Figures of a 7-year-old migrant girl walking with a woman and unidentified man silhouetted at night

Borders

Many asylum-seekers are returned at the US-Mexico border under Title 42. Advocates call it a ‘sham.’

A bottleneck continues to build in Mexico near the US-Mexico border, as a public health order invoked by the Trump administration remains in place and shuts out many migrants and asylum-seekers from entering the United States.

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A 7-year-old migrant girl from Honduras, left, walks with Fernanda Solis, 25, center, also of Honduras and an unidentified man as they approach a US Customs and Border Protection processing center to turn themselves in while seeking asylum moments after crossing the US-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, March 21, 2021.

Credit:

Julio Cortez/AP

Day by day, Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is seeing more migrants arrive in Reynosa, a city in Mexico, just across from South Texas.

Tents crowd a plaza in Reynosa. People sleep in a large gazebo.

“Once you cross the bridge into Reynosa, and if you look immediately over to your left, you're going to see hundreds of people.”

Rangel-Samponaro, The Sidewalk School, co-directer

“Once you cross the bridge into Reynosa, and if you look immediately over to your left, you're going to see hundreds of people,” said Rangel-Samponaro, who co-directs The Sidewalk School, a Texas-based nonprofit that assists migrants with schooling and other services in Reynosa and elsewhere on the US-Mexico border.

Related: For pregnant women, getting the COVID-19 jab is a challenging choice

A bottleneck continues to build in Mexico near the border, as a public health order invoked by the Trump administration remains in place and shuts out many migrants and asylum-seekers from entering the United States with permission.

The order, called Title 42, was put in place in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resisted the decision, arguing that it would not control the virus. Yet, former Vice President Mike Pence ordered the agency to invoke its emergency powers.

President Joe Biden has kept Title 42 in place, with the exception of allowing into the country some families and unaccompanied children.

In April, US officials apprehended migrants more than 170,000 times. The vast majority of people are turned back under Title 42, including migrants like Luis and his 9-year-old daughter from Honduras. Their full names aren’t being used for security reasons.

“We were turned back so fast, within an hour and a half,” he said.

In Reynosa, the father and daughter happened to meet Rangel-Samponaro, who arranged for them to move from sleeping on the ground in the outdoor plaza to a tiny, rented room. Luis said that they barely left the room.

Related: A year of pandemic schooling highlights education gaps for English-language learners

“We are scared to leave,” he said over a video call from Reynosa in early May.

He has reason to be afraid. The State Department advises against traveling to Reynosa “due to crime and kidnapping.” The non-profit group, Human Rights First, has tracked at least 492 attacks on asylum seekers who have been turned back to Mexico since Biden began his presidency in January. Recently, a cartel reportedly kidnapped 17 migrants, demanding $2,000 each to let them go. The migrants’ relatives in the US, in situations like these, often receive terrifying ransom calls from the kidnappers.

At the border, Luis thought he would be able to request asylum. But US officials didn’t give him a chance to tell them about why they left Honduras — the violence there, recent devastating hurricanes, or why his daughter struggles to walk because of spina bifida. Under Title 42, officials do not have to ask such questions, a dramatic break from the long-standing US policy of allowing people to request asylum, even if they have crossed onto US soil without authorization.

Over the video call, Luis showed a small pile of Ziploc bags in their room. One holds medicine, another catheter tubes — all donated. His daughter needs surgery, he said. While he talked, she rested on a mattress on the floor.

Luis wished he could have said more to the US official at the border.

“I wanted to ask him, ‘Are you a father? What would you do in my case? You need to make decisions, no?’”

Luis, migrant from Honduras

“I wanted to ask him, ‘Are you a father? What would you do in my case? You need to make decisions, no?’”

More recently, Luis got good news. He was told to go back to the border, the port of entry, and that US immigration officials would allow him to enter and seek asylum from within the US.

Related: US Customs and Border Protection monitors imports to curb products made by forced labor

“We’re good now — and can only say thank you,” Luis said, speaking recently from Brownsville, Texas.

He and his daughter are staying temporarily with Rangel-Samponaro, who commutes across the border daily for her work with The Sidewalk School. Rangel-Samponaro had told a lawyer about their situation. That helped get Luis and his daughter across the border into the US.

Rangel-Samponaro said Luis got lucky. She worries about all the others in Reynosa who go unseen.

“It’s awful that you have to be lucky enough to run into two Americans, myself and Victor, right?” she said, referring to Victor Cavazos, her nonprofit’s co-director. “What are the odds that you're going to get to run into one of us? It's a long shot.”

Another long shot: landing on an informal list compiled daily by humanitarian workers at the border. It is a list of asylum-seekers that finds its way to US immigration officials and can open the door for asylum-seekers to receive humanitarian parole, temporary permission to enter the country.

Lee Gelernt is a lawyer at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. He helps distribute that list of names of asylum-seeking people referred to for humanitarian parole. He said it is no substitute for a lawsuit the ACLU has filed against the Biden administration to end Title 42 altogether.

“We are troubled, to say the least, that the Biden administration has chosen to keep a Trump administration policy that was always a sham, was never justified by public health.”

Lee Gelernt, American Civil Liberties Union in New York, lawyer

“We are troubled, to say the least, that the Biden administration has chosen to keep a Trump administration policy that was always a sham, was never justified by public health,” Gelernt said.

The Department of Homeland Security did not grant an interview. However, a spokesperson did email The World the following statement: “As we continue to enforce the CDC Title 42 order, we are working to streamline a system for identifying and lawfully processing particularly vulnerable individuals who warrant humanitarian exceptions under the order. This humanitarian exception process involves close coordination with international and non-governmental organizations in Mexico and COVID-19 testing, before those identified through this process are allowed to enter the country.”

Related: Thousands of medical workers left behind in Mexico’s vaccination program 

But some humanitarian workers aren’t clear about who falls into that “particularly vulnerable” category.

Tracey Horan is a Catholic nun with the Kino Border Initiative, which assists migrants in Nogales, Mexico, across the Arizona border.

“It puts the burden of deciding who gets access on NGOs, which is really not our role,” she said.

One family — a mother, father and their 12-year-old son from Honduras — recently came to Sister Horan for help. They said that a gang recently held them for ransom in a dark room for hours. The mother was sexually assaulted. The father, Juan Carlos, closed his eyes while recalling what happened and said: “That violence is why we left Honduras.”

He was a truck driver back home. He said his boss was murdered for not paying an extortion fee.

“I left my country because I didn’t want to be killed next,” he said.

Sister Horan hopes to help the family and has arranged for them to meet with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Project, which may result in having them placed on that shortlist of people referred for humanitarian parole.

“The number is very small compared to the number of people who are seeking asylum,” Horan said.

Other migrants, with similar stories, she will never meet.

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