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Under Biden, The Border Remains Closed To Most Asylum Seekers

→ Biden's 100-Day Plan: The Impact On Arizona

President Joe Biden ends the first 100 days of his presidency next week, a traditional honeymoon period when presidents lay out the first big agenda items of their term. KJZZ reporters bring you a series looking at how decisions in those key points will affect Arizona.

Published: April 28, 2021

The Kino Border Initiative's shelter in Nogales, Sonora. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

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A mile-long line of U.S.-bound cars crawled past the Kino Border Initiative’s comedor, or soup kitchen, in Nogales, Sonora, early on a recent Monday morning, as about two dozen people stood in the shade of a bright purple wall waiting to pick up to-go meals from the migrant aid group.

“We’re asking for asylum,” said Maria, who was with her husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 11. “And I hope they will give us an answer soon because it’s very, very hard waiting here.”

She said her family has been in Nogales for more than three months now, since they fled their home in the Mexican state of Guerrero after armed men attacked her husband. She asked that we only use her first name out of fear that the same criminal groups will track her down in Nogales.

Maria and her family are among thousands of people stuck at the border here because of Title 42 — a provision implemented by the Trump administration last March, closing ports of entry to asylum seekers and quickly expelling those who cross the border elsewhere. Though the pandemic has been used to justify the policy, medical experts have rejected public health justifications from the outset.

Maria watched as hundreds of cars on their way to the port of entry rolled by the growing number of migrants waiting for a meal at the soup kitchen.

“It’s so easy for them,” she said.

Migrants wait outside Kino Border Initiative's shelter and soup kitchen in Nogales, Sonora, on April 12, 2021. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

Hear Kendal Blust's Interview With Host Mark Brodie On The Show


While border travel restrictions remain in place and prevent many Mexican citizens from crossing the border into the United States, U.S. citizens and permanent residents and those who have what the government considers an essential reason to travel easily cross back and forth.

“I’m not the only person that’s waiting to ask for asylum, there are many of us, so many people who came, like me, because of crime, and that have been here for much longer than I have,” Maria added. “I’m very aware that there are people who’ve been waiting for more than a year, two years.”

She said they’re all desperate for President Biden to follow through with promises to undo Trump administration policies that cut off access to asylum at the border, including metering, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and Title 42.

And Biden has taken some steps. Importantly, he has ended MPP, often called the “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced more than 70,000 asylum seekers to wait south of the border while their asylum cases proceed through U.S. courts. Slowly, thousands of people previously enrolled in the program are being allowed into the United States to continue the asylum process.

Staff scoop food into reusable containers for migrants at the Kino Border Initiative's soup kitchen in Nogales, Sonora, on April 12, 2021. Kendal BlustKJZZ

Asylum seekers in the program are only being processed through three ports of entry in Texas and California, however, meaning those in Nogales have to make their way to Tijuana to be able to cross. And because only some asylum seekers were enrolled in MPP, many don’t benefitfrom the policy change, including those from Mexico, many Black asylum seekers from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere generally not included in the program, and people who have arrived at the border since the start of the pandemic.

And because Biden has upheld Title 42, asylum is still inaccessible to most.

“I hope that changes, because it’s ugly living this way, far from home, worrying that you’re being pursued by armed groups, or that you’re vulnerable in Nogales where people stop you and ask where you’re from and what you’re doing, and you don’t know who they are,” she said. “And we just want to get out of here, truly. Because these people have ways of finding us even now.”

Before her husband was attacked, she says, her family had a peaceful life in a beautiful, rural community.

Now, they don’t know if they can ever go back. And her daughters, traumatized by what happened to their father, don’t want to.

“They saw their father taken from the house, beaten, and as young as they are they feel hatred for the people who did those things,” she said through tears. “All this suffering, it’s not fair, because they’re just little girls, they’re still just girls and they don’t understand.”

Seeing her daughters suffer has been the hardest part, she said.

Crosses lean against the border wall in Nogales, Sonora, on April 12, 2021. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

No Plans

“Every day that somebody is here in Nogales is another day that their kids are out of school; is another day that they have inadequate access to healthcare; is another day that families are separated,” said Joanna Williams is the executive director of Kino Border Initiative. “But fundamentally, also, every day that people are spending in Nogales is another day they don’t feel safe.”

While Nogales is safer than many border cities asylum seekers are waiting in or being expelled to, she said reports of migrants being robbed, extorted, assaulted and threatened are on the rise in Nogales.

A new report from migrant advocacy groups found at least 492 reports of kidnappings, rapes and assaults of people waiting at the border or sent back to Mexico under Title 42 since Biden took office.

Unlike under the Trump administration, most children traveling alone and some families who cross the border are being allowed to stay.

Artwork is displayed at the Kino Border Initiative shelter, where Save the Children runs programs for migrant children. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

“But it’s unclear what the actual protocol is, or if these are just one-off exceptions,” Williams said.

Luck, and whom Mexico will accept, seems to decide who is allowed to stay and who is sent back rather than policy.

The Biden administration is still turning away most people, sometimes flying them across the country to expel them at other parts of the border, returning them to remote areas or deporting them in the middle of the night.

Williams said a hard-fought policy that restricted nighttime deportations before the pandemic is no longer being respected. Border Patrol did not respond to a request for comment.

“I would say at least half of the nights of the week we’re hearing cases of nighttime deportations,” she said. “And sometimes large groups, sometimes it’s 100 people at 2 a.m., who then don’t have a place to stay and end up on the streets, or end up walking along and being assaulted by criminal organizations, and it’s so unnecessary.”

