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In Nogales, the end of Title 42 was a day like any other. But more questions remain about asylum

Title 42 came to an end on Friday after more than three years. 

The once-obscure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol was put in place by the Trump administration in 2020 under the premise that it was needed to protect public health during the pandemic. It’s also been expanded under President Joe Biden.

In practice, it’s allowed border officers to quickly turn away migrants they encounter at border ports of entry or between them, without giving them a chance to ask for asylum – despite international and US law that requires it. 

It's tied to the federal public health emergency declaration for COVID-19, which Health and Human Services announced would end on May 11.

For months now, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have insisted that getting rid of Title 42 would bring chaos to the border. 

But like in other places, those claims were a far cry from reality in Nogales.

When the protocol officially came to a close just before 9 p.m. Thursday night in Arizona, the entrance to the DeConcini Port of Entry was almost empty. An eloté vendor shucked pale ears of corn and a handful of aid workers and journalists stood by, but no asylum seekers. 

It was a silent end to a policy that has transformed asylum access here. Chelsea Sachau is a lawyer with the legal aid group Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who’s been working with migrants stuck in Nogales. 

“It’s a policy that’s affected so many lives immeasurable ways,” she said. 

Nogales is a binational community where two border crossings serve as busy trade routes and as portals for families split between the U.S. and Mexico. 

It’s also become a hub for migrants who are looking for protection in the U.S.  Migrants have led calm, but steady demonstrations here, advocating for the lifting of Title 42.

In September of 2021, dozens of asylum seeking families and supporters marched to the port on a rainy afternoon holding hand-painted signs and a megaphone. 

The families carried vaccine cards and other travel documents required back then to pass through the border and stood in line with other pedestrian travelers. Each one was turned away that day. Sachau said it’s surreal, remembering marches like that in this quiet space now.

“To have seen them fight for access to vaccines, access to safety, access to employment, and then for it to kind of end on this kind of quiet street in front of the port ... a little bit [of] disbelief,” she said. 

Earlier Thursday, Sachau was at an aid center called the Kino Border Initiative to brief about 200 people about what was coming next.  She and other volunteers announced Title 42 was finally coming to close and a round of applause erupted. Then, they described what would happen next. 

It wasn’t the first time the Kino Border Initiative has hosted talks like this. Court battles have nearly ended Title 42 a few times over the years now. Sachau said each near-sunset brings fresh confusion for asylum seekers here and advocates trying to help them.

“I tell them what is long-term immigration law, and then as far as the new changes, where there are discrepancies or things that aren’t the clearest, we explain… what could happen,” she said. “But that’s a lot of uncertainty, and people are just trying to navigate things correctly.” 

Since January, migrants in Nogales hoping to ask for asylum in the U.S. have done so through the CBP One app. That’s the program Customs and Border Protection launched here and a handful of other ports that allows migrants to apply for a fixed amount of asylum appointments each day.

That process will continue now that Title 42 is over. Pedro De Velasco, education and advocacy director with the Kino Border Initiative, said using the app just isn’t realistic for some migrants. Many asylum seekers don’t speak Spanish, English or Haitian Creole, the three languages available on CBP One, others may be illiterate. 

“Our main concern with the CBP One app is that it’s been the sole way for people to access asylum from the port,” he said. “It's heavily relying on, you know, believing that every asylum seeker has a cell phone and that they have a smartphone, and that they know how to, you know, download and operate this application.”

But the end of Title 42 is ushering in other big changes at the border — and more questions.

Under the Biden administration’s newly-finalized asylum rule, migrants who don’t use the CBP One app at a port of entry will be blocked from accessing asylum in the U.S. if they haven’t applied — and been denied — for protection in another country they passed through.

Sachau said it’s unclear how the new asylum restriction will reshape things now. 

“Before Title 42 existed, people could walk up to a port of entry, there became policies like metering or MPP, where they also tried to restrict access to asylum, but what the law requires is that somebody is able to walk up and not be turned away,” she said. “So I do think that is a step forward, the concern is if the government is sort of providing that option when it’s really a smoke and mirrors act because they’re going to punish someone who uses it.”

The morning after Title 42 ended began just like any other in Nogales. A lineup of pedestrians crossing into Arizona snaked its way past the metal turnstile of the port. 

Venezuelan asylum seeker Wilmer Rafael Carson Castillo was among a small group of migrants waiting for their CBP One appointments nearby. 

He said he left home eight months ago and traveled through the Darién Gap, across Central America and Mexico to reach the border here.

"Our country is in a critical situation," he said in Spanish. "It's not possible to live."

He said he and others presented to border officers along the Texas-Mexico border and were taken into custody, then sent to Tijuana. He and his partner were separated along the way. She's already made it to the U.S., he finally got a CBP One appointment in Nogales and hopes to do the same today. 

“We are happy for the appointment…and I hope that God gives us a way there now,” he said. "The experience is very difficult ... but you have to fight for the well-being of your family.”

More stories from KJZZ

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