Asylum seekers are lining up at a border crossing between the United States and Mexico as the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden relaxes the hardline immigration policy of former President Donald Trump.
The program, known as the "Remain-in-Mexico" policy and agreed to with Mexico, was a key component of the Trump administration's efforts to curb the 2019 border crisis and end "catch-and-release" - by which migrants were released into the U.S.to await their hearings. Many waited months, if not years, in squalid conditions and under the threat of extortion, sexual assault and kidnapping.
About 100 people gathered Friday at the crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, sharing rumors and hoping to glean information about when they would be allowed into the United States while their cases are decided by the courts.
The U.S.is expected to release 25 people a day in San Diego who had been forced to wait in Mexico, said Michael Hopkins, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which is playing a critical support role.
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Sandra Andrade, a Salvadoran who has been waiting in Mexico for over a year to resolve her USA case, talked on video chat with her two daughters in Boston as she waited in line.
"He wants me to go first, and I want him to go first", she said. A limited number of individuals who were registered ahead of time by worldwide organizations came through the port. Some had slept outside the previous night.
It will expand to two additional ports of entry in Texas, including one near a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, in the coming week, according to a US Department of Homeland Security spokesman.
Advocates have pushed for the Biden administration to fly migrants in the program to the United States, which they say would be safer and faster for people traveling from Central America and elsewhere. Inside, the phone rang off the hook.
UNHCR screening of asylum seekers is expected to reduce the need to detain migrants who are allowed to enter the United States.
The confusion was compounded by an apparent delay in the launching of a website on Friday that allows migrants with active cases to register remotely to be processed at the U.S. -Mexico border.
"Who thought this day would come?" Reversing it will be a big lift.
Biden's open borders initiatives come as illegal immigration is surging.
A US government asylum officer who has interviewed people enrolled in the Trump-era policy praised the Biden administration's effort, saying migrants allowed into the USA will now "have their claims fairly adjudicated". On Friday, it started to accept applications from those who wish to enter and stay in the USA while their cases are being heard.
The admission of 25 asylum-seekers in California on Friday marked the start of a new process the Biden administration created with the help of non-profits, global groups and the United Nations refugee agency to gradually take in migrants with pending Remain-in-Mexico cases so they can stay with family or friends in the U.S. But it has cautioned that the efforts will take time.
"As President Biden has made clear, the USA government is committed to rebuilding a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system", Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
The U.N.'s migration agency will test migrants for COVID-19 and those who test positive will be quarantined.
The fast-moving process and lack of information from U.S. officials have frustrated some advocates eager to assist the effort.
The situation has taken on urgency as a winter storm has brought frigid temperatures to much of the southern United States and northern Mexico.
Migrants in the Matamoros encampment have reported families struggling to stay warm in makeshift tents lacking insulation or other protection from the cold.
Those seeking asylum may not have their cases resolved for years due to Covid-related immigration court closures and existing backlogs, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council.
Recently apprehended migrants who were never enrolled in the program are not eligible for this process and continue to face rapid expulsion under a Trump-era public health order the Biden administration has retained for now.
On Thursday, Honduran asylum seeker Antonia Maldonado served hot chocolate from a steaming pot on a stove made from the inside of a washing machine to other asylum seekers in Matamoros shivering in the near freezing weather.
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