June 25, 2021

With shelter beds available in New Mexico, asylum seekers wait across the border in dangerous conditions because of a Trump-imposed policy

Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants are seen inside Gimnasio Kiki Romero, a gym which has been converted into a makeshift migrant shelter, in Ciudad Juarez on April 6, 2021. - The shelter was set up to accommodate the growing number of migrants expelled from the United States into Juarez.

Hundreds of available shelter beds in New Mexico are empty while families, including a Honduran mother and her child, seek asylum in the U.S. are forced to wait across the border with Mexico in Ciudad Juárez.

Advocates have said there is a humanitarian crisis happening along the border. The Donald Trump administration’s border policies, which many describe as racist, inflammatory and discriminatory, were implemented early in the COVID-19 pandemic to stop migrants along the southern border from crossing. The administration said the policies were in place to stop the spread of the disease, though the federal government implemented very few restrictions on international flights for international travelers and none for U.S. travelers. 

While President Joe Biden has reversed most of Trump’s COVID-19 border policies, he has not ended Title 42, which has kept the border closed for people like Ana Judyth Ayala Delcid, 24, and her two-year-old daughter, who journeyed through perilous conditions from Honduras through Mexico this past spring to seek asylum in the U.S.

Ayala Delcid told NM Political Report, through an interpreter provided by El Calvario Methodist Church shelter in Las Cruces, that she left her home with her young daughter and began the journey across Mexico, despite her fears of how hard it might be, because in two separate incidents, gang members killed her aunt and invaded her house at night. She said she is afraid to return.

Ayala Delcid said that prior to the home invasion, she rented a house in a small town in Honduras and had a job caring for an elderly woman. Now she hopes to provide an education for her daughter in the U.S., which Ayala Delcid said she could not afford to do in Honduras.

Ayala Delcid has a sponsor in Houston waiting to provide a home for her and her child if she is able to start the asylum process in the U.S. She said she hopes to apply for a restaurant job if she is allowed to seek asylum.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in an emailed statement to NM Political Report that “the unique challenges of the pandemic require additional authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order known as Title 42, to allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to effectively protect both the health and safety of migrants and our communities from the spread of COVID-19. The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned under Title 42.”

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican who represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District along the border, expressed concern about Title 42 ending. She issued a letter to the CDC and DHS on Thursday stating that she has read that Title 42 could end by July 31 and she has “grave concern.”

“These restrictions have had the effect of keeping Americans safe from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases potentially carried by those who have crossed illegally,” she wrote.

But Nayomi Valdez, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the U.S. has the capability to implement testing and quarantining protocols at the border.

“With the amount of vaccinations available, the fear of COVID-19 really isn’t a good reason to continue Title 42,” Valdez said.

Emma Kahn, detention services coordinator for New Mexico Immigration Law Center, said people waiting in Mexico shelters are susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

“A lot of people are in serious risk [of COVID-19] if put in large shelters in Mexico,” Kahn said. 

Once tested and vaccinated, asylum seekers have bed spaces to stay in shelters designed to help them in both El Paso and in Las Cruces, Deming and Albuquerque, migrant advocates said. Migrant advocates told NM Political Report that there are hundreds of empty bed spaces waiting in shelters in New Mexico that could house asylum seekers after they cross the border.

Pastor George Miller, who runs the El Calvario Methodist Church shelter in Las Cruces, said there could be as many as 600 beds available in shelters designed to host asylum seekers in the state if the Biden administration ended Title 42.

He said the El Calvario Methodist Church shelter housed 2,000 asylum seekers in 2019 prior to the pandemic, and that asylum seekers typically stay for a day or two as they make arrangements to travel to a sponsor family, often in another state.

Ayala Delcid and her two-year-old daughter are staying in a shelter in Juárez. On the day that Ayala Delcid spoke with NM Political Report in early June, the shelter was without electricity and had to connect to a generator to regain power.

