Originally from Honduras, Santos arrived in Nogales and at the Kino Border Initiative during the week of the election. The morning of Saturday, November 7th was his second day at KBI. It was also Stanford-St. Scholastica’s second day of their KBI immersion experience. Following the group’s orientation from the night before, the second day of their agenda included chatting with a migrant to hear firsthand his testimony. Santos connected with group participants scattered across the state of Minnesota, where the college is located.
He fled Honduras in 2019 to escape persecution and violence, forcing him to leave behind his wife and two daughters with hopes of being reunited again one day. He candidly shared with the group about the heart-wrenching decision between migrating to save his life or falling victim to the widespread gang violence that thrives in part due to a corrupt government. The group from Stanford-St. Scholastica listened intently as Santos provided context about his life in San Pedro Sula, detailed the journey through Guatemala and Mexico, and expressed his hopes for the situation along the US-Mexico border.
Although Santos arrived in Nogales that very week, there are migrants who have been waiting in Nogales for months, some now for over a year, for the opportunity to officially begin the process of seeking asylum in the United States. For many migrants, their journey begins days, weeks, months, or more before arriving at the border. For those who have arrived in Nogales in the last month, like Santos, they have encountered and joined a thriving movement involving their fellow migrant brothers and sisters whose message and efforts to save asylum are now being directed to the incoming Biden-Harris Administration. When the conversation between Santos and Stanford-St. Scholastica began, election results were still undetermined. By the end of the hour long session, Santos was expressing the high hopes that he and migrants have for Biden and his presidency.
“President-elect, Biden, #SaveAsylum”
On Wednesday, December 2nd, Santos marched through downtown Nogales, Sonora carrying the sound system that projected the voices of nearly one hundred migrants and asylum seekers chanting, “President-elect, Biden, #SaveAsylum.” Beyond a chant, it was the title and theme of the SaveAsylum action, during which asylum seekers, community members, faith leaders, and immigration advocates from both sides of the border, gathered to present a petition signed by thousands of migrants in Nogales and other border cities in Mexico. Their letter, addressed to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, outlines their demands for the restoration of asylum, due process, and the protection of their human rights in the first one hundred days in office.
However, the SaveAsylum campaign predates both the 2020 election and the Covid-19 pandemic. The SaveAsylum coalition formed in 2019 to condemn Trump’s anti-asylum policies implemented along the US-Mexico border that have choked off legal paths to protection in the United States. Beginning in May of 2018, migrants in Nogales were abruptly denied their right to request asylum at ports of entry as a result of metering, essentially, a wait-list to kickstart the formal asylum process in the US. Waits that initially lasted weeks quickly turned into months as the waitlist grew longer. These wait times in Mexico were prolonged by the subsequent implementation of the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), otherwise known as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, forcing asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico for their U.S. asylum hearings. Nogales, the place that migrants had once assumed would be a step on the migration journey, has become a location of forced resettlement where migrants live in unsafe conditions, economic and emotional instability, and overwhelming uncertainty.
The pandemic exacerbated an already precarious situation which the Trump Administration used as a pretext to suspend asylum processing indefinitely. Migrants’ long waits suddenly had no end in sight. However, they now look to the Biden Administration to bring their wait to an end and restore asylum along the US-Mexico border. They came together on December 2nd to march and express their hopes and expectations of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris.
Asylum seekers and migrants initiated the march in downtown Nogales, making their way towards the border wall. They stopped at the port of entry, a symbolic place that represents the legal channel to protection to which they have been denied. There, they prayed before continuing to walk along the border wall in the shadows of the steel beams that tower over International Street. Just west of the DeConcini port of entry, a group of supporters on the US side of the wall received and celebrated their arrival. Together, groups on both sides of the border lifted up the testimonies of asylum seekers, revealed the migrant letter to the incoming administration, celebrated the congressional support it generated, and called on immigration advocates to sign the petition and be part of the effort to save asylum.
Andrea, who fled from Michoacán with her husband and two young children concluded her testimony by saying, “Mr. President-elect Biden, I ask that you put yourself for a moment in our shoes and that you open the doors for us. We are just people who want a better future for our families, a future free of violence. I imagine that the president-elect would want a better future for his family too.” Lindsay from Cuba, who was returned to Mexico under MPP, used her testimony as an opportunity to address Vice President-elect Harris, stating, “To Senator Harris, whom I see as a woman who is likely to support us: I consider her to be very capable of giving us her word, both hers and the president’s. All I ask her to do is follow through on her word.” [read their full testimonies]
Migrants’ Letter to Biden
Throughout his campaign and since his election victory, Joe Biden has been consistent in expressing his goals to restore and make more robust the US asylum system at the Southern border, including bringing an end to policies such as MPP-Remain in Mexico, metering lists, and other policies that deny asylum seekers due process. Additionally, he has promised to reunite families separated by the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy and raise the yearly refugee admission ceiling to 125,000, which Trump had brought to a record low of 15,000. [read more here]
During the weeks leading up to the December 2nd SaveAsylum action, migrants gathered at KBI to carefully craft a letter that cited the promises that Biden had made to asylum seekers, highlighting six actions they were calling on his administration to address in the first one hundred days in office. Migrants signed and presented their letter at the action, which was received by a representative of Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) who had committed to deliver it to the Biden-Harris administration. In a statement of support, she said, “I want you to know that I support you and will take this [letter] to Congress and push the administration to address these at the very beginning of their term.”
Additionally, the event was lifted up by Senator Krysten Sinema (AZ-D) who said, “As a U.S. Senator and social worker, I truly appreciate the work that Kino Border Initiative and other groups do on behalf of migrants along the Southwest border. Asylum seekers and other migrants must be treated fairly and humanely in Arizona and across the nation, and I will present your concerns and ideas on these issues to the Biden Administration transition team.” She has agreed to directly deliver the letter to the Committee of Homeland Security of which she is a member along with Senator Kamala Harris.
A Newfound Sense of Hope
The energy among migrants at the December 2nd, “President-elect Biden, #SaveAsylum” was notably elevated. It was the fifth action since August, but the first in which asylum seekers publicly addressed the incoming administration. Josefa from Venezuela, who had played an important role in formulating messaging for the SaveAsylum actions, had been waiting in Nogales under MPP with her 10-year-old son Lester since early this year. With a newfound sense of hope she said, “I now feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Even though I know it will not be simple, I know that at least our cases will be tended to.”
Yolani, who shared her testimony at the September 21st SaveAsylum action, was returned to Nogales under MPP in January of this year. As one of the spokespersons for the SaveAsylum movement, she said that “the hopes we have for the new government are the same ones we’ve had all along. However, now, with a new president, the expectations are even greater. What we hope is that in the first 100 days it will be the first thing on his agenda: to open this border and end MPP.”
While hope and energy has been restored, asylum seekers know that President-elect Biden enters the presidency with competing priorities and an uphill battle to implement his immigration goals. Therefore, migrants and the SaveAsylum coalition have committed to holding actions until the new administration follows through on the promise they have made to asylum seekers. They call on immigration advocates to join them in their tireless advocacy efforts. “It is very important that the letter be sent to the Biden Administration, because that’s where each of our signatures are, from each family that is still here waiting,” says Yolani. “It’s critical for that letter to reach the administration so that they can see that we are here, we have not left, and so he sees all the injustices that have been committed in the previous government.”
Call to Action
On behalf of asylum seekers, we invite you to join them in their organizing efforts and sign the petition to SaveAsylum.