“First, I asked my country’s authorities for help. They didn’t do their job. After that, I asked human rights organizations for help. They tried, but they couldn’t because my country’s system was very corrupt, and the people who were after me had wealth. Finally, the public prosecutor gave me an attorney, but he didn’t defend me. Instead, all of the information I gave him was used against me. After all of this, I realized I had to flee Honduras. I was forced to risk my life and come to the United States.”
After this painful, harrowing process, Juan Carlos arrived at the US – Mexico border. Almost exactly four years ago, Juan Carlos presented himself at the port of entry and began the asylum process. From there, pursuing his case was by no means easy. He had to fight his entire case from within immigration detention, where the conditions are designed to discourage people from pursuing their legal claims and where fewer than 5% eventually win their cases. Finally, after dedication and tireless effort, he prevailed.
The pathway Juan Carlos took to seek asylum was by no means humane, just, or workable, but it was still a path. Yet shortly after he crossed over, those pathways to even start the asylum process were relentlessly shut. Juan Carlos survived grave injustice as an asylum-seeker. Today, we are pained to acknowledge that the situation since he came has only worsened.
Now, we are closing in on nearly three years of Title 42 obliterating access to asylum. We are seeing proposals of new asylum bans and the revival of cruel policies like family detentions.
As we face this crushing reality, we must not accept it as normal. To remind us that we are facing a uniquely cruel moment and restrictive moment in recent immigration policy, we want to review how we got to this point. Throughout, we will detail the effects each step towards greater inhumanity and denigration of migrants has had on real people.
Asylum Lost: An Overview of How we Got Here
For Kino’s first decade, we primarily served migrants, often men, who had been recently deported from the United States. At the time, there may have been asylum-seekers traveling regularly through Nogales. The truth is that they rarely made their way to Kino because in the past, they could follow the same path as Juan Carlos: present at the port of entry to begin the asylum process. Rarely would an asylum-seeker get stranded on the Mexican side of the border.
Metering & Restricting Access
This reality began to shift in 2018. By May 2018, metering, or making asylum seekers put their names on lists and only allowing a certain number of migrants to begin the process each day, was being widely implemented. This policy caused asylum seekers like Diosmany to be stranded in Mexico for weeks at a time. From the beginning, metering constituted an infringement on international law regarding asylum.
As is the case today, being stuck in Mexico left asylum seekers uniquely vulnerable to harm and abuse. At the time, Diosmany said “I’m fleeing two layers of persecution, first in Cuba and the second here in Mexico.”
Just as the ports of entry were becoming less accessible and creating lists and long waits, the Trump Administration released an order to push more people towards them. Later in 2018, the Administration issued a proclamation to deny access to asylum access for individuals and families entering between the ports of entry.
In combination, these two moves ensured that more asylum seekers would be pushed towards increasingly backlogged ports of entry, where they would be stranded.
Closing the doors: Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42
As more migrants waited for weeks or months for their names to be called from the metering lists, the Trump Administration issued a new policy to extend their time in limbo. In January 2019, the Migrant Protection Protocols, colloquially known as “Remain in Mexico,” were implemented. Asylum seekers would be barred from entering the US until their claims had been adjudicated.
We heard story after story of families left completely exposed in Nogales, Sonora. Oftentimes, their tales of interactions with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) included harsh and callous interactions, if not outright violence.
One family from Guatemala shared, “I told the official I didn’t know what to do when I got back to Mexico. He said, ‘you can ask your God if he will let you into the U.S.’
Here, we are staying at a shelter. It’s not safe. There is the mafia here. There is a man there who follows my daughter around. It’s scary for her and for me. But at least here there’s a small chance of opportunity, unlike in Guatemala.”
Migrants were forced to wait in Mexico under increasingly dire and dangerous conditions. And yet the worst was yet to come.
In March of 2020, Title 42 began in full force. Access to the asylum process was closed off almost entirely under the guise of a public health order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Asylum seekers were expelled at all hours of the day and night without any due process at all.
Stranded at the border: asylum seekers grope for a way forward
Within two short years after Juan Carlos had begun the asylum process, the pathway he had used had evaporated. A formerly labyrinthine and unjust system had become wholly impregnable. The situation that asylum seekers were fleeing had not changed, but now they had nowhere to turn.
When we met Suyapa, an asylum seeker from Honduras, she reminded us immediately of Juan Carlos. Like him, she had fled Honduras. Like Juan Carlos, she had exhausted every option to seek protection and justice in Honduras. Local law enforcement, the courts, and local humanitarian organizations had been unable to help her. Both had tried to defend their rights in their countries and justice was not served for either of them. The courts put them in more danger. Like Juan Carlos, Suyapa fled.
