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Rapid migrant expulsions strain Mexican border community

This year U.S. Border Patrol agents have used a CDC public health order to rapidly expel thousands of migrants into Mexican border towns with little consideration for their countries of origin or their fears of persecution. And while humanitarian aid organizations are collaborating to help support stranded migrants, the resources available to them in some border communities are still extremely limited.

"We do what we can, but it's never enough," said Jaret Ornelas, an education coordinator with the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora. "Part of it is because civil society is picking up the cost of what the governments of both the U.S. and Mexico should be doing."

From March 21, when the CDC announced the public health order, until October, almost 260,000 people were expelled across the Southwest border under Title 42 — a CDC health order that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to immediately expel migrants into their country of last transit without processing them. The Trump administration has claimed the order was implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in border facilities and in the United States more broadly.

"What really gets me so angry is that they don’t get an opportunity to see a judge or to get a lawyer," said Dora Rodriguez, the head of Salvavision, about the people expelled. "They just get picked up and then thrown back to a place where there is nothing for them."

In the tiny border town of Sasabe, Sonora, there aren’t enough resources available to support the high number of people being expelled there in recent months.

Located just across the U.S.-Mexico border from the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, Sasabe has a population of about 2,500 people. There is no public transportation in Sasabe, and there are no shelters for migrants. People working there say the town is dominated by the cartels, which puts migrants at further risk for being targeted.

Prior to the implementation of Title 42, the town only received about 20 migrants every week. Now they see roughly 100 expelled to the town every day. Many of the migrants are being dumped in the town after pursuing long journeys through the Sonoran Desert.

In September — while she was in Sasabe handing out donations with Gail Kocourek, a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, and Sister Judy Bourg who has been working in migrant ministry on the border for decades — a representative of a Mexican government aid office in Sasabe asked Rodriquez for help to address the crisis.

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Within a matter of days, Rodriquez and Kocourek had reached out to several different humanitarian aid organizations and formed a coalition of groups that were willing to help in Sasabe. The coalition includes volunteers from Salvavision, the Tucson Samaritans, the Green Valley Samaritans, the Ajo Samaritans, No More Deaths, Casa Alitas, and Humane Borders.

They have been working together to make sure the migrants being expelled into Sasabe have a hot meal waiting for them when they arrive. In total, they drop off around 700 meals, along with water bottles in Sasabe every week.

"Right now, we are just trying to get food into people’s stomachs," Kocourek said. "Some of these people have been walking for weeks. When they get back, many of them say they just want to go home. They realize it’s going to kill them."

In addition to providing food and water, the coalition has been giving migrants hand sanitizers, soaps, and masks. They offer the migrants educational support regarding the method and importance of mask-wearing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The coalition of groups meets via Zoom every other Saturday to discuss how they can support the migrants and asylum seekers who are scattered throughout Northern Mexico due to the border closure, Title 42 expulsions, and the Migrant Protection Protocols — a policy implemented in January of 2019 that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court date in the U.S. 

By October 2020, CBP sent 68,430 asylum seekers back to seven Mexican border cities, including Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros, according to researchers with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. 

In fact, even as Title 42 allowed CBP officials to rapidly expel people, the agency also maintained MPP, and in September 2020, enrolled at least 1,100 in the program. 

The coalition plans to provide aid in Sasabe through the end of January. After that, they will reassess whether they will need to continue their efforts in the remote border town. The members of the coalition are unsure how circumstances on the border will change after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

"Our hope is that the numbers start slowing down, and we don’t have to continue doing this because it’s hard," Rodriguez said. "But as long as they need us, we are going to be there."

The pandemic takes a toll

In Nogales, Sonora, a larger border town about 40 miles southeast of Sasabe, there are more resources available for migrants and asylum seekers.
The Kino Border Initiative has been providing support for people passing through Nogales since 2009. They offer migrants legal, social, and psychological services and meals from their comedor—or soup kitchen. 

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In February, KBI unveiled their new building with space to shelter over 100 migrants. They had planned to move into the building and start offering services by September, but they haven’t been able to shelter anyone in the space because of the pandemic.

In Nogales, the pandemic has put additional strain on a system that was already limited with Mexican government budget cuts resulting in fewer services in recent months. On top of that, thousands of asylum seekers are still living in Nogales waiting for their MPP hearings. Their cases were put on hold when the emergency was declared in March.

Since the implementation of Title 42, CBP agents have been dumping migrants from different countries into the city of Nogales. 

Ornelas from KBI says the recent expulsions have been challenging because CBP agents have been expelling people during dangerous hours in the early morning and late at night.