Valdez said that though organizations and shelters are working to support asylum seekers on the Mexico side of the border, the conditions are “much less than ideal.”

“They look like refugee camps you’d expect to see thousands of miles from here, not just on the other side of the border where they are pursuing their right to asylum,” Valdez said.

Nia Rucker, policy counsel and regional manager of the ACLU-NM Las Cruces office, said asylum seekers who are women are often in danger of being raped and extorted in Juárez and called the conditions in Mexico “incredibly difficult.” She said there is also the difficulty of getting a job there.

“It’s not a great safety net for any individual sent to Mexico (by U.S. Border Patrol agents). They’re not Mexican citizens. There’s a lot of prejudice in Mexico. People stand out. They’re left in a really vulnerable position,” she said.

Asylum seekers who are members of the LGBTQ community suffer additional prejudice while waiting on the Mexico side, Rucker said.

“Some trans women were choosing to wear more masculine clothes to pass to get a job to wait tables and earn some money,” she said.

Rucker said that because of the long wait on the Mexico side of the border, an unofficial home for transgender women seeking U.S. asylum opened up in Juárez. She said the house closed recently.

“But the women there were waiting for a very long time to be able to get help in the U.S.” Rucker said.

Who seeks asylum and why

CBP said in its statement to NM Political Report that Transnational Criminal Organizations are a threat to national security and are involved in various forms of smuggling and that they make false promises to people in other countries about coming to the U.S.

But Rucker said that political instability in countries such as Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, partially caused by U.S. policies, are causing people to flee to the U.S. 

“There is a long history of U.S. intervention in the Northern Triangle (of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) coupled with corruption and climate change that have really created dire circumstances that people understandably want to escape from,” Valdez said.

Miller said asylum seekers are often fleeing dangerous violence.

“A lot of times it’s a gang or some type of mafia or group. A lot of girls are recruited for trafficking, prostitution. Boys are recruited for working for gangs or cartels. If they refuse, they just disappear or are shot,” the El Calvario Methodist Church pastor said.

He said often the parents of young children flee for their lives because they “don’t want their kids to do that.”

Other reasons immigrants seek asylum status include dire economic conditions and natural disasters that destroy property and lives. Two hurricanes struck Honduras and other Central American countries last November within a two-week span that killed hundreds with hundreds more missing.

“Sometimes, they have nothing to eat, no clothing, shoes, education, healthcare, it’s broken down. Indigenous people are persecuted and run off the land,” Miller said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also increasing migrant efforts to get to the U.S. as is the recent presidential election, Kahn said.

“There’s a lot of really complicated stuff happening with the hope of Trump gone and Biden being in office, a lot of Central and South Americans felt they couldn’t come here and now, on top of COVID worsening in Central and South America, all those things are generating new waves of migration in the U.S. We’ve seen increases in migration for decades ebb and flow and this is to be expected,” she said.

Herrell in her letter noted the increase of people coming to the border, stating that since October, CBP has encountered nearly 1 million migrants. She pointed to CBP numbers showing that thousands are coming from countries in Central and South America where the COVID-19 pandemic are at peak weekly infection rates.

Remote crossings

But, Kahn said one of the dangers of Title 42 is that it encourages asylum seekers to cross the border outside ports of entry because once apprehended by CBP, they can request asylum. 

“When they do try to cross, the extreme weather, the heat, lack of water and shelter in those in between areas tend to be really dangerous,” Kahn said.

The Sunland Park Fire Department has seen a noticeable increase in rescue calls in the last five to six months coming from migrants who need help after crossing the border outside of ports of entry, said Sunland Park Fire Chief Daniel Medrano. 

Medrano said more calls are coming from the border wall, which is in the southernmost part of the Sunland Park Fire Department’s response district. One migrant man died near the wall on June 10th of what appeared to be heat-related injury, Medrano told NM Political Report.

CBP responded to the death with a statement that said the individual who died was about a mile from the border.

