Time can seem both fast and slow at the same time. For many migrants waiting for their chance to present at the port of entry, time can seem to stand still. Progress doesn’t happen. Then there are moments when time bursts forward suddenly, and seismic shifts that affect tens of thousands of lives happen with the flick of a pen. Overnight, the realities of immigration between Mexico and the US have changed.
We’re just over six months into 2021, and I am only four months into my tenure as Executive Director. A lot has changed in that short time. In fact, you might call it a whirlwind. In true Ignatian fashion, I’d like to pause with you today and do an examen. We have many consolations to celebrate from this year so far. We have desolations, too. As we hold the beauty and challenges of this year so far, we begin to see a clearer picture of where we are to press forward together for more humane and just immigration.
Consolations: Seeing the Fruit of Pressure to Expand Asylum Access
One of the greatest shifts we’ve seen so far has been the expansion of access to the border for some asylum seekers. Thanks to the tireless efforts of migrants, advocates, and our partners here, the Biden Administration has cracked the window open for asylum seekers. The recent Title 42 Exemption referral process, also known as the “Consortium” process, has enabled several dozen migrants to present themselves at the port of entry in Nogales, Sonora each day. While this number represents only a tiny fraction of people at the border, the reality is that the process was a big change. Prior to the exemption, virtually no one was being accepted at the port of entry under the guise of Title 42. It has taken a long, focused campaign of pressure to ensure that migrants get processed at the port of entry. We have been glad to see this small change, hopeful it’s a harbinger or greater expansion.
The other critical change we’ve seen in the past few months is the termination of the Migrant Protection Protocols. The policy was first rolled out in January 2019 and illegally forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their asylum court proceedings. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers were turned away at the border under this policy, often forced to live in unsanitary and dangerous conditions as they waited for the chance to appear at the port of entry. Camps of migrants waiting along the US-Mexico border swelled, as did organized crime operations taking advantage of them. Migrants who did manage to receive a court date at the border often missed their hearings in the United States due to the difficulty of crossing the border to get there in time.
Now, migrants with open cases and those whose cases were closed for reasons beyond their control (such as being kidnapped during their court date), will be able pursue their asylum claims within the US. This shift affects tens of thousands of migrants. We are glad to see this cruel policy end.
Neither of these changes would have been possible without the commitment of groups like the Save Asylum coalition working alongside us. The Save Asylum coalition emerged precisely in light of the inhumanity of Trump-era policies like MPP. The coalition consists of civil society groups spanning secular and religious spheres, bringing together Sanctuary Movement veterans, asylum seekers at KBI, faith-based organizations, and advocacy groups to create a binational movement rooted in the concept of civil initiative. Migrant voices led the way. Together, we organized eight actions in Ambos Nogales to call attention to the horrific and illegal conditions migrants were facing. The Biden Administration has finally heard their voices.
Desolations: The Punitive and Arbitrary Policies that Remain
Despite these important gains, we have much further to go before we achieve justice for migrants. The repeal of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) leaves out huge numbers of migrants who lost their cases through no fault of their own, such as lacking legal representation. Similarly, the use of Title 42 to summarily expel the vast majority of migrants remains in place. Ironically, Title 42 accomplishes much of what the MPP policy did; migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for the chance to present at the port of entry. The same dangers of kidnapping and the same violation of the international right to seek asylum remain in full force. A wide swath of experts have already indicated that Title 42 does no good from a public health perspective. It is clear that the policy remains in effect simply to restrict access to the border.
We must not forget that these restrictions at the port of entry are new. The MPP were introduced only in 2019. Similarly, the practice of “metering” migrants, or limiting the number of migrants who are permitted access to asylum at the ports of entry each day, was implemented border-wide as policy only in 2018. These arbitrary restrictions continue to do damage to migrants, border towns like ours, and the broader relationship between the US and Mexico. We must remember that they are not set in stone. With concerted effort, we can and must abandon these hideous and legally questionable policies.
Another dark reality has re-emerged: indefinite detention. During the pandemic, ICE felt some pressure to avoid outbreaks of Covid-19 and worked to move migrants out of detention more swiftly. Now that ICE has realized they can vaccinate migrants, they have felt less pressure to avoid overcrowding migrants in detention centers or moving them to more sanitary conditions. As a result, we are seeing migrants detained longer, often without any clear communication to their families or sponsors as to why they are being held. These detentions have included migrants approved by the aforementioned Title 42 Exemption Referral Process. We have documented cases of ICE detaining people who we had previously referred for the exemption. As per usual, federal agencies interacting with migrants struggle to uphold migrant rights, and they have few mechanisms for accountability. We continue to call for the US government to rein in the constant abuse of migrants or cede its authority to hold them in custody.
What Comes Next: Charting a Course Together
Change happens only through collaboration. As we look to the days ahead, holding these wins and these battles still to face, I have grown more appreciative each day of the coalition we have. Over the past three months, Kino Border Initiative has welcomed seven new staff to our team. Each person is a gift. I have been thrilled to welcome everyone from Alma Rosa Sarmiento Marchan as our Shelter Operations Assistant to Pedro de Velasco Garza as our Director of Education and Advocacy. Of course, this growth has only been possible thanks to the generosity of our donors, people like you.
As vaccination rates have climbed, we have been able to welcome back some volunteers into our space. I can feel the swell of our own capacity with the arrival of these co-laborers. Truly, we are prepared to press forward in every way we can to restore access to asylum, hold CBP accountable, and find workable migration solutions for people who have been unjustly deported. I’m still relatively new to leading this dynamic team. The importance of having the right people at your side has become more apparent to me every day.
I know that President Biden is still assembling his team, too. This past month, he dismissed the long-time head of Border Patrol, Rodney Scott, who oversaw the implementation of many inhumane policies over the past years. At the same time, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus is preparing for his confirmation hearing this month. If confirmed, he will lead Customs and Border Protection. In turn, he will likely choose the next head of Border Patrol. Whomever leads these two divisions, the transition in leadership marks an inflection point. It’s a moment where we must call for foundational shifts in how CBP approaches migration and interacts with migrants themselves. These changes can start as early as the confirmation hearings. We are currently pushing to ask key questions of Magnus at his confirmation hearing. We need commitments and partnership in doing better for everyone at the border, no matter which side they’re on.
We are in a moment of clarity. We have seen the fruit of our efforts from the past few months. We can clearly see where we still have work to do in the pursuit of just and workable migration. Now, I can see the ways that a team is coming together to rise up and press forward. Woven through it all, I can see that God is collaborating with us, too. It’s not lost on me that this movement is happening during the year of Ignatius, in the month of his feast day. He knew better than most what it means to mobilize people to go forth and transform the world with Christ’s love. We ask for his intercession on our behalf; we aim to do the same here at the border.