On the U.S.-Mexico border, hopes and fears after Biden’s order limiting asylum

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Razor wire along the Rio Grande on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Ariana Figueroa | States Newsroom)

EL PASO, Texas — Seventeen-year-old Karina Parababire gently rocked her three-month-old daughter as they waited in a migrant shelter before a Friday night bus ride to Chicago.

“I want my daughter to have everything that I didn’t have,” Parababire, who traveled up the extremely dangerous route of the Darien Gap while pregnant, said in Spanish.

The Venezuelan, who is traveling with her family, had to stop in Honduras to give birth to her daughter, Avis, before continuing to the United States. Once in Mexico, she and her family were granted an appointment through the CBP One app — a tool the Biden administration uses to grant migrants a meeting with an asylum officer.

She had been at the Sacred Heart Church shelter with her family for four days. They planned to continue on to Chicago, where they’ll be met by her cousin. Parababire hopes that after she gets to the Windy City, she can go back to high school and possibly enter college.

Parababire and her relatives arrived in the U.S. just before President Joe Biden issued an executive order that partly bans asylum claims when unauthorized crossings exceed a daily threshold. Because the family was admitted using the CBP One app, they were allowed to continue their journey.

As for other migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, local leaders said this week they are anticipating the effects of the order to be somewhat beneficial in limiting unauthorized crossings, though there was also plenty of skepticism.

Immigration advocates expressed deep concern the order — issued after Congress failed to take action on sweeping immigration legislation — would lead to more harm to already vulnerable people.

“I’ve come here today to do what Republicans in Congress refuse to do, take the necessary steps to secure our border,” Biden said in announcing the order, referring to a bipartisan border security deal Republicans walked away from earlier this year. “This action will help us gain control of our border.”

Uncertainty about a new policy

The shelter at Sacred Heart Church that housed Parababire currently has a relatively low number of migrants — about 70 compared to a capacity of 120.

The director, Michael DeBruhl, said it’s unclear how the order will affect the number of migrants who arrive not only at the shelter, but at the many ports of entry along the southern border.

“The thing is that the Border Patrol is going to take the brunt of this executive order and that they will have to process everybody,” he said. “The difference is going to be that there are nuances regarding how everything can apply to asylum, so they’re going to make it more difficult for you to apply to asylum.”

The big question, DeBruhl said, “is how exactly they are doing that.”

“You’re gonna have all these Border Patrol agents making these decisions, all these nuances, of a policy that’s just been implemented,” he said.

A Customs and Border Protection official declined to comment on the effects of the new executive order, but noted it would change the processing of noncitizens at the southern border.

Local officials saw some positives. “This is a start, but it’s just the beginning,” the mayor of El Paso, Oscar Leeser, said during a Wednesday presentation to journalists with local border officials.

Leeser was one of the several Texas mayors who attended the White House’s announcement of last week’s executive order. 

Leeser said he believes the order will stop unauthorized border crossings because “the consequences are greater now and that’s the difference.”

Presidential campaign

The order, which is Biden’s most drastic crackdown on immigration during his administration, comes five months before a presidential election in which it’s a top issue for voters and for his GOP rival, former President Donald Trump.

The order is currently in effect because daily unauthorized crossings have reached a threshold of more than 2,500 encounters with migrants each day for a week at the southern border.

“Simply put, the Departments do not have adequate resources and tools to deliver timely decisions and consequences to individuals who cross unlawfully and cannot establish a legal basis to remain in the United States, or to provide timely protection to those ultimately found eligible for protection when individuals are arriving at such elevated, historic volumes,” according to the text of the interim final rule from the executive order. 

The order goes away once government officials determine that fewer than 1,500 people a day have crossed the border in a week’s time span. Unaccompanied children are exempt, along with victims of human trafficking, people with visas, people with medical emergencies or those who report serious threats to their lives.

Those migrants who arrive at ports of entry to claim asylum once the cap is reached and do not establish a “reasonable probability of persecution or torture in the country of removal,” will be removed and subjected to a five-year ban from applying for asylum in the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security.  

Returning to Mexico or home countries

Leeser said the order will help manage high numbers of arrivals of migrants at ports of entry because it will allow the Biden administration to return those migrants either to their home countries or elsewhere in Mexico if their home country is deemed too dangerous.

Leeser said because of this, he expects migrants to use more legal pathways, such as the CBP One app, through which appointments can be made with an immigration official to claim asylum.

Through the CPB One app, more than 1,400 migrants are processed for appointments each day with an immigration official. The wait time for an appointment can take about five to eight months, according to a May report by the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, which documents asylum claims at ports of entry.

But Juan Acereto Cervera, the adviser to the mayor of Juárez, Mexico, which borders El Paso, expressed skepticism that the new White House policy will stop people from trying to cross the border to claim asylum.

“Nothing’s going to stop this migration,” he said. “It’s because something is happening in their other countries that make these people to try to find the best country in the world, that is the United States. That’s the truth.”

Jorge Rodriguez, the coordinator for the El Paso City & County Office of Emergency Management, said that it’s common for the number of migrants that arrive in El Paso to fluctuate, based on immigration policy changes from the White House.

“With time … what we’ll see is how this one will ultimately play out,” he said.

Legal action looms

Under U.S. immigration law, for a noncitizen to claim asylum, they have to reach U.S. soil and then make that claim. They can stay in the U.S. and receive due process if they have a fear of persecution based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which was at the forefront of many legal cases against the Trump administration’s immigration policies — including ones that restricted asylum — has already stated it plans to sue the Biden administration over its executive order.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, whose district includes El Paso, said in a statement that she was disappointed that the Biden administration focused its executive order only on enforcement.

“It is my sincere hope that administrative actions on immigration relief, like parole in place for the spouses of US citizens and designations of Temporary Protected Status for vulnerable populations, will also happen,” she said.

‘A very dangerous place’

Immigration advocates and attorneys in El Paso said during a separate Wednesday panel with journalists they fear for the impact the executive order could have on migrants.

“I think we do kind of know what’s going to happen — it creates a backlog,” said Imelda Maynard, an attorney at Estrella Del Paso Legal Aid.

Maynard said she can easily see how the executive order will be misinterpreted by migrants who will think the 2,500 threshold is a quota to allow people into the U.S.

“What the government is trying to do, right, lessen the amount of irregular entries, I think that’s going to increase,” she said.

Father Rafael Garcia, a priest who serves Sacred Heart Church, said he expects the executive order will cause more migrants to wait in Mexico, which could burden Mexico and leave those migrants in dangerous situations.

“It’s hard to know how this is gonna play out, but it doesn’t look too good,” Garcia said.

The director of Sacred Heart Church, DeBruhl, said that he thinks it will take a few weeks to see the full impact of the executive order.

“The conservatives are saying that it’s not going to make any difference… the [Biden] administration is saying this is going to have a specific [effect], and be quite impactful,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really knows how this is going to play out.”

Aimée Santillán, a policy analyst at the Hope Border Institute, which advocates for solidarity and justice across the borderlands, said that the order will require many migrants to wait in Mexico, and “right now, Mexico is a very dangerous place for migrants to be in.”

“We think that this might exacerbate the situation, or push people to … find other routes of entering the country that are less controlled, have less services, have less people receiving them and giving them assistance,” she said.

This story was reported through an El Paso-based fellowship on U.S. immigration policy organized by Poynter, an institute for the professional development of journalists, with funding from the Catena Foundation. 

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