At least 25 migrants who have been waiting in Mexico for months while they seek asylum in the U.S. have been allowed into the country, part of the Biden administration efforts to roll back the Trump-era policy known as "Remain in Mexico."
The policy required asylum-seekers to stay south of the border until their U.S. immigration court hearings.
The asylum-seekers tested negative for Covid-19 in Mexico and were taken to San Diego hotels to quarantine before they take a plane or a bus to their final destinations in the U.S., said Michael Hopkins, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which is playing a support role as part of a coalition of nongovernmental groups called the San Diego Rapid Response Network.
Officials granted the asylum-seekers notices to appear in court upon entrance.
The U.S. is expected to allow entry to 25 people a day through the San Diego port of entry as long as they have active court cases under the “Remain in Mexico” program, according to Hopkins. While authorities have the capacity to process up to 300 asylum-seekers a day at the San Diego border crossing, he said it's unclear if they will change the target of 25 a day.
Starting next week, more asylum-seekers will be allowed into the U.S. through two Texas ports of entry in El Paso and Brownsville.
About 25,000 people have active cases under the "Remain in Mexico" program and hundreds of others are appealing decisions in court. The program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, exposed people to violence in Mexican border cities and made it extremely difficult for them to find lawyers and communicate with U.S. courts about their cases.
"Desperate" for answers
As the Biden administration continues to return the asylum system to the way it worked for decades, there are unanswered questions, including how Central Americans who returned home will get back to the U.S.-Mexico border. It's also unclear how long it will take to work through all the cases, with the oldest cases going first.
“We don’t have any information,” Delis Alvarez, an immigrant from Honduras, told Telemundo 20. “I’m desperate because they keep changing my dates and I’m not getting any answers." Alvarez said she arrived in Mexico with her daughters two years ago and has not yet secured asylum after showing up to three court dates.
A total of roughly 70,000 asylum-seekers were part of the program since it started in January 2019, but asylum-seekers whose cases were dismissed or denied are not eligible to return to the country. U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility of offering some form of relief for them later on.
Despite the program's rollback, U.S. officials are advising people not to come to the U.S.-Mexico border and instead register on a website that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is launching early next week.
Edwin Gomez, who said his wife and 14-year-old son were killed by gangs in El Salvador after he couldn't pay extortion fees from his auto repair shop, was eager to join his 15-year-old daughter in Austin, Texas. She already won asylum and is living with family.
"Who thought this day would come?"
“Who thought this day would come?” Gomez, 36, said Wednesday in Tijuana, Mexico, at a border crossing with San Diego. “I never thought it would happen.”
Across the border from Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Enda Marisol Rivera of El Salvador and her 10-year-old son have been braving below-freezing temperatures this week, snuggling under piles of donated blankets in their makeshift tent of tarps. Their propane gas stove froze, she said. Despite the added hardship from the Arctic blast that hit Texas and northern Mexico, Rivera was in good spirits and closely watching the news.
Rivera was hopeful she would be allowed to come to the U.S., where she could live with her sister in Los Angeles as her case wound through immigration court.
“We have faith in God that we will be allowed in," she said Wednesday. “We have already spent enough time here.”
Nongovernmental organizations will play crucial roles in arranging temporary shelter and transportation once asylum-seekers enter the U.S.
“This problem was years in the making, and they’re trying to find solutions, but they are dealing with things coming up in real time,” said Andrea Leiner, spokeswoman for Global Response Management, which has been providing medical care at the camp in Matamoros. “I do think we need to give a little patience and leeway to sort this out as the actors involved get the plans in place to start doing this in a safe and effective manner.”
But she said everyone is also on edge, especially asylum-seekers.
“People are incredibly hopeful that this is their chance to get across, but there also is a lot of anxiety and fear that somehow if they do the wrong thing and they’re not at the right place at the right time, they might miss out,” Leiner said.