Prior to the pandemic, KBI had an agreement with CBP agents that they would not deport migrants outside of the hours that Mexican immigration services are working. For months, CBP agents have ignored that agreement.

"We've filed 12 complaints with the CBP about these Title 42 expulsions for people who have been expelled at night and for people who have expressed a credible fear," Ornelas said. "They've asked not to be sent back to Mexico because of fear of persecution and that’s been completely ignored with these expulsions."

Ornelas spends time interviewing migrants at KBI to determine what kind of services they need. Since the expulsions started, he has documented some shocking abuses by Border Patrol agents.

In one case, he says CBP agents expelled a Nicaraguan man into Nogales wearing nothing but a hospital gown. The man and his nephew had been abandoned in the desert without food or water for four days. They were picked up by CBP agents and detained.

While in custody, the man fainted. Ornelas says he was hospitalized in Tucson for nine days where he received dialysis for the severe damage done to his kidneys by dehydration. CBP agents removed this man from the hospital before his doctors had given him clearance to leave and expelled him into Nogales without shoes, socks, or underwear. The agents expelled him even though he was afraid of returning to Mexico, Ornelas said. 

"pesos on their foreheads"

Ornelas has referred to the difference in support being offered to migrants in Nogales and Sasabe as "night and day." Nogales just has more resources and opportunities than the tiny town of Sasabe.

It remains unclear how Tucson Sector officials determine where they are going to expel migrants. A CBP representative said that migrants are expelled at the port of entry that is "nearby" where they were picked up. But Ornelas has seen cases where friends have been split up — with some being expelled into Sasabe and others being expelled into Nogales.

The effort echoes a practice known as lateral deportations, or more formally the Alien Transfer Exit Program, that intentionally sent people who were apprehended from other Border Patrol sectors often to Tamaulipas, a dangerous Mexican border state along the Gulf of Mexico. The program began in 2008 and continued through most of the Obama administration. Researchers from the University of Arizona and University of Michigan found the program had little effect on stopping people from attempting to cross the border again, but the program did put many people in danger, because they were shifted to unknown cities with few resources.

In both Sasabe and Nogales, U.S. policies are creating a situation where there is an influx of people who are homeless and seeking refuge. These people become easy targets for organized crime groups in the border communities. “If somebody is homeless, nine times out of ten you know why they’re there,” said Diego Javier Piña Lopez, the Program Manager at Casa Alitas.

Jim Marx, a volunteer with No More Deaths, has described migrants who are crossing through Mexico as having "pesos on their foreheads." As the border has been more militarized in recent years, the price that smugglers charge migrants to cross has increased significantly. Today, it can cost migrants anywhere between $7,000 to $14,000 to pay a smuggler to take them across the border.

The Trump administration’s policies are actually benefiting smugglers who can now wait in the border communities for new "customers" — people who have been returned —instead of having to move people all the way from their home countries when they try crossing again.

"The Department of Homeland Security says again and again that this has nothing to do with immigration," Ornelas said. "They say it has to do with public safety because of the pandemic, but we are extremely skeptical of that explanation."

Ornelas explained that many are skeptical of the true intentions behind Title 42 because the United States itself is the epicenter of the pandemic with the highest recorded number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world. U.S. officials have continued with hundreds of deportations throughout the pandemic — sometimes knowingly deporting individuals who have tested positive for the virus despite the threat they pose to public health.

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When U.S. officials rapidly expel migrants and asylum seekers without knowing whether they are sick or not, they could be further facilitating the spread of COVID-19 into the border communities.

In Mexico, it is hard to say how severe the coronavirus outbreak has become due to limited testing availability. People are frequently encouraged to stay home if they’re sick unless symptoms become severe. Mexico recently became the 4th country in the world to surpass 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19, although the true death toll is likely much higher. Last Thursday, the state of Sonora reported 34 new COVID-19 deaths, and across the state, some hospitals said they were nearing capacity, according to Fronteras

The number of migrants expelled by U.S. Border Patrol agents into Mexico under Title 42 has increased by 743 percent since the Trump administration shut down the border in March. Some border communities have infrastructure in place to support the influx of migrants, while others have next to nothing to offer them.

Most of the support being offered to migrants and asylum seekers is coming from the people of Mexico and the humanitarian aid workers who continue to step up to lend a helping hand.

"In the end, it's all about supporting efforts to keep people alive given this draconian policy that we have," Marx said. "But Trump didn't invent all of what's going on here. He just took it to a new level. What we really have to do is lean hard on the Biden administration to not only keep its promises, but to think larger."

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CBP

A U.S. Border Patrol agent fingerprints a man near Sasabe, Ariz. in March, as the agency moved to begin rapidly expelling people under Title 42.