crisis

By: - February 9, 2021 12:54 pm

Customs and Border Protection officers process migrants, some of whom are seeking asylum, in this 2018 photo from the San Ysidro, California, Port of Entry. The Trump administration this month moved to tighten standards on asylum seekers and stremline the process. (Photo by Mani Albrecht/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

On his second round of executive orders on immigration, President Joe Biden said his administration will promptly review the “safe and orderly processing of asylum claims.” 

For migrants from Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico who’ve been waiting in the border city of Nogales for a chance to get protections from prosecution and violence as outlined by U.S. and international law, the orders fall short: Biden’s directives mean their wait will be prolonged. 

Mothers, fathers and children are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border that needs immediate attention and resolution, said a group of migrants during a Feb. 3 press conference organized by the Kino Border Initiative — a binational organization that aids migrants with food, shelter and other services in Nogales, Sonora.

“This is a time to act. It is not a time to review anything,” said Lidsay, an asylum-seeker from Cuba who only wanted to be identified with her first name. She’s been in Mexico for two years, and said she and her husband have been waiting for 14 months. 

“The majority of us are going through a lot of problems, we have a lot of needs. We are tired of going through so many obstacles,” Lidsay said in Spanish. “We want this situation to have a resolution. It is not the time to review. It is the time to act.”

During the press event, which was streamed online, Lidsay and other migrants talked about two of the policies put in place by the Trump administration that they said is having the most impact on people seeking protections at the border: the Migrant Protection Protocols and the invocation of public health powers, known as Title 42, which effectively closed U.S. borders and allows border agents to immediately “expel” anyone they encounter at and between official ports of entry, even if they are seeking asylum under U.S. law.    

As of December 2020, there are 28,455 pending MPP cases — and 12,215 cases are still waiting for their first asylum hearing, according to government data obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, there have been nearly 400,000 “expulsions” under Title 42 authority since March 2020 through December.

The policies, driven by the pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration agenda, have had more than a humanitarian toll on the Mexican side of the border — it has resulted in an uptick in human smuggling of migrants in Arizona and made 2020 one of the most deadly years in the state’s southern region, The Arizona Republic reported. 

Biden orders review of how to resume asylum processing at the border

Lidsay is among the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have a case under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” MPP, which has been in place since early 2019, sends adults and families who request asylum at the southern border to Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. 

It’s been a problematic program because of serious due process issues. In March 2020, MPP hearings were suspended indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In his first day in office, Biden said no more people will be added on MPP. But that did not change anything for the migrants who have spent over a year in border towns whose right to asylum has been delayed and denied.  

Lidsay said the humanitarian toll at the border has been too big. She’s waited for 14 months after a long and difficult migration journey. She’s followed the laws of the U.S., and is asking for trust.

“We are asking for trust, for trust to be placed in us. Most of us are people of good, we are here with an objective which is to have our freedom, our freedom of expression as well. We are here for a good future, for a better future for our families,” Lidsay said. “Those of us who are on MPP or the list are patiently waiting. We have respect for the law. We are people of good and want to enter this country to be good citizens. We want our wait to be valued.”

KBI migrants press conference
Saulo from Honduras (left), Esmeralda from Mexico (center) and Lidsay from Cuba (right) speak during a press conference organized by the Kino Border Initiative on Feb. 2, 2020. They are all migrants  who have waited for more than a year to seek protections at the U.S. border, but continue to be denied under asylum processing changes and public health authority implemented under President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden. Youtube: Ignatian Solidarity Network

The day before Lidsay spoke from Nogales, Biden signed one executive order on “Creating a Comprehensive Regional Framework to Address the Causes of Migration, to Manage Migration Throughout North and Central America, and to Provide Safe and Orderly Processing of Asylum Seekers at the United States Border.”

Among other things, Biden ordered the secretary of the Department Homeland Security and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “promptly begin consultation and planning with international and non-governmental organizations to develop policies and procedures for the safe and orderly processing of asylum claims at United States land borders, consistent with public health and safety and capacity constraints.”

In his speech prior to signing this and other two executive orders, one which created a task force charged with reuniting migrant families separated under a 2018 enforcement policy, Biden said these changes align with “who we are as a country.”

“The last president of the United States issued executive orders I felt were very counterproductive to our security, counterproductive to who we are as a country, particularly in the area of immigration,” he said. “This is about how America is safer, stronger, more prosperous when we have a fair, orderly, and humane, and legal immigration system.” 

Continued denial of asylum at border seen as a promise unfulfilled 

Last year, the Kino Border Initiative served more than 500 asylum-seekers who were in the MPP program, said Sara Ritchie, spokeswoman for the organization. Many asylum-seekers, she said, have left Nogales and abandoned their cases. 

“Since March 2020, so many asylum seekers have left or abandoned their cases because they couldn’t sustain living on the border that long,” Ritchie said.

She estimated there are currently between 200 and 400 migrants under MPP waiting in Nogales. The biggest policy affecting migrants every day, she said, is Title 42. 

“Title 42 is certainly the policy that is affecting the most migrants since it’s been in full force since March 2020,” Ritchie said in an email. She estimates more than 1,000 migrants have been expelled to Nogales under Title 42, which allows border agents to block people at ports of entry and expel those who they encounter between official border crossings. 

Migrants in Nogales who spoke on Feb. 3 and more than 100 faith-based, human rights and child advocacy groups see Biden’s continued denial of asylum protections as a campaign promise unfulfilled. 

“Your administration continues to block and expel people, including families with children, under (Title 42),” wrote groups in a Feb. 2 letter to Biden calling for an immediate end to the policies blocking migrants seeking humanitarian protections from entering the U.S. “Your administration must end the misuse of Title 42 public health authority at the border, stop blocking and expelling people seeking U.S. humanitarian protections, ensure appropriate infrastructure and support for shelters and other border groups to assist asylum seekers, and allow these families, children and adults to pursue their requests while in safety, inside the United States.”

MPP and Title 42 are compounded by another practice at the border known as metering in place for almost three years, where U.S. border officials turn people away at ports of entry because they claim there is no capacity to process people. 

“Every week, we receive 5-20 migrants expelled under Title 42 but we have several migrants we serve who, for example, were turned away at the port of entry last summer,” Ritchie said. 

Esmeralda, a Mexican migrant from the southern state of Guerrero, has been affected by metering practice, according to KBI. The 41-year-old woman has been waiting in Nogales for 14 months with her husband, four children and a nephew, she said. 

“For us, it is traumatic and more so for the children. They are suffering psychologically by being in this place where there are a lot of threats, persecution, and assault above all,” Esmeralda said. “We ask with all of my heart to listen to our plea. Remove Title 42 and give us access to asylum in the United States.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.