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Special Report: ‘Here We Are’

 July 7, 2021 at 10:58 AM PDT

AMBI: BORDER CAMP The migrant camp at El Chaparral plaza in Tijuana has only grown in recent weeks. SOUND HERE 1 -- HERE WE ARE, ESTABLISHING SHOT…. THIS CAMP IS GROWING, OR KIDS YELLING, SPANISH PLEADING FOR HELP People from Africa, from the Caribbean, from central America…. They've come here for their chance to apply for asylum… But they've been waiting now for a long time. AMBI OUT BEAT Extension cords, snake out from tents. AMBI BACK UP As people look for any information on cell phones or ways to get legal advice. People have no place to really shower here. Water is pretty scarce. And the Baja sun has only intensified in recent weeks as we head towards the middle of summer. BEAT So people have been there for four months now, and you could begin to smell the camp from around a block away. Hundreds of asylum seekers are waiting for the moment that the United States restores its asylum obligations along the Southwest border. AMBI UP But the thing is it's unclear when the United States intends to do that or if it ever will. AMBI FADE OUT… BEAT Transition The whole asylum system was most recently turned on its head by the Trump administration. Trump Border Clip stopped entirely during the pandemic …. And the Biden administration? They’ve been slow to get it going again. On a recent visit to Central America… Vice President Kamala Harris had this message… KAMALA HARRIS I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border do not come... It’s the same message that Central Americans have heard from Obama through Trump and now the Biden administration…. KAMALA HARRIS ….do not come…..if you come to our border, you will be turned back... But… Ambi up thousands are already here…. Ambi up Right here, camping in squalor just hundreds of feet away from a shopping mall on the other side of the border in San Diego. 1:00 INTERVIEWS FOR MAX PEDRO RIOS / AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE I mean, these are terrible conditions, you have kids just running around, it wasn’t until recently that the local government put in bathrooms and showers…. So it’s been a struggle for them just trying to meet their basic necessities is always a struggle. That’s Pedro Rios. He’s with the American Friends Service Committee. His group is one of the few still making the trip to the camp. They offer support...face masks... hygiene kits… And now, his group is offering advice… About how some people can safely enter the United States. BEAT AMBI Up then FADE OUT It’s a pathway opened, in part, by a deal struck in April between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Biden administration… A deal that stems from a lawsuit challenging something that’s known as “Title 42.” That’s a policy issued by the CDC at the beginning of the pandemic. It effectively bars anyone from crossing the Southwest border in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. It basically shut down the entire asylum system along the Southwest border. But since taking office, the Biden administration has been under really intense pressure by immigrant groups and activists and even health officials to rescind Title 42. Camp Ambi In Camp Ambi out But in the meantime…because of that deal…. A few families who had been living here...stuck in Tijuana…. They’re finally getting into the United States… Escaping the haphazard camp…. Name calling ambi up And because of this for the first time, since the camp kind of instantaneously sprung up in February, there's some hope... AMBI: Name calling ambi up The names of the lucky few…. People now being allowed into the U.S… Are called out by officials at the port of entry...each morning at 8 a.m. and then again at 3 p.m. AMBI: NAMES calling ambi up AMBI Names FADE OUT…. BEAT Transition I’m Max Rivlin-Nadler….I’ve been covering the border in San Diego and Tijuana for the past four years… and immigration in America for the past decade…. During this time, the American asylum system has changed tremendously. And it's never been so disrupted or politicized. And the people's lives left hanging in the balance are the asylum seekers. People who’ve mostly been forced to fend for themselves as they grasp at the shredded threads of a system that was never perfect...but has also never been so torn apart. BEAT Today in a special episode of Port of Entry and KPBS Investigates…. We explore the ad-hoc system that's helping just a few asylum seekers along the Southwest border to enter the United States….. And meet some of the people helping the migrants leave this dangerous and cramped migrant camp in Mexico… To start their new lives in the U.S. That's all happening, right after a quick break. BEAT FADE MIDROLL 1 Right now over 15,000 people….men, women and children….are waiting to enter the United 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 admit that's a low estimate. CLIP FROM BIDEN INAUGURATION 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. NEWS MONTAGE: REMAIN IN MEX AMBI: CHAOS OF THE FIRST DAY (PLEASE USE AMBI - FIRST DAY) BEAT FADE OUT On that first day at El Chaparral back in February…..When they started letting some asylum 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 fact, in the very plaza that border crossers first step into when they walk into Mexico from the U.S….. AMBI UP One of those people who showed up was Marjorie Rosales… She’s from Honduras…. MARJORIE ROSALES My name is Marjorie Rosales, de Honduras…. Marjorie, and her daughter had been living 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… AMBI up On that first day, she pitched a tent right outside the Port of Entry, like right where you’d need to be to enter the United States if the border was to open. She told me she wouldn't leave until she could apply for asylum. MARJORIE ROSALES ROSALES: Duro….Hace duro porque los dos ultimos semana….. 