And asylum seekers who’ve spent months or years at the border for a chance to cross through legal ports of entry still have no idea when their waits will end.

“What we need is for the administration to tell us what the plan is,” Williams said. “President Biden is coming up on 100 days now and we have yet to see a document, a plan, an announcement that says, ‘This is what we’re going to do to restore access to asylum.’”

Selvin Acosta, of Honduras, came to the Kino Border Initiative's shelter in Nogales, Sonora, after being expelled from the United States under Title 42. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

Continuing To Cross

Inside Kino Border Initiative’s soup kitchen, volunteers and workers scoops portions of chicken, rice and stew out of huge pots into reusable plastic containers.

Nearby, Selvin Acosta alone at a large picnic table in KBI’s spacious dining room, surrounded by vibrant, towering paintings of religious scenes, and other migrants, spaced out at their own tables around the room.

“It has never been my dream to go to the United States,” said the 33-year-old Honduran.

But two hurricanes that devastated Honduras last year left him no choice, he said. The storms destroyed his home, flooded the distribution center where he worked, and left his family with nothing.

So, he made the grueling, dangerous journey to the border and tried to cross.

On this first try, he said, he tried to run for Border Patrol agents and fell into a hole, hitting his head on a rock and leaving scars on his face and hands.

He tried again, but this time turned himself over to Border Patrol to be sent back across the border, he said.

“I consider myself a very responsible dad, that wants to see them better off, to see them grow up and to serve others,” he said, breaking down in tears. “One of the hardest things for me would be to go back to my country without fulfilling the promises I made to my sons.”

Staff and volunteers serve to-go meals to migrants at the Kino Border Initiative's soup kitchen in Nogales, Sonora, on April 12, 2021. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

He wants them to have a good education, he said. A good life. And so, he plans to cross the border again.

Before the pandemic, migrants like Acosta normally would have been deported back to their countries of origin, but are now being quickly sent back across the border into Mexico under Title 42, making it more difficult to get home but easier to try crossing the border again.

That has increased the percentage of repeat crossing, which has helped drive up the number of apprehensions at the border. As have factors like seasonal migration and pent-up demand at the border that has pushed many to risk crossing outside of ports, or to send children across alone in hopes that they will be allowed to stay in the U.S.

But like Acosta, not all migrants fleeing their homes are seeking asylum.

“I think it’s important to have both conversations, because it wouldn’t be correct to say that every single person at the border right now is an asylum seeker,” said Williams. “What I say is that we’re in a situation of forced displacement, and some of that forced displacement is because of violence, and come of it is because of climate change and because of economic factors.”

Ending Title 42, reopening ports of entry and restoring a working asylum system is a priority.

But Williams and others say the United States needs to provide protections and legal immigration pathways for those fleeing home for reasons other than violence and persecution. The Biden administration has also rightly been turning attention to working on issues of hunger and displacement within Central America, Williams said, “but that’s long slow work, and it’s not going to resolve someone’s situation tomorrow.”

Many are also concerned with ensuring that asylum seekers encounter a fair system once they are able to make their claims.

Asylum seekers hold up signs at the border wall in Nogales, Sonora, on Dec. 2, 2020 during a #SaveAsylum protest asking President-Elect Joe Biden to prioritize the restoration of the asylum process at the U.S.-Mexico border when he takes office. Kino Border Initiative

“There’s just a lot of assumptions that so many folks are not going to win,” said Yael Schacher, an immigration historian and senior U.S. advocate with the nonprofit Refugees International.

Just ensuring access to lawyers and reducing the use of detention would help many people with legitimate asylum claims successfully navigate the system.

But the perception that people fleeing Mexico and Central America don’t qualify for asylum also needs to change, she said, adding that there’s a “vicious cycle” of U.S. standards for asylum making it hard for people fleeing certain types of persecution - including domestic and gang violence - to win their cases, and the assumption that people from some parts of the world won’t qualify for asylum.

And the idea that people from Mexico and Central America do not need protection is only reinforced, she said, by new Biden administration agreements with Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to send thousands of troops to their own border to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the U.S.

“To tell a sending country to close the border means either don’t believe in the right of people to flee, or you don’t believe they are fleeing,” Schacher said.

Children hold up signs they made asking for the United States to open the border to asylum seekers during a demonstration in Nogales, Sonora, on Oct. 21, 2020. Kino Border Initiative

‘I Just Want Protection’

But for people like Esmeralda Ibarra, the need to flee is very real.

“I just want protection in the United States,” said Ibarra, standing in the shade of the Kino Border Initiative's two-story building. “We’re not criminals. We’re not taking jobs. We just want to be safe. I just want my children to be safe.”

Ibarra said her family left their home in Guerrero in 2019 fleeing threats by armed groups. Just months later, her father-in-law was killed by those same people.

Now, she said, they’re in limbo — unable to return home, unable to seek asylum in the United States and stuck in the country they are trying to flee.

“It was a great deception,” she said of arriving at the border in late 2019 to find that she first had to put her name on an unofficial waiting list and could face months at the border before U.S. officials would allow her to make her claim, under a Trump-era policy known as metering. Then, the pandemic hit in March, closing the border to all asylum seekers amid the pandemic under Title 42.

Ibarra and her family have been stranded at the border in Nogales for nearly a year and a half.

And for now, they’re still waiting on Biden.

→ Biden's 100-Day Plan: The Impact On Arizona

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.