“The summer heat in the West Texas and New Mexico border region is unforgiving and very dangerous for people attempting to illegally enter the United States,” said El Paso Sector Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent Gloria I. Chavez in a statement.

The Sunland Park Fire Department transported a young woman with critical head injury to the hospital in May, Medrano said. He said often the migrants’ guides put up a ladder on the Mexico side of the wall but sometimes the migrant falls trying to get down the U.S. side. He said his department sees many lower extremity injuries because of it but sometimes the person falls head first and experiences head and neck trauma. Some parts of the border wall are 30 feet high, he said.

“Most of the migrants are not from Mexico. They’re from Ecuador, Guatemala, Central and South America,” he said of the people the Fire Department receives distress calls from.

Valdez said the migrants are being told they must continue to wait in Mexico and, with the increase in heat, they become more desperate.

“Title 42 puts them in a position to make really dangerous and desperate decisions. They’re vulnerable to COVID and crime and unsafe conditions in general (on the Mexico side),” she said.

CBP data shows that in recent months, expulsions under Title 42 have grown exponentially.

In February 2021, CBP expelled 72,316 migrants along the southwestern border between the U.S. and Mexico. In May, the number had increased to 110,400 migrants.

Migrant rights

Advocates for asylum seekers told NM Political Report that under U.S. law, migrants have the right to enter the U.S. and seek asylum. Valdez said the federal policy goes back decades, to after World War II.

To seek asylum under the Refugee Act, a migrant must enter the U.S. and they must be able to establish that they have a credible fear of returning to their home country, Valdez said.

Kahn said Border Patrol agents are allowed to make exceptions and one authorized exception to Title 42 are unaccompanied minors, who are allowed to cross at Ports of Entry. 

Miller said because of this, “Title 42 is separating families.” He said when families are turned away at the border, unable to seek asylum, they send their children alone to cross the border without them out of desperation.

Ayala Delcid’s journey

After the gang members invaded her home, Ayala Delcid said she was afraid to continue living there, so her family hired a guide and she and her daughter began their trek across Honduras and Mexico despite her fear of what lay ahead.

“Honestly, yes, they told me it was difficult to travel and I was very scared,” Ayala Delcid told NM Political Report.

She said the journey with her daughter was difficult.

“I suffered a lot on the road,” she said.

She said her guide, who was supposed to bring Ayala Delcid and her daughter to the border, instead sold them to a man who operated a warehouse in a remote part of Mexico.

She said she asked the man when she could leave and he said “‘they have not paid for you; you’re going to stay here a long time.’”

Ayala Delcid said it was not safe.

“They held me for a while in a warehouse. They had us there kidnapped. I suffered many things there. Many times I was assaulted where they had us locked in. We also suffered hunger, cold. My daughter got ill on the road. They had us kidnapped in the warehouse for 15 days. We had to get away. They took everything from us,” she said.

Once she escaped, she said she was “scammed” on the road and had to borrow a phone to call her family. She said family came to help her get to Juárez.

“On the road, the food wasn’t much. She (her daughter) was not eating right. She got sick many times and she got thin,” Ayala Delcid told NM Political Report.

If Ayala Delcid is able to enter the U.S. and request asylum, her next steps will likely involve considerably more waiting. The process to claim asylum is long and uncertain, Valdez said. 

A judge decides if the asylum seeker’s fear is credible, but because of a shortage of judges and the way the U.S. processes the claims, it can take a very long time before a decision is made, Valdez said.

Kahn said that Title 42 is not a “functional system,” but advocates for asylum seekers would like to see more than just Title 42 changed.

“We want Title 42 withdrawn but we feel really strongly that processing people at the border needs a massive overhaul to remain safe and provide humane protection in the first place,” she said.

If the U.S. refuses her asylum, Ayala Delcid said she does not know what she will do.

“Because I am alone and I don’t want to be alone where it’s very dangerous,” she said.