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. Another Clip from Marjorie La ropa…mucho hielo en la mañana….. Camp Ambi fade out BEAT In the 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 surge or a “crisis.” News Clip ‘Border Crisis” Montage But in reality, this so-called new 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. Camp AMBI in Asylum seekers like Bredin Lainez, also from Honduras… He’d 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… Bredin Interview Clip Baby sound. What’s up with the flag? He was holding a Biden 2020 flag that someone had given him.… In an interview I did with him later...he told me the flag...gave him hope… Bredin Interview Clip Esperanza...que yo vivo aqui... BEAT fade out Ambi fade out But a picture of Bredin 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 Lainez, and other people holding up Biden 2020 flags. That became a flash point 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. News Clip: ….Undo a lot of the progress... 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 months 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 Bredin were totally out of luck… Until that more recent deal I told you about between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Biden administration. BEAT 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. BEAT 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. BEAT Fade to silence Vivir in camp Ambi up Robert Vivar / Unified U.S. Deported Veterans You can imagine how many parole requests are being handled at this time just at this port of entry alone. Robert Vivar is swarmed 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 U.S. deported veterans, just down the block from the migrant camp. Vivir in camp Ambi up Dozens of desperate people vye for his attention… Asking him when they'll get a call from overworked immigration lawyers. Vivir Clip 2 You know, it's kind of difficult to tell people to have patience when, you know, they're. You know, running away because of persecution, you know, it's not safe. Parents in 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. Robert Vivar Clip …. Even here, you know, they, uh, they've had threats, you know, that they’ve been followed. It's just, it's, it's a difficult situation for them. And you can understand why they would be so desperate. Robert Ambi Fade out after child’s voice...andala pues….muchas gracias Robert's right. The camp isn't all that safe. BEAT 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. Ian interview ambi 1 IAN I think there are some groups or gangs or whatever...groups 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. Ian interview ambi 2 Ian Sereulo is an immigration lawyer.. He’s part of a group of nonprofits known as the “Chaparral 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 ACLU 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. RAFA Muy dificil...muy dificil…porque cuando agua, no ayuda... That’s Rafa Enterreano…. He's one of a number of people in the camp who identify as LGBT. Under normal times, he could have a really strong asylum case in the US… 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. BEAT 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. RAFA ENTERREANO / ASYLUM-SEEKER Hace duro por que los abogados quien venido, son abogados voluntarios, ellos solo aplican solo para familias, solo ninos, o persons con enfermedades, somos solteros, madres solteros, padres, mucho persona de la comunidad de lgtb... Rafa says it has been hard… Because the volunteer lawyers coming to the camp… They're looking for those pregnant women, those people with terminal illnesses, those people who desperately need to leave. So even though he's a member of a really at-risk community, he can't find representation. RAFA ENTERREANO / ASYLUM-SEEKER Y no tenemos representación, ayuda de nadie. So he's just stuck waiting in the camp. RAFA ENTERREANO / ASYLUM-SEEKER Cuando vamos…..difícil, a vivir sola... Ambi fade out Beat fade out CALLING OUT NAMES SOUND 2 So that’s how we end up here…. Every morning and afternoon at the port of entry in Tijuana.. Customs and border protection agents call out the names of people who are going to be allowed into the US. CALLING OUT NAMES SOUND 3 And some surprising names have started appearing... 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. Calling Out Names Sound 4 See..under normal asylum circumstances… One deportation means you have to wait years to legally cross back to the US… 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. BEAT And because this is happening… With people who’ve been deported being allowed to cross right now... It means the US government is formally acknowledging….for the first time ever…... that deporting people back to Mexico puts them in immediate danger. DULCE CLIP And while they were waiting in Mexico, they became victims of kidnapping, extortion, rape, horrible circumstances, violent situations and they were so desperate for someone to listen to them. Dulce Garcia is the Executive Director of Border Angels… She spent three weeks working as part of the Chaparral 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 asylum system… Dulce is helping her brother and other people like him who’ve been deported and then found themselves endangered in Mexico… She’s helping them find this path back to safety in the