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Backed by lawyers & faith leaders, asylum-seeking families call for end to COVID restrictions at border

25 families seeking protection rebuffed by U.S. authorities at Nogales border crossing

Accompanied by a lawyer and the Bishop of Tucson, Laura and her family walked through the turnstile at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales and presented themselves to U.S. officials for asylum.

Laura and her family wore white shirts that read "save asylum," and they joined a group of 25 families who, backed by dozens of supporters, marched under a gloomy sky Saturday afternoon in Nogales, Sonora to present themselves to U.S. officials and ask for protection.

Centered along the U.S.-Mexico border wall, the binational event was supported by the Kino Border Initiative, a humanitarian organization supported by Catholic groups in the United States and Mexico, including the California Province of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus, the Diocese of Tucson and the Diocese of Nogales.

For more than 18 months, legal requests to enter have effectively been precluded for people who want to ask for asylum at the nation's "ports of entry." While thousands have entered the U.S. after crossing the treacherous Sonoran Desert, most of them are immediately expelled under Title 42 — a CDC policy instituted by the Trump administration that allows U.S. border officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. after they have traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

The policy has continued regardless of COVID-19 vaccinations rates in Sonora, Mexico and in neighboring Pima and Santa Cruz counties.

As Laura described her situation, telling an officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that she was afraid of staying in northern Mexico, he interrupted. "We cannot help you," he said, adding that Title 42 prevents officials at the port from accepting asylum seekers.

"We can't process you, we just can't," he said in Spanish.

Laura explained that the three adults and four children had tested negative for COVID-19, and the officer shrugged. After a few minutes, officers responded by locking one turnstile, and after failing to lock the other, they brought down a metal rolling shutter, effectively sealing the port's pedestrian access for nearly an hour.

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After 10 minutes of pleading for asylum, Laura and her family walked out of the border crossing port, dejected. Her middle son sobbed as he walked back through the port, while the youngest boy gently asked, "When do we get to go?"

"This is the first time something like this has happened," said Chelsea Sachau, a lawyer with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Sachau, along with Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, accompanied Laura to the port.

Sachau said that the families that attempted to seek asylum were taking a risk. At one point, one CBP officer told one woman that she would be taken into custody in the port, and then later repatriated to another part of the border. Another CBP officer told families that he would call police in Mexico to take them away. Later, as the families continued to try, an official from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Migración told the families, "Look, there's no help from them. They won't take you, and they won't accept you. You have to go."

"It’s very telling that one family alone asked for asylum and they shut down the entire port," Sauchau said.

Knowing the uncertainty, the families wanted to take their chances, Sauchau said. "So this is a risk, but this is our right and we want to have the dignity of asking," she said.

She said that there's been a wide discussion of the numbers of people who have attempted to enter the U.S., and "it creates this image that there is a surge."

"But what those numbers don't show is that what my clients report to me, which is they will try crossing numerous times because they are fleeing real vulnerabilities, real threats to their safety," she said. "And so they have to take really impossible decisions and really increased risk, just in order to try and seek safety in the U.S. When you have border closures like these, those numbers are only going to increase because there is literally no way for someone to enter the U.S. and seek asylum legally through a port of entry."

The next day, CBP installed cargo containers across traffic lanes to fortify the port.

"I think it's important that the American populace understand that there is a lot of misconceptions around the border, and when there is a surge that's driven by our policies, which have created a lot of displacement on the border for many months, over, well, over two years," Sauchau said.

During the Trump administration, before Title 42 was put in place, U.S. officials were often instituting “metering,” refusing to let asylum seekers even get through the port in many cases, relying on CBP officers stationed at crossings. Later, officials also relied on Mexican authorities, including members of the Instituto Nacional de Migración, and members of the newly-formed National Guard.

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An investigation by El Paso Matters found that CBP officials in El Paso, Texas refused to accept asylum seekers in 2018, telling them that the facility was full, even when records show that the port had enough capacity to take them into custody.

Despite campaign promises to make the immigration system more humane, President Biden has kept Title 42 in place—even in the face of multiple successful lawsuits against the policy. On Sept. 16, a federal judge in Washington D.C. blocked the Biden administration from continuing Title 42 expulsions for families, writing that the policy is unlawful because it allows the "summary expulsion of noncitizens, including vulnerable families seeking asylum in this country, without any of the procedural protections guaranteed by Congress—even if the families show no sign of having COVID-19."

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan gave the Biden administration two weeks to follow his order, and they immediately filed an appeal. On Thursday, Sullivan's order would go into effect.

This is the second successful challenge against Title 42 after a judge ordered the Trump administration to stop the practice against children traveling without parents and guardians. The Biden administration exempted children from Title 42 in January.

This year, around 960,000 people have been expelled under Title 42.  Of that number, about 21,000 people were turned away by officers at the ports, and another 938,000 by Border Patrol agents—including around 173,000 people in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona.

Driven by Title 42, encounters by agents with people along the border have risen to more than 1.5 million this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020. However, as Troy Miller, the acting head of CBP said on Sept. 15, around 25 percent of those encounters  "involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months." In August, of the nearly 209,000 encounters, agents dealt with around 157,000 people.

Title 42 has pushed people to attempt to cross Arizona’s deserts, advocates have said. This has meant that significant groups of people—including a substantial number of children—spend hours in the desert to cross the border and turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents. This includes large groups who have appeared in the U.S. near Sasabe, and just south of the village of San Miguel on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

"It is injustice, my friends, injustice that has us here," said one speaker in Spanish, as dozens of migrants held banners in support of asylum seekers. Several held red balloons symbolizing hope.

"We really need President Biden to listen to us and to be human," said another speaker. "He made campaign promises to always help us. He is the one who can reopen the border for us so that we can have a dignified life."

One woman told TucsonSentinel.com in Spanish: "This is our right, this is the law of the U.S. that it should follow. They can't just ignore us, we deserve our human rights."

Joanna Williams, the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative told the crowd that Laura "spoke with a lot of courage and clarity when asking for her right to asylum. She even showed her negative COVID test to show that this is not an impediment to seek protection in the U.S. Despite her words, and the insistence from the Bishop, CBP not only denied access to this family, but they closed down the entire port of entry."

"It's difficult for CBP officials to listen to the families, because it would mean for them to listen to their voices, to open their hearts," she said.

After a series of speeches, and prayers, the crowd walked toward the port of entry. Several families  attempted to seek asylum, many of them standing in line for hours as CBP officers ignored them, pushing them to the side as other people entered the U.S. As they waited, the storm broke open and rain hammered at the port.

More than three hours after the event began, the remaining crowd gathered for a prayer, and then went home.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Asylum seekers attempt to ask for protection at the Nogales port of entry on Saturday.

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