A public health order issued in late-March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred unauthorized migrants from entering the U.S. The order cited concerns over the “introduction” of an infectious disease to the country, which in this case, is COVID-19. What was an initial effort to contain the spread of the pandemic has since thrown the U.S. asylum process into disarray. Three reporters — from the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and Mexico City — took a deep dive on how this CDC order affects the lives of asylum-seeking migrants by examining how it’s being implemented along the Texas-Mexico border. This is the second story in the series.
It all happened so fast. An asylum seeker and her two young daughters had just crossed the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez when they encountered immigration officials.
“They grabbed us and told us that they were gonna take us back to Mexico,” she recalled in Spanish. “They said that they weren’t letting anyone into the U.S. and we didn’t have any other option.”
The woman asked KERA not to use her name, out of concern for her safety.
She attempted to cross the border in early April.
It was around 3 a.m. when officials dropped her on the Santa Fe International Bridge and left her to fend for herself in an unfamiliar Mexican border city where she knew no one.
The woman sat down near the base of the bridge and wrapped her younger daughter in a warm jacket, as protection against the nighttime chill. A security guard brought her three face masks.
Around the same time, immigration lawyer Tania Guerrero started noticing something strange.
“We started seeing a few people come back from the United States without any documentation,” said Guerrero, who is based in Juárez and works with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
“They were being returned through Santa Fe bridge at really odd hours. Very, very late at night. In the middle of the night.”
Over the past year, many asylum seekers had been sent back to Mexico through the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP — but they were given paperwork with a hearing date in U.S. immigration court.
The people Guerrero mentions were describing something different than MPP.
“They have been basically pushed away from the United States with no process whatsoever,” she said.
Guerrero and her colleagues came up with a new term for people who had been rapidly returned: coronareturnos, “because they’re returned because of the virus.”
In late March, the CDC issued an emergency directive that the Trump administration has used to swiftly expel unauthorized migrants from the U.S., often within a matter of hours. Since then, the federal government has carried out around 70,000 expulsions.
“Everyone explains [the expulsion process] to be extremely fast and that they’re not able to express their fear,” Guerrero said.
In other words, they are not able to seek asylum.
“I begged them not to make me leave'”
A Salvadoran woman, who also asked not to be identified due to safety concerns, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border just ten days after the CDC order went into effect.
She said she left El Salvador when an abusive ex-partner — the father of her child — threatened to kill her. At first, she didn’t take the threat seriously, but then he showed up at her house with several other people.
“They said ‘we’ll give you one more chance to disappear or we disappear you,’” she said in Spanish.
The woman took her 4-year-old daughter and fled, but by the time she made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, it was effectively closed.
The woman said she was apprehended soon after crossing into Texas. Officials took her pictures and fingerprints and asked for identification. Then the family was taken to an international bridge, right back to Mexico. She said they didn’t explain what was happening, just told her she had to leave.
“I didn’t want to move from the bridge,” she said. “I begged them not to make me leave because I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
The woman said she pleaded for help finding a lawyer or judge, and told the officials she couldn’t go back to her home country — or Mexico, for that matter.
“They told me they didn’t care,” she said. “They didn’t care what happened to my life. That I could go to Mexico or El Salvador or wherever I wanted, but I wasn’t getting into the U.S.”
Eventually, the woman claimed, officials told her they would press charges if she refused to leave the bridge.
KERA asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection how the agency currently determines whether someone is granted a credible fear interview — the first step in the asylum process — and if that has changed since the CDC order first went into effect.
“These instances are handled on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesperson said.
The agency did not respond to questions about the Salvadoran asylum seeker’s claims that officials threatened to bring charges against her.
‘Left To Their Own Devices’
In general, migrant shelters in Juárez — which are trying to control the spread of COVID-19 — cannot immediately take in new residents. In May, a new “filter hotel” opened, where people who have been rapidly expelled from the U.S. can quarantine for 14 days before moving on to longer-term shelter.
Yet immigration attorney Tania Guerrero worries that people being dropped off on a bridge in the middle of the night can fall through the cracks.
“People are just left to their own devices,” she said. “Sometimes they’re lucky to find Mexican authorities or Mexican authorities find them.”
These authorities can direct migrants to the filter hotel. But fears of possible detainment by federal authorities or deportation can be a major barrier for migrants seeking help once left abandoned.
The Salvadoran mother and her daughter ended up at a migrant shelter called the Leona Vicario Integration Center. It opened last summer to house asylum seekers in MPP as they wait for their U.S. court dates, and is run by the Mexican government.
The shelter has been on lockdown since March, but still took in a few families — including the Guatemalan mother and children who were dropped on the Santa Fe bridge in the middle of the night.
Leona Vicario experienced a COVID outbreak in May; twelve residents tested positive for the virus. With uncertain health conditions at the shelter and no court date on the horizon, the Guatemalan mother began considering a return to her home country.
But for other asylum seekers, returning home is out of the question.
Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso, said the CDC order has led to extreme desperation.
“People who have already fled their homes and feel like they can’t go back — that only death awaits them if they were to go home — they’re really stuck,” Levy said, in a dangerous city where migrants are often the target of violence.
Levy said families with small children are taking riskier, more dangerous routes in an attempt to cross the border undetected, which is different than what she saw in the past.
Previously, she said, families would cross in more open areas and turn themselves in to immigration officials.
“We have people who see no hope on the horizon,” Levy said. “They hear no hope about when the border might open up, what date things will change, when they can put their name on the asylum waiting list (at a port of entry). And so they’re driven to make really drastic choices to try and protect their lives and the lives of their children.”