U.S. DULCE CLIP 2 So, it all happened really quickly. We went from having absolutely no way to cross someone lawfully into the US, to having this mechanism to allow them to enter, even if it’s just a few people a day. That brought hope. That’s what the people in the encampment needed. Hope and information. So yeah...this little loophole, it is helping people who need it. It’s finally providing some relief for migrants who’ve been dealing with months and months of misery. But Dulce says that this new, makeshift asylum arrangement isn’t the be-all end-all… Because it isn’t helping enough people… Dulce clip People are now saying, the tent next to me is leaving because they’re crossing over to the United States finally. And that brought hope to people in the encampment, which also made people a lot more desperate to have their cases heard first. Dulce says she hopes that this system that’s only helping a small percentage of asylum seekers won’t last too much longer… DULCE CLIP 2&3 People 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. Dulcie Ambi Ok, thank you so much Yeah, I’m glad you caught the nuances of that one... BEAT FADE OUT 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…. Encampment Ambi And while some people in the migrant camp in Tijuana 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… AMBI: A PROTEST AT THE BORDER… And sometimes...that pressure bubbles over in the form of protests like this one... AMBI: A PROTEST AT THE BORDER… In April, Asylum-seekers shut down traffic lanes at the port of entry for hours… part of a series of protests meant to draw attention to their situation… MORE PROTEST AMBI HERE, fade out Sometimes blocking cross-border traffic on a weekly basis. BEAT When we come back… Airport Ambi Up We squeeze through the bottleneck that’s become the U.S. asylum system… And travel with a Honduran family who was finally allowed to cross. Quick Bredin Track tease BEAT FADE MIDROLL 2 that guy with the Biden 2020 flag who I talked about earlier? The one with his young son strapped to his chest? Well... He’s one of the lucky few who made it to the U.S. Mission bay park ambi... Bredin Lainez is sitting next to his partner at Mission Bay Park in San Diego. He tears up thinking about what his family has had to get through to get here. BREDIN LAINEZ / ASYLUM-SEEKER Bueno….YO TENIA….ya... Bredin says he had plans just to give up. He had come so far already, just to be stopped at the border for so long…. He shows off scars on his face from a machete attack in Honduras…. Which he says was politically motivated…. BREDIN LAINEZ CLIP 2 He says he thought he was gonna die in the attack…. But that god must have put a guardian angel in his path, one who defended him. Because he has no idea how he was able to escape. Bredin Lainez clip 3 Narco traffico…. Bredin’s partner, Yuris Erazo, describes just how bad things were in the migrant camp… YURIS ERAZO / ASYLUM-SEEKER TODO FUE MUY DIFÍCIL She says it was all very difficult...The children cried from the cold. They gave them blankets. It was very sad… YURIS ERAZO CLIP 2 Muy trieste…pero salimos victoriosos y aquí estamos, gracias a Dios She says, quote, “but we triumphed and here we are, thank God.” BEAT Bredin and Yuris got help from the Chaparral Alliance. From the people going through the camp, overwhelmed by the sheer need. BEAT So...after crossing the border…..people seeking asylum like Bredin and Erazo...are given a notice to appear in immigration court in a few months…. And then released from custody…. To one of the most robust and competent operations helping asylum seekers across the country. The San Diego Rapid Response Network came together during the early days of the Trump administration. It's a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations in San Diego. NORMA CLIP 1 We are at this critical moment where the NGOs, the community organizations, the faith community and all these folks that you see representing the organizations can no longer do it alone. THAT WAS NORMA CHAVEZ-PETERSON IN 2018…. She’s the executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and she helped launch the San Diego Rapid Response Network. The group’s focus... originally...was helping migrants who were released from detention and dropped off at bus stations, sometimes with no money, and no idea how to get to their sponsors or families elsewhere in the U.S. They began running a temporary shelter for those immigrants in 2018. And by 2020, they opened a permanent shelter. At the shelter, people got medical clothes and people helped the migrants arrange for travel to family or sponsors. But… COVID-19 changed all that. Instead of asylum seekers staying in the shelter...each family was now being housed in hotel rooms across the city of San Diego. The network has provided services to all asylum-seekers who’ve entered San Diego...under all sorts of different circumstances… They've helped people who entered illegally, but were allowed to stay in the U S by CBP for whatever reason…..or people who are sent back to Tijuana under the remain in Mexico program. And more recently, the people who've crossed under this new agreement with the ACLU. Altogether. That's over 11,000 people since January. It’s been a huge lift for the organization...but a welcome one…. Airport Ambi up Eitan Peled / Jewish Family Service We’re really excited that we’re seeing arrivals again, and we’re seeing arrivals in the numbers that we are because we know these are all people in desperate need of help. Of international protections. The stories that you hear are really, really horrifying... Eitan Peled is a volunteer with Jewish Family Service… which