Asylum Seekers: ‘Here We Are’
Speaker 1: 00:00 Increasing numbers of asylum seekers are being allowed to enter the United States. But what the asylum system still severely curtailed thousands remain stuck in dangerous conditions in Tijuana KPBS, reporter, max and Nadler has been following the story for months. And his reporting is featured in a new KPBS investigates and port of entry special podcast called here we are. It follows the painfully long wait. Many asylum seekers have had simply for a chance at refuge in the U S and it outlines America's critically damaged asylum system at the U S Mexico border. Joining me is KPBS reporter of max Rivlin, Nadler, and max, welcome. Good to be here. You've been to the makeshift camp set up by asylum seekers, just across the border in Tijuana, many times. Can you give us a snapshot of what it's like? Speaker 2: 00:53 It's increasingly crowded. It's really hot right now, especially as we had deeper into the summer months, uh, it has a certain smell to it, just of cramped people in spaces and dirty clothes. Um, people are having to right now pay to use the bathrooms that's been set up by the Tiguan government. People are just charging them for that, but even with all those difficulties, life goes on, uh, people play cards or dominoes, kids, skateboard people form crowds around anyone that's giving out food. So it's, it's a really desperate situation in terms of how many people are in such a small amount of space. And it grows every, every day that I've been there. Speaker 1: 01:33 Now, the asylum system has been breaking down in recent years, but is it the pandemic that's led to thousands of asylum seekers living in limbo at the border? Speaker 2: 01:43 The asylum system, like you said, has been limited for a long time before the pandemic. There was this thing called remain in Mexico that was sending asylum seekers back into Mexico to wait for a court date in the U S since the pandemic has happened, there's been a, this thing called title 42, which is based off of a CDC code that basically says as a disease prevention measure, the us government is allowed to turn back all asylum seekers and basically opt out of its asylum obligations. So you already had a lot of people waiting in Mexico for their date in court, in the U S before the pandemic. But then even after that, once the pandemic took hold, you add to the fact that people were not even being processed. And during the pandemic, people still made the journey. People still made the trip as conditions continue to deteriorate across the world. And especially in places like central America. Speaker 1: 02:37 Now what's caused the process though, to slowly open up again, allowing some asylum seekers into the U S. Speaker 2: 02:43 So these are the actions of the Biden administration. When they took over, uh, the presidency, they basically inherited title 42. Um, and the remain in Mexico program, which had been paused, what they decided to do was to restart the remain in Mexico program. Not again, having people come in to the U S for their court dates and go back out into Mexico, but instead to bring those people into the U S so they've been doing that for thousands of people in a kind of a slower process over the last few months, then separately, the American civil liberties union had sued over the use of title 42, saying that it violated America's international asylum obligations courts have mostly sided with them. So the Biden administration kind of hesitant to get rid of title 42, for whatever reason, they say there's still a health considerations involved has been reaching compromises with the ACLU to allow some people to enter the U S especially vulnerable people, which they consider to be pregnant women, people with diseases, young children, um, and other people who might find themselves at risk while waiting in Mexico. Speaker 1: 03:48 So is that sort of opening up, has that changed the atmosphere within the camp in Tijuana? Speaker 2: 03:53 I would agree, but the sheer fact of the matter is more and more people keep arriving each day. And they know that if they are in this camp, they might get some legal assistance or some people would look out for them. Under this agreement. These advocates would find the most vulnerable among them to get them into the U S so they've been coming to this camp. That's how limited resources are for migrants in Mexico right now is that they'd rather live in this very difficult place, this migrant camp than stay where they're at, or go to a shelter because they know this is a place where they're visible and they might find legal assistance Speaker 1: 04:29 In the podcast. We meet several asylum seekers and hear their individual stories, as well as some of the aid workers and attorneys working to help them. How do you think these voices help tell this complicated story? Speaker 2: 04:43 Yeah, I think when it comes to the border and especially the issue of migration, honestly, the loudest voices are quite often those who don't really have any bearing or, or, you know, experience of what's happening at the border itself. So by highlighting these voices and letting people who are, you know, by sheer fact that they're migrating transient, you know, uh, it's tough to go back to the camp week after week and find the same people because often they leave, they either cross the border outside of a port of entry, or they go back to their home country or there's something else happens to them. People have been kidnapped, people have been killed. So it's really important to get these snapshots of people in this camp in this moment, because it not only humanizes it, but it kind of raises the importance of actually talking to people on the ground, as opposed to possibly grandstanding about a situation that you don't have any direct experience of. Speaker 1: 05:38 Thanks so much for speaking with us, max, thank you. And here is KPBS reporter, max Rivlin, nether presenting the KPBS investigates and port of entry special podcast called here. We are Speaker 2: 05:52 Over 15,000 people, men, women, and children are waiting to enter the states along the entire Southwest border. Over 10,000 of those people are in Tijuana. That's according to the university of Texas and even they had met that's a low estimate Speaker 3: 06:09 Deserve protecting, defend the constitution of the United States constitution of the United