In one of his first moves in the White House, President Joe Biden ended the Trump administration policy requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases worked through the system.
In California, some of the people who were waiting are now being let into the United States to await hearings. Texas is expected to start processing them this week and Arizona could start in just a few weeks.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 25,000 asylum seekers with active asylum cases have been waiting in Mexico.
Some migrants say the wait’s been more than a year.
“It’s the first time I have experienced being alone with my son in a country that I don't know. It’s depressing, distressing, especially for our children,” said an asylum seeker who asked to be identified as “Josefa."
Josefa says her family became a target of violence for their political opposition to the government in Venezuela.
“The government can put you in prison. If you are in prison, you are subject to being tortured and if you are not tortured, you can be killed.”
She says she fled with her son, came to Nogales, Arizona to claim asylum.
Josefa says she went through the process, had an interview with immigration officials, and her case was found to be credible. But because of the Migrant Protection Protocols also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, Josefa had to go back and wait in Nogales, Sonora for a hearing to make her claim.
She says while living in Nogales, Sonora, she experienced extortion by criminal organizations.
“I would get desperate sometimes and thought about going back to my country, but it’s worse if you return,” expressed Josefa.
Researchers with human rights organizations say Josefa’s case has become way too common.
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg of the kind of violence that people experience,” said Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher for the national organization Human Rights First.
Kizuka says over the past two years, they have tracked over 1,500 public reports of attacks against asylum seekers in Mexico.
“Attacks against people who have been returned to Mexico under MPP. So far, we have tracked over 1500 incidents ranging from rape, torture, even murder as well as many extortions and assaults. Kidnapping as well,” stated Kizuka.
“MPP was designed to make people give up.”
Sara Ritchie with the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales says out of desperation many asylum seekers either left or died trying to cross illegally.
“Unfortunately, MPP was designed to make people give up, and with the border closures some people had a really hard time.”
Ritchie says she now worries about asylum seekers who are still waiting but have no case under MPP.
“Those that came after the border closures. So, the question that we have is that if this was a program that was inhumane and unlawful, to begin with, and people were denied asylum as part of it, they too should have a chance to seek asylum again,” stated Ritchie.
“I came here legally. I had to wait my turn.”
But not everybody agrees with allowing asylum seekers with an active case to start their process in the U.S.
“I came here legally. I had to wait my turn. There are people that are doing it this way and have spent a lot of money, time, and effort to come here legally and have not been able to do it because so many people are doing it the wrong way,” stated Cristina Junge.
Junge says she migrated to the U.S. from Colombia nearly 60 years ago. She says she also worries about changes to the immigration policy in the middle of a pandemic.
“What about the pandemic? Didn’t they say that the teachers couldn’t go to schools to teach the kids because they could get sick? What about all these people that are coming now sick? What’s going to happen?” said Junge.
Someone who also has many questions is Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. In a two-page letter to the Department of Homeland Security, he asked, in part, about federal resources to provide services to asylum seekers. He also asked about how the federal government will ensure asylum seekers show up to court and if there’s a plan to deal with asylum seekers with criminal records.
Immigration lawyer Ezequiel Hernandez says those are very valid questions. But he says there’s already an answer to the question on criminal records.
“The department of justice should already have that information because they already have a case, they’re part of the MPP program.”
Hernandez believes it’s time to offer solutions, not ask the same questions.
“He could also publish a document essentially offering his help to reunify the families that were separated. So, I would want the governor to say, ‘how can I make it available for the state of Arizona to have resources to help reunite these individuals,’ individuals that were caged and separated in this state.”
The department of Homeland Security says they are testing asylum seekers for COVID-19 and that they must be negative before entering the U.S. To learn more about the process visit: https://www.dhs.gov/news/2021/02/18/fact-sheet-dhs-announces-process-address-individuals-outside-united-states-active.