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Asylum seekers in Nogales compare Title 42 immigration policy to crucifixion

Sunday marked the second anniversary of Title 42, the pandemic-era policy enacted by the Trump administration that allows border officers to turn almost everyone back to Mexico or to their home countries on public health grounds.

Several hundred migrants and advocates commemorated the day with a march through Nogales, Sonora on Monday. Migrants carried handmade signs and a big wooden cross with the phrase  “End Title 42,” painted in bright red. They made 14 stops throughout the city, singing, praying and talking about their lives in Nogales and how Title 42 has affected them. 

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Maria would give only her first name for security concerns. She said her family fled extortion and insecurity in Michoacan. She came to Nogales with her young kids and husband seven months ago. They want to claim asylum in the U.S.

“My children don’t deserve to live fleeing from here to there with no set future,” she said in Spanish. “They deserve something better than running from place to place.” 

Maria said like many people here, her family already has their COVID-19 vaccines. Now, they just want an opportunity to make their case for protection in the U.S.

“[We just want] them to listen to us,” she said. 

Joanna Williams is the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a faith-based aid group in Nogales that helped organize the march. She says Title 42 has transformed their operations.

“We used to be an organization that someone would walk up and say, you know, ‘I’m trying to seek asylum,’ we would give them the information and they would move on,” she said. “But the fact that now people have to figure out where am I going to live in the meantime, how am I going to stay safe? Where am I going to get a job opportunity?”

Williams said Monday’s march aligned with the Catholic season of Lent and was meant to re-enact Jesus' journey to the crucifixion. 

“Each of the 14 stops are different pieces of Jesus’ journey,” she said. “It both speaks to his suffering but also the way the community came alongside, there was somebody else to help carry the cross, for the migrants that symbolizes the people who have been generous to them along their journey.”

It was the latest migrant-led demonstration in Nogales over the last few years. Last September, a group of families carrying vaccine cards and negative COVID tests marched to the port of entry and asked to speak to a port officer about asylum. But one by one, each were turned away. 

The U.S. has carried out some 1.7 million so-called Title 42 expulsions over the last two years, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. The policy’s next review is March 30.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration officially ended the use of the protocol for unaccompanied children, but continues to use it on families and adults traveling alone. Also in March, a D.C. circuit court said the administration could continue to use the protocol to expel families, but could not use it to send them to countries where they’d face persecution. Legal advocates say they’re not sure yet how that will affect Title 42 removals on the ground. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to clarify Maria's quote regarding her children. 

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.