States. So help you God. So help me, God, congratulations. [inaudible] Speaker 2: 06:21 Soon after taking office, the Biden administration announced they would allow some asylum seekers to enter the United States, but only those who had been enrolled in the remain in Mexico program. That's a program that was started by the Trump administration more than two years ago. Speaker 4: 06:46 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 06:46 First day at all chapter all back in February, when they started letting some asylum seekers into the United States, a lot of people were clustered around the gate that leads you into the country. They were gathering right across the border in Tijuana. In fact, in the very Plaza that border crossers step into when they walk into Mexico from the us, one of those people who showed up was Marjorie [inaudible] she's from Honduras. Speaker 4: 07:17 [inaudible] don't do that. And her daughter had been living Speaker 2: 07:19 In Tijuana for over a year. They'd been fleeing violence in their home country, and they were selling ice cream on the street and going from shelter to shelter. On that first day, she pitched a tent right outside the port of entry, like right, where you would need to be to enter the United States. If the border was to open, Speaker 5: 07:40 She told me she wouldn't leave until she could apply for asylum. Speaker 4: 07:49 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 07:49 Marjorie told me that it's been tough the first few weeks at the camp. It rained then because of the rain, her clothes were wet and the tents were freezing in the morning. And at night [inaudible] Speaker 6: 08:23 In the Speaker 2: 08:23 First few months of the Biden administration, the migrant camp became the symbol of the broken asylum system. At the same time, a huge uptick in the numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border gave rise to the idea that there was a search for a crisis. President Speaker 7: 08:41 Joe Biden is facing a growing crisis at the U S Mexico border new steps to address the growing crisis at the U S Mexico border. Fox news is on the ground inside the border city of Del Rio, Texas. This is a mid, the escalating crisis at our Southern border, Speaker 2: 08:54 But in reality, the so-called new crisis when some critics said was created by Biden's border policies had begun many months before Biden took office. So many of these asylum seekers had already been in Tijuana, just waiting for their chance to cross Speaker 6: 09:19 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 09:19 Asylum seekers like Braden Lena's also from Honduras. He'd have been in Tijuana for a year already. The day I met him in March, he was walking around the camp with his young son, strapped to his chest. Speaker 8: 09:31 It does a book [inaudible] Speaker 2: 09:38 He was holding the Biden 2020 flag that someone had given him in an interview. I did with him later. He told me the flag gave him, oh, [inaudible] Speaker 8: 09:49 [inaudible] eh, Speaker 2: 09:54 But a picture of Braden waving that flag ended up at the top of conservative websites and on front pages of news articles saying somehow that it was Biden's fault that all of these people ended up here in Tijuana, even though they'd been here for a year and in many cases, way longer, the photo of Braden, Latinas, and other people holding up Biden 2020 flags, that became a flashpoint for those critics who were saying the Biden administration was opening the border and creating incentives for migrants to try to cross and take advantage of less restrictive border policies. Speaker 9: 10:29 So there's number of initiatives and policies are underway to undo a lot of the progress that has been made over the last four years, Speaker 2: 10:36 But that wasn't really happening. The pandemic border shutdown title 42 was still in effect when Biden got elected and is still in effect today. And in the first month of this year, really the only people that were legally allowed to cross the border were those who are enrolled in remain in Mexico. Most asylum seekers like Brayden were totally out of luck until that more recent deal I told you about between the American civil liberties union and the Biden administration in April of this year, that ACLU agreement opened the door to dozens of families to enter the country along the Southwest border each day. These were asylum seekers who actually were not part of remain in Mexico, but had been in Mexico for months and even years. So under this agreement, deciding which names get sent to the government, picking the people who get to enter the United States, that's now up to service providers on the ground in Tijuana and qualifying for entry. Isn't based on your asylum claim from your home country, the country you're fleeing. Instead, it's based on how much danger you face in Mexico itself. This isn't how the asylum system is supposed to work. [inaudible], Speaker 8: 12:09 You know, you can imagine, uh, how many, uh, petitions, how many parole requests, um, you know, are being handled at this time, just at this port of entry alone, right? Bird Vivar is swarmed Speaker 2: 12:21 As he tries to make it through the crowded encampment in Tijuana, he's looking for a specific person, someone whose case that he's worked on Robert, who was deported himself, has an office with us, deported veterans, just down the block from the migrant camp, dozens of desperate people, Vive for his attention, asking him when they'll get a call from overworked, immigration lawyers, Speaker 8: 12:46 It's pretty difficult. You know, you tell people to have patients when they're, uh, you know, running away because of persecution. It's not safe Speaker 2: 12:56 Parents and the camp tell him that their child is sick or that their family is in danger. But Robert already knows they're in danger. It's just impossible for him to help everyone. But that doesn't stop him from trying. You've Speaker 8: 13:10 Been here. You know, they, uh, they've had threats, you know, they be followed. It just it's, it's a difficult situation for them and you can understand why they would be so desperate. Speaker 2: 13:21 Robert's right. The camp, isn't all that safe. There've been robberies threats, and it's the target of organized crime people looking to extort the asylum seekers. It's not safe for the people who call the camp home. It's not safe for