spearheads the San Diego Rapid Response Network . Eitan and the network have been busy… Putting the migrants up in hotel rooms, screening for COVID... And even escorting families through the airport on their way to relatives or sponsors….. Airport ambi up And...things aren’t letting up anytime soon… Instead...numbers have been increasing in recent weeks. In all of May, 36-hundred asylum-seekers came through the network…. And the pandemic hasn’t caused any big problems... Eitan Peled / Jewish Family Service Um, I think what we’re doing is showing that we can both protect public health and afford people access or the right to seek asylum. BEAT/Transition AMBI: uploaded to folder “eitan airport directions” In early June...I met up with Eitan at the airport. He was helping Bradin and Yuris find their flights…. Unlike most Central American asylum-seekers, they don’t have family in the United States. So a sponsoring organization in New York has offered to help shelter them. Airport Ambi up Eitan showed the young family how to navigate the airport. Which is hard if you don’t speak the language… or... in this case... have never been in an airport before…. Airport AMBI up Braden, Yuris and their son walked down the jetway to a plane. Ambi Airport ambi up They’ll face years of uncertainty about their status in the U.S. If they're lucky enough to find a lawyer, their chances of getting asylum will be greatly increased. But for thousands of people like them navigating the system, that's not usually something they're able to find. BEAT What they do know…. Walking down that jetway… Is that for the first time in two years… They're not in immediate danger. FADE OUT AIRPORT AMBI…. PLANE TAKING OFF…. BEAT The Biden administration has said repeatedly that the border is closed…. They say, don't come. And if you do come. You won't be able to enter. But that's clearly not the case. Not for Braden and his family. And not for thousands of others who have crossed in recent months coming for a better life. Those conflicting messages, that lack of clarity. Can I make a claim for asylum? Will they let me in….my friend was just allowed in. Why can't I go? That feeds the desperation that the camp at el chaparral is built on. Camp ambi up Title 42, that pandemic-induced border closure, can't last forever. The Biden administration has hinted that they'll get rid of it sometime this summer… But immigrant advocates…They're not holding their breath. Camp ambi up Dulce Garcia…the immigrant advocate I talked to earlier who’s helping migrants in the camp.. She believes the government should not only end Title 42, but take the steps necessary to get these people to safety. Dulce Clip The resources are there. They just need to redirect them so we can get these people through. It’s a matter of willing. They can do so. Should the doors open tomorrow, we could process these people immediately. Right now, this ad-hoc system where nonprofits in Tijuana identify people who can cross? It’s a system that suits the administration. It allows them to pre-screen migrants, and slow the flow along the border…. But each day Title 42 stays in place, the situation at El Chapparal grows more dire….. BEAT FADE Ian camp ambi up Ian Sereulo - the immigration lawyer - tells me that organized crime in the camp is playing an even bigger role IAN CLIP Right so many people have heard of individuals selling tents and locations inside the encampment. They are sort of selling real estate inside the encampment, saying, I give you a spot in the encampment because the attorneys are only helping people inside the camp. So then, here is a place for you, you pay this much and we will assist you with these attorney volunteers…so again, those are the examples... Camp ambi out So people are so desperate for any kind of help… they’re actually paying to live in a dangerous refugee camp… BEAT Ambi back up That might seem inexplicable to you or me … But for those still stuck at the border… Many who fled violence, lived in crowded shelters or on tough city streets...all through a global pandemic…. They’re still here...right now… living in tents and under tarps…. Migrant camp ambi Just a few hundred feet from the U.S. border….staying in this dangerous camp…. Because they feel like… They don’t have a choice. Last of migrant camp ambi fade out Max...give him the mask... BEAT fade out This special KPBS Investigates and Port of Entry episode was written, reported and hosted by me, Max Rivlin-Nadler. Rebecca Chacon and Matt Bowler helped with sound, Kinsee Morlan and Alisa Barba helped produce and edit the show. And Emily Jankowski did the sound design. If you think stories like this one are important and you want to keep hearing them, consider supporting KPBS by becoming a member. Go to kpbs dot org and look for the blue give now button. Thanks for listening.

Increasing numbers of asylum seekers are being allowed to enter the United States. But with the asylum system still severely curtailed, thousands remain stuck in dangerous conditions in Tijuana.

KPBS reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler has been following the story for months. His reporting is featured in a new special report for the “KPBS Investigates” and “Port of Entry” podcasts. In the episode, Rivlin-Nadler follows the painfully long wait many asylum seekers have had to endure, simply for a chance at finding refuge in the U.S. It outlines America's critically damaged asylum system at the U.S. Mexico border by introducing you to the people on the ground, both the migrants living in the dangerous refugee camps in Tijuana and the activists and lawyers trying to help them.