“President Biden!” a man shouted into the megaphone. Dozens of people, some holding signs, followed closely behind him.
“Open the border!” the group responded enthusiastically as they walked together to the border wall. A baby girl placed her tiny hands through a chainlink fence to greet advocates waiting on the other side. Two young boys eagerly pressed their faces against the wall to peek through its narrow gaps.
The gathering on April 30 marked the seventh migrant-led march for asylum, and the first under the Biden administration, organized by the Kino Border Initiative, a binational organization serving migrants in Nogales, Mexico. Some of the families they assist have been waiting up to two years for the chance to have a credible fear interview and to seek the right to asylum.
“Being here has been a long nightmare. A nightmare I’d like to already wake up from,” Saul, an asylum seeker from Honduras told the crowd before him. “I thought my situation would improve here in Mexico but that’s not the case. I’ve been here in Nogales for a year and four months. Just like me, there are many families waiting here with kids.”
A young girl holding a letter on behalf of her friend approached the front of the group. “The hardest part is not being able to go outside because we’re afraid they will hurt us,” she read.
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All of these migrants have been impacted by Title 42, an obscure health law that gives the U.S. government unique powers during a public crisis. Former President Trump first enacted it in March 2020 as the pandemic forced large parts of the country to shut down. Under the order, U.S. immigration officials can quickly expel migrants seeking asylum as soon as they cross the border on the grounds that they pose a health risk and to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
President Biden campaigned on the promise of creating change at the southern border. This week, his administration formally rescinded Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, known as MPP, which forced thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico while they applied for asylum. However, his administration has chosen to keep Title 42 in place despite mounting pressure from immigration advocates, Democrats, and leading health experts to end it.
“There is no public health rationale to categorically exclude asylum seekers while millions of other travelers cross the border without testing or contact tracing,” the group Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement. “Science-based public health measures can be implemented at U.S. borders that both protect the health of the American public, U.S. border officers, and communities on both sides of the border, as well as safeguard the lives of those seeking refuge and safety.”In a rare move, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi publicly called on the Biden administration to repeal the order. “I appeal to the government of the United States to swiftly lift the public health-related asylum restrictions that remain in effect at the border and to restore access to asylum for the people whose lives depend on it, in line with international legal and human rights obligations.”
As of April 2021, an estimated 734,379 migrants have been expelled under Title 42 according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most of them have taken place since President Biden took office.
“What Title 42 has done is it has created a lot of chaos and uncertainty and a false narrative around the reality of this moment,” said Sister Tracey Horan, the Kino Border Initiative’s Assistant Director of Education and Advocacy. “And so many people, if they hear that migrants aren't being processed because of the pandemic, they think, well, you know, there's all these migrants who have COVID-19 when the reality is that this is being used as a pretext and an excuse not to process migrants. So it's really a symptom of a broader issue. For years we've seen these tactics of prevention through deterrence.”
The Biden administration has made some exceptions to Title 42 for unaccompanied minors and some families with young children. As part of negotiations with the ACLU, the administration has also agreed to process up to 250 asylum seekers on a daily basis whose cases immigrant organizations on the ground flag as particularly vulnerable.
But the majority that still cannot enter are either returned to their home countries or sent back to Mexico. In border cities like Reynosa and Tijuana, migrants have created makeshift encampments that activists say are unhygienic, particularly during a global pandemic. These sites lack basic necessities such as clean drinking water and have seen increased overcrowding.
Esmeralda, an asylum seeker from Guerrero, Mexico was among those who experienced this firsthand. She and her family fled to Nogales in November 2019 to escape ongoing persecution. Like thousands of others at the time, she was forced to put their names on a long metering list to make an asylum claim. Before their number could be called, Title 42 shut them out.
“My husband has been threatened twice. We were extorted four days ago. It’s very difficult for my family to stay here,” Esmeralda told “Real America with Jorge Ramos” during the march in Nogales.
Their situation served as the catalyst for her to become KBI’s spokesperson during the marches. But Esmeralda still carries the pain of her journey.
“Have mercy on those of us who are here because this is horrible. It’s horrible being in limbo,” she said through tears.
In mid-May after more than 500 days of waiting, Esmeralda was finally able to cross into the United States with her husband and children. They are currently awaiting a court date for their initial asylum hearings. The entire process can take several years.
“Please take this message to Biden: save asylum,” said Esmeralda.