'I pray they let me in': Asylum seekers face long wait at border

Jeff Sessions tells asylum seekers to go to official ports, but getting across the border proves difficult for many.

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    'I pray they let me in': Asylum seekers face long wait at border
    Gutierrez hopes to go to her mother living in Chicago [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

    Nogales, Mexico - Guadalupe and her two-year-old daughter have been waiting at the port of entry to the US in Nogales, Mexico for days.

    The 22-year-old fled her home state of Sinaloa, Mexico more than two weeks ago after she found out the father of her daughter was part of a drug cartel in the area.

    "He wanted to keep our child and he started to threaten to kill me," Guadalupe, who asked not to use her surname, told Al Jazeera.

    "I knew I couldn't talk to the police because they are afraid of them too," she said. "That would be signing my own death sentence. So I got really afraid and ran away … and came here."

    The young mother and her daughter were one of 10 families who waited outside the official port of entry in Nogales over the weekend. About 100 others were sleeping in a shelter set up throughout the city, waiting for their turn to be next in line at the port of entry itself.

    For those who regularly cross the border, seeing families, like Guadalupe's, sleeping on blankets and waiting at the crossing is a relatively new sight.

    "We are still figuring out what is exactly going on now," said Marla Conrad, who works with the Kino Border Initiative, an NGO that provides food, shelter and legal aid to migrants waiting in Nogales.

    "But there is a clear difference with some months ago," Conrad told Al Jazeera.

    "Anyone who arrived then and applied for official asylum was immediately let in and their request processed. Now we see people who have been waiting for weeks."

    Only 10 families at a time are permitted to stay right by the Nogales port of entry to seek asylum [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera] 

    Conrad has worked in Nogales for seven years, and the only time there was a line of people waiting and camping out at the port of entry like now was when many Haitians applied for asylum because of the earthquake that ravaged their country in 2010, followed by a severe cholera outbreak.

    According to Conrad, the process at the port of entry has been especially slow over the last two months.

    In April, the administration of President Donald Trump announced its "zero tolerance" policy towards migrants and refugees.

    Under the policy, anyone caught crossing the border between official ports of entry are detained and prosecuted. 

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    Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week that "immigrants can go to our ports of entry if they want to claim asylum" and that "they won't be arrested".

    But migrants and refugees, rights groups and politicians have accused the US government of purposely delaying the processing of asylum claims at official ports of entry.

    On Sunday, Trump said that undocumented individuals should be deported without due process - a suggestion that was slammed by rights groups as "unconstitutional"

    Last week, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said the asylum process was being "slow-walked".

    "It's absolutely clear that we are slow-walking the port of entry the efforts for individuals to seek asylum," Merkley said after visiting south Texas immigrant processing and detention centres.

    Carina Varera Gutierrez lies down for a nap with her son [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

    US Customs and Border Patrol told Al Jazeera that when ports of entry "reach capacity" CBP "from time to time [has] to manage the queues and address that processing".

    "CBP processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency's overall mission, or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody," CBP said in an email statement.

    "That being said, CBP processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency's overall mission, or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody."

    The ports themselves have seen a surge in the number of asylum claims over the past few years. 

    L Francis Cissna, director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, told legislators last month that new asylum claims tripled between 2014 and 2017, according to the Associated Press. Cissna said that there were nearly 142,000 claims in 2017, the highest level in more than 20 years. 

    'I just hope they won't take my daughter'

    The Trump administration's changing of policies, which were especially contradictory in the past week, has also created a sense of confusion among migrants and refugees themselves. 

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    Following widespread outrage, Trump signed an executive order last week that ends his administration's practice of separating families at the border. Instead, families who are caught crossing the border between official ports, are detained together - a practice likely to be challenged in the courts.

    Despite the order, many fear their children could be taken away.

    "I just really hope they won't take my child away from me," Guadalupe said, wide-eyed. "If they take away my daughter … wow, I really wouldn't know what to do any more."

    Two sleeping pads down the line from Guadalupe sat 20-year-old Carina Varera Gutierrez, who sat with her two-year-old son, boyfriend and younger brother.

    Gutierrez left her home state of Puebla three weeks ago after men she didn't know demanded she pay them 1,000 pesos (about $50).

    "They knew my mother was in the United States and knew I was then responsible for the family," Gutierrez told Al Jazeera.

    "People didn't believe me in Pueblo when I told them I was being extorted, because it isn't something that happens a lot there," Gutierrez said, sometimes interrupted by the crying of children sitting near her.

    "It was happening to me, so I had to go away. So if the officials here at the border will permit me, I hope to be able to go to my mother."

    While people stand in line for no more than a few minutes to have their passports or IDs checked, Carina Varera Gutierrez waits. [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

    While she was waiting, a man tapped on the fence that divides the border and gave Gutierrez a $5 bill.

    "A little help," the man said.

    According to Gutierrez, this has happened several times in the past few days.

    "Some people walking past here give us money, which is a great help," she said. "Others give us stuff and there are all these volunteers bringing us food. We are so thankful for that.

    Another family - a father with his two sons - arrived while Guadalupe and Gutierrez waited.

    After Kino Border's Conrad explained to him how the system works and that there are more than 100 people waiting before him, she took him to a shelter where he could wait his turn.

    According to Conrad, many of the children in the shelters are becoming sick.

    "The first couple of weeks in May this whole port of entry was full of people," Conrad said. Kino Border Initiative and the Red Cross have been working to provide medical attention to those waiting to cross the border.

    "The Mexican border officials asked us to help bring them to shelters to improve the hygienic situation," she added. "Now that we have more people in shelters, it's getting better."

    'I don't know anyone here' 

    Back at the port of entry, Guadalupe and Gutierrez, along with the other families hope that at least one family will be let in, so they don't have to sleep on the floor of the port of entry for too many more days.

    Due to a ruling by Sessions earlier this month, domestic violence and gang violence will not be reasons to grant asylum any more, making it nearly impossible for people who fear for their lives to convince border officials that they do so.

    But for Gutierrez and Guadalupe there's no option in turning back. They are forced to hang in limbo in the city of Nogales, which isn't a safe place either for them to stay.

    Migrants coming here are an easy target for gangs who attack and rob them, because they are in a city where they do not have a network and carry all their belongings with them.

    "I don't know anyone here," Guadalupe said.

    "I'm just praying to God they will let me in."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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