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Two months after Title 42, long wait and more confusion for asylum seekers in Nogales

It’s been a little more than two months since the pandemic-era protocol Title 42 came to an end at the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy was in place for more than three years and allowed border officers to turn away migrants on public health grounds, without giving them a chance to ask for asylum — despite U.S. and international laws that require it. 

By the time the protocol came to a close on May 11, Angela, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Venezuela, was already on the road.

“We walked through almost all of Central America,” she said. 

We’re not using her full name because she’s worried it will affect her asylum case in the U.S.

I met her and her husband at the Kino Border Initiative, an aid center for migrants in Nogales, Sonora. They passed through 11 countries to get here. 

She says they can’t go back to Venezuela because her husband abandoned his military service when he objected to government actions there. They’re worried entering the country again will land him in prison. 

They’ve been bouncing around other countries for the last few years. They were living in Chile, but it kept getting more expensive to survive. 

"Gasoline, food, everything, everything,” she said. “And I said, 'now where?' I mean, what are we going to do? Because in those countries, it's very rare that they give you asylum, that they help you, right?”

So, back in April, she and her husband set out for the U.S. and sent their 5-year-old daughter to live with Angela’s mother. The couple knew the trek would take them through several countries and a rugged jungle connecting South and Central America called the Darien Gap. It’s a roadless and deadly stretch migrants and asylum seekers are using to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Angela gets teary-eyed talking about it.

“I didn’t dare take her through the Darien jungle,” she said. “I could cry right now because of how much I miss her, but I couldn’t expose her to that.”

She and her husband landed in Nogales this month because it’s where they managed to secure a CBP One appointment.

The smartphone app was created by Customs and Border Protection before Title 42 was lifted earlier this year. It allows asylum seekers to make appointments with border officers at a handful of ports of entry border-wide. 

Nogales is the only city along the Arizona-Sonora border where appointments are available. 

Approaching the port of entry as an asylum seeker was nearly impossible under Title 42 because the protocol allowed border officers to turn people away on public health grounds. 

Rights advocates hoped for a shift when the protocol ended in May. Instead, Pedro De Velasco, education and advocacy director at the Kino Border Initiative, says families in Nogales are finding more confusion.

“They're telling us that it was violence, it was some form of persecution that made them leave their hometowns and arrive to our border,” he said. “And it’s not until they arrive here that they learn that they cannot simply approach the port of entry and request admission, because there's a wait line.”

That waiting line is two-fold.

First, thousands of asylum seekers are vying for a fixed number of CBP One appointments allotted border-wide every day. 

CBP  expanded the daily allotment to 1,450 at the end of June. But De Velasco says many asylum seekers are still waiting  months to secure a slot, and some in Nogales can't afford to wait. In the weeks after Title 42, asylum seekers began lining up at the port of entry here without CBP One appointments, hoping to explain their situation. 

“They are downloading the app. They're hoping that they're able to secure an appointment through CBP One app, but in the meantime, they don't feel safe waiting here in Mexico,” he said. “Most of the folks that we are serving, they're actually Mexican nationals that are fleeing violence and persecution, and they're forced to wait in the same country that they're trying to flee.”

On a recent visit to the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, a few dozen asylum seekers with CBP One appointments stood in line holding luggage and documents. Behind them, next to the entrance of the building, another, smaller group of families laid down or sat against the wall, hoping for the chance to speak with port officers. 

De Velasco says those without CBP appointments are sleeping at the port for days or even more than a week. Municipal authorities in Nogales started a second wait list for them. 

De Velasco says it's about 300 people long right now, and only a few families from that list are seen each day. He says instead of focusing on how to keep more asylum seekers from reaching the port, the capacity to process their requests should be increased.

“Going to the DeConcini Port of Entry, signing their names in the list and, and waiting to be called might seem like a best option, but the list is not moving any faster than the CBP One app,” he said. “The border is just one of the steps for people getting to where they want to go. And we are creating this bottleneck,” he said. 

A reportreleased this month by the advocacy group Human Rights First found that asylum seekers have been subject to violent attacks like rape, kidnapping and other assaults by organized crime while waiting for CBP One appointments.

Christina Asencio, director of research analysis and refugee protection at Human Rights First, co-authored the report and interviewed asylum seekers waiting in Nogales.

“There was someone who didn't have a telephone because they had been robbed and so they couldn't access the app, others who had been waiting months in really difficult conditions, they didn't have any resources any more to support themselves,” she said. “So while waiting, trapped, essentially trying to get a limited appointment through this inequitable app that's riddled with glitches, trying to use it, people are driven to desperation to try to seek safety and to seek asylum.” 

Under the Biden administration’s new rule, asylum seekers who don’t use the CBP One app face a higher threshold for getting to enter, and stay, in the U.S. They have to prove they tried to get protection in another country first — and were denied. 

Asencio says she and other researchers spoke with many families in Nogales and other ports who were unaware of the new policies altogether.

De Velasco says it’s a quagmire that leaves asylum seekers in impossible positions.

"How can we expect a person who is fleeing for their life to understand this complex process, these rules and regulations," he said. "And the consequences are very severe."

He says even those who manage to secure CBP One appointments, like Angela and her husband, face an uncertain future if and when they make it to the U.S. 

Back at the Kino Border Initiative, Angela pulls out a picture of her daughter taken at her birthday party. She’s in a baby blue dress and has a bushel of black, curly hair, just like her mom. 

She says she hopes to get asylum and then citizenship in the U.S., so that they could bring their daughter to join them later on. On phone calls, Angela says her daughter asks why they came here.

“I explain, I send her photos … but yes, she asks me why I came, what I’m doing, things she doesn’t understand,” she said. “Everything I do is for her, and later on she’ll realize all the sacrifices we are making.”

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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.