the service providers. And it's often not safe for reporters. Either different groups have pulled out from the camp in recent weeks, citing safety concerns. Speaker 5: 13:47 There are some groups or gangs or whatever who operate in this area who are able to, you know, find a way to monetize and make it appear that they are part of our group. Speaker 2: 13:59 Ian Savella is an immigration lawyer. He's part of a group of non-profits known as the Chapo NARAL Alliance. It includes the American friends service committee and border angels and people like Robert who's volunteering his time. That group is still working in the camp. They're the ones making contact with people in the camp and getting their names to the ACLU in turn the ECLU then takes those names and hands them off to the U S government. The focus has been to first locate pregnant women, people with pressing medical needs and those in immediate danger in Mexico, their names go right to the top. This all makes the list of who's in danger, really arbitrary Speaker 8: 14:49 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 14:49 That's Rafa. And he's one of a number of people in camp who identify as LGBT under normal times. He could have a really strong asylum case in the U S if he were allowed to enter the country to make his case, he says he fled Honduras. After his house was burned down, he was beaten and his friends were killed. He's also been living in Tijuana for more than a year waiting to enter the United States. But under the current arrangement, he's not being prioritized. Speaker 8: 15:27 Uh [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] Rafa says it's been hard Speaker 2: 15:55 Because the volunteer lawyers coming to the camp, they're looking for those pregnant women. There's people with terminal illnesses. There's people who desperately need to leave. So even though he's a member of a really at risk community, he can't find representation Speaker 8: 16:11 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 16:12 So he's just stuck waiting in the camp. Speaker 8: 16:17 [inaudible] [inaudible] Domingo Domingo. Speaker 2: 16:37 So that's how we ended up here every morning and afternoon at the port of entry, into Quanah, customs, and border protection agents call out names of people who are going to be allowed into the U S Speaker 4: 16:48 Kelly, Julissa, Kelly Julissa, Speaker 2: 16:52 And some surprising names have started appearing for sweat because in addition to those vulnerable groups that are now being allowed in some people with multiple deportations are also being allowed back into the U S Speaker 4: 17:09 Yeah. Molly Molina see under normal Speaker 2: 17:14 Asylum circumstances. One deportation means you have to wait years and years for a chance to reenter the U S but because some of these deportees say they're unsafe in Mexico, they're being allowed back in. So yeah, this change. It's a big one. And because this is happening with people who've been deported, being allowed to cross right now, it means the U S government is formally acknowledging for the first time ever that deporting people back to Mexico puts them in immediate. Speaker 10: 17:52 And while they were waiting in Mexico, they became victims of extortion, kidnapping, rapes, horrible circumstances, uh, violent situations. And there were so desperate for that for someone to listen to them, Speaker 2: 18:08 You'll say, Garcia is the executive director of border angels. She spent three weeks working as part of the Chapo trial Alliance in the encampment, finding the people who can get to safety. Now people like her own brother who was deported to Tijuana last year after his DACA protections, lapsed, he was kidnapped in Mexico and he was beaten and robbed. And now thanks to the piecemeal changes to the silent system. Dulce is helping her brother and other people like him who have been deported and then found themselves endangered in Mexico. She's helping them find this path back to safety in the U S Speaker 10: 18:45 So it all happened really quickly. We went from having absolutely no way to cross someone lawfully across the U S to having this mechanism that allows them to enter. Even if it is just a few people a day, that brought hope. And that's what th the people in the encampment needed hope and information. Speaker 2: 19:10 So yeah, this little loophole, it is helping people who need it. It's finally providing some relief for migrants who have been dealing with months and months of misery, but [inaudible] says that this new makeshift asylum arrangement, isn't the be all end all, because it isn't helping enough people. Speaker 10: 19:30 People now saying the tent next to me is leaving because they're crossing to the U S finally. And that brought hope to people in the encampment, which also made people a lot more desperate for them to hear their cases. For sure. Speaker 2: 19:42 Joelle says that she hopes that the system that's only helping a small percentage of asylum seekers won't last too much longer. People Speaker 10: 19:48 Are very desperate to cross because they have endured so much while they've been waiting for the doors to open. We know that everyone in the encampment is at a high risk. Everyone there is vulnerable. Speaker 4: 19:59 Okay. Thank you so much. Yeah. I'm glad you caught the nuances of that one. Speaker 2: 20:04 So pressure is growing on the Biden administration to restore more of the asylum system along the border. Something that may happen as soon as mid July Speaker 6: 20:19 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 20:20 And while some people in the migrant camp, and Tiquana might be lucky enough to leave their tents behind others are all too ready to take their spot to continue serving as this visual reminder, that pressure along the border continues to build. And sometimes that pressure bubbles over in the form of protests like this one in April asylum seekers shut down lanes at the port of entry for hours. Part of a series of protests meant to draw attention to their situation. Sometimes blocking cross border traffic on a weekly basis. Speaker 4: 21:08 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 21:11 That was KPBS reporter max Rivlin, Nadler, with a special edition of the KPBS investigates and port of entry podcasts called here. We are to listen to the rest of the podcast, go to kpbs.org or wherever you listen to podcasts.