Asylum Seekers Begin High-Stakes Process to Leave Mexico, Enter U.S. After Biden Policy Changes

When Donald Trump forced migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to instead remain in Mexico, the move was assailed by human rights organizations, but the logistics ended there.

President Joe Biden reversed that policy effective February 19, and the Homeland Security Department, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been tasked with safely processing up to 25,000 migrants, starting with about 300 per day at two border crossings, Brownsville and El Paso in Texas, and a lesser number at San Diego's San Ysidro crossing, according to the Associated Press.

The particulars of rebuilding the asylum system, with its many moving parts, and processing up to 25,000 migrants who have open cases would have been deeply challenging in normal times, but is a herculean task during a global pandemic that has seen over 500,000 Americans die.

The Biden administration has stressed that people without open Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) cases will not be denied entry and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said in interviews and press releases from the agency that the program should not be construed as a pronouncement that the U.S. border is open.

"Travel restrictions at the border remain in place and will be enforced," he said.

In a statement, Mayorkas warned of the danger migrants face when they take the "perilous journey" to the United States.

That is likely an understatement.

The journey for these migrants begins in Tijuana, Mexico, where the U.S. government has issued written directions in English and Spanish that those with open court cases should first register on a new website, and then receive a COVID-19 test before beginning the process of being shuttled to the United States.

The website was not yet operational last Friday, the first day of processing migrants at the San Ysidro Port into San Diego, and only 25 migrants who were deemed more vulnerable cases made it through. It is expected to be functional this week.

Once registered, the majority of migrants will await reach out from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which provides an antigen COVID-19 test at a staging area. If the test is negative they go into a new area with their family—there is no separation of families—before waiting 24 hours to be transported to the port of entry. If the test is positive the migrant must be quarantined in an isolation facility for 10 days, where they then would receive a PCR test to guard against a false negative.

Dana Graber Ladek, the chief of mission at IOM Mexico, which is meeting with and supporting the U.S. and Mexico governments in the effort, emphasized that the migrants should be given humane treatment.

"The priority for the U.S. government is that this is done in a safe and COVID-free way, so this is why there are such strict procedures put in place," she told Newsweek. "Quarantine, testing, social distancing, hand-washing are all in place to make sure they pass the first part in a contained environment. It's much stronger than other entries by land into the United States."

After reaching the port, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) processes migrants using facial recognition, verifying their identity, before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decides who is a security or flight risk and is forced to wear an ankle monitor.
Immigration groups oppose this procedure, arguing surveillance is unnecessary.

It is at this point that migrants, having traveled thousands of miles, or waited in Mexico for months or years, are met by Jewish Family Services (JFS) in San Diego, a group that is part of the California Welcoming Task Force, which supports all migrants that are processed into San Diego before heading to their final destination.

The group works with the county of San Diego public health to coordinate hotel stays and provide case management, as well as financial and travel support assistance. If the migrant has family elsewhere in the U.S. the group helps them get to their relatives, while they await their court date.

The first group of 25 asylum seekers included six families and five individuals from Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba.

Two of the migrants allowed into the U.S. are Jose, 29, and his four-year-old son Santiago who fled Honduras after gangs demanded a "war tax" on his carwash business, The New York Times reported. His wife, who has a visa, and his older son, who is a U.S. citizen, were able to travel to New Jersey, but Jose had to seek asylum and was kidnapped by criminals and beaten with a baseball bat in Mexico until his wife, listening over the phone, paid a ransom.

The largest Mexican migrant camp is in Matamoros, Mexico, an area the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to visit, for good reason. The Human Rights First organization released a report that said there had been more than 1,500 reports of assault, rape, kidnapping, and murder against migrants forced to remain in Mexico under the MPP policy.

Alex Mensing with the Innovation Law Lab who coordinates communication for the California Welcoming Task Force out of Tijuana, told Newsweek the migrants have an urgent need to enter the U.S. because they face abuse waiting in Tijuana. He received a report that last week a man walking home from work was picked up by municipal police who force him to perform oral sex on the cop or else face deportation from Mexico.

The groups who spoke to Newsweek also said battling misinformation and "fake news" has been paramount in getting this process right. The California Welcoming Task Force, comprising 97 organizations, creates infographics in five languages for migrants stuck in Mexico in an effort to ameliorate the suffering and decrease the fear that one wrong move, online or on the ground, could deny them entry to the U.S. forever.

When the first two dozen migrants were let in Friday, hundreds of migrants crowded the pedestrian border crossing. "The news said they were going to reopen," one migrant said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Organizations on the ground in Mexico described a fluid situation that was changing every 24 to 48 hours. One area that groups were particularly watching related to processing is whether U.S. agencies try to stem the flow of migrants to avoid a "bottleneck" by claiming that the non-governmental groups are having capacity issues.

"Jewish Family Service has never not been able to deal with everyone released to them," Mensing said. "DHS has been insinuating to be careful about capacity and overrunning NGOs but that won't happen. CBP has lied in the past that there is no capacity, when there is clearly capacity."

Adding to the situation, the long-awaited registration site for migrants in the MPP program briefly went live and people were able to sign up, before the site went down and people were told their registrations wouldn't count, Mensing said.

"I'm not inclined to cut anyone any slack when there are lots of resources but you have to start somewhere," he said.

Graber Ladek said the most important information being communicated by the government at the moment is the need to wait, because rushing will not help the process. But she also said those on the Mexican and American sides of the border should recognize "this has been an inhumane system that various UN agencies have not supported."

"We applaud the current administration for putting an end to MPP," she said. "Many individuals have been exposed to fraud, extortion, and are not able to cover their basic needs. Their asylum claims mean they could be fleeing persecution in their country of origin so you need to approach it from a humanitarian aspect, and not one of fear."

migrants into US
Asylum seekers from Honduras wait at a bus station after they were released from U.S. immigration authorities on February 8, in Brownsville, Texas. Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, increased numbers of asylum seekers, most from Central America, have begun crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, and immigration authorities have been releasing them to stay in the U.S. pending court hearings. John Moor/Getty