Along the journey north, she dodged threats from organized crime and was extorted by Guatemalan officials. Finally, she made it to the US-Mexico border. Although until now, she and Juan Carlos had experienced parallel journeys, here they diverged starkly.
“The first time we attempted to cross, I asked for asylum from a Border Patrol agent. They told me no, that there was no asylum, that it was a waste of time. We are stuck in Nogales, and we almost don’t go outside because of fear,” she said.
The US had closed its doors to people like Juan Carlos and Suyapa. Due to swift, unjust policies, Suyapa was one of thousands of asylum seekers we met at Kino who were turned away due to Title 42.
To this day, we don’t know what became of Suyapa and the son she brought with her. What we do know is that she should have had access to a pathway to seek asylum.
Rising to the Occasion: Border Communities work with migrants to protect rights and seek a path forward
As we have borne witness to this blitzkrieg against asylum access, we have sought to stand in solidarity and protect migrants’ rights whenever we can. At the same time, we join with migrants and asylum seekers to decry these increasingly constricting, oppressive measures.
In Spring of 2021, the US government began to offer slim exemptions to Title 42 due to a lawsuit. Humanitarian organizations banded together in an attempt to aid migrants access these exemptions.
“We stand firmly that Title 42 should not be in place, that there’s no justification for denying asylum seekers access to protection. But kind of being held over a barrel, we see this as a short-term way to get as many people to safety as possible,” Executive Director Joanna Williams said at the time in an interview.
As a small number of asylum seekers were released into the US under the exemptions process, Kino and other humanitarian organizations sprang into action once again. We began to offer humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers in Nogales, Arizona to ensure people were not stranded on the US side of the border, either. We offered this assistance until our partner, Casa Alitas, built up their reception capacity in Nogales Arizona. Since they were able to do that and began running and staffing a reception center, we have ceased to offer these services and reallocated those resources to our core work.
These are just two examples of how we have seen humanitarian organizations, people of faith, and border communities rise up in solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers. As the US government has punted its responsibility to provide a legal pathway to access asylum, a broad coalition has mobilized to support migrants in any way possible.
As we have witnessed policies of exclusion gain traction, we have also seen clear evidence that many people stand ready to welcome migrants and asylum seekers.
Pushed to the shadows: anti-asylum policy swallow pathways for those not seeking asylum
It is true: there has been a relentless assault on the right to seek asylum in the US. At the same time, we call upon our own organizational history to remember that seeking asylum is only one among many reasons people choose to migrate. The right to migrate with dignity is not limited to asylum-seekers.
This fact is easily lost in today’s discourse. Migrants who are not seeking asylum are mentioned much more infrequently at the policy and humanitarian level, let alone in the public’s imagination. As asylum seekers have been increasingly stranded in large swaths at the border, humanitarian and advocacy organizations like Kino have had to divert efforts and resources to offer them aid. We do not regret this fact.
What we do regret is that we know that we no longer see many of the people who we would have served four or five years ago. We know that we see fewer deportees and other migrants not because they are no longer coming, but rather because they have been pushed further to the fringes in Nogales and other border cities.
The truth is that today’s situation is abnormal in US migration policy. In our own recent memory, the right to seek asylum was more accessible. We had a dedicated capacity to work for migrants who chose to migrate for other reasons.
While the current assault on asylum is overwhelming, we reject it as the new normal. Instead, we must return to a time when we recognized that every person deserves a humane, workable, and just migration system.
Our current moment is an extreme one. Proposals like transit bans, family detention, and cutting off access to asylum violate our values as Catholics, as Americans, and people who understand that migrants are fellow human beings. We underscore the reality that the right to seek asylum is recognized under international law. In the face of an unprecedented offensive against migrant rights, we resolve to speak out and refuse to become numb.
As we move forward, let us hold onto these recent memories of a time that was less extreme. It was by no means a time of justice – indeed, we must pursue policies that are far more humane and workable than those that Juan Carlos faced. At the same time, remembering how far we’ve come in so short of a time steels our resolve to advocate for and accompany migrants with greater fervor.
You can be a part of that, and you can start today. Right now, you have the opportunity to comment on the proposed asylum ban and tell the Biden Administration that this extremism has come far enough. We do not want any further harm to come to our siblings in migration. Beyond that, we must declare loudly and proudly that we choose welcome.
Click here to submit your comment before the March 27 deadline.
Leave a Reply