Diego Piña Lopez stood in the darkened entryway of the repurposed juvenile detention center, chatting with volunteers as night fell. The 31-year-old program director of Casa Alitas, Tucson’s largest migrant shelter, was approaching the end of another 12-hour day. He had hit the road early that morning to drive more than 130 miles west to the unincorporated community of Ajo, where the Border Patrol recently began dropping off vanloads of asylum-seekers. Piña took three of the new arrivals back to Tucson himself. Others rode in vehicles organized by community groups and local leaders.
Casa Alitas’s new guests were settling in as Piña began our tour. We passed through a room that looked like it had once been a guard shack, now converted into a humanitarian operations center. The brick walls of the building were painted purple and pink. What had once been the jail yard was transformed into a community garden. Cells for incarcerated youth were now temporary homes for families seeking refuge in the United States.
As part of the Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, Casa Alitas was previously based out of a former Benedictine monastery, which could house upward of 300 people. The current space is smaller, with 68 rooms and space for roughly 120 people, though that number has been cut in half due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the shelter has implemented an array of measures to keep the work going in the face of the coronavirus — creating separate spaces for volunteers, guests, and individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 — U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, has told local officials to prepare for an influx of asylum-seekers two to three times what Southern Arizona saw in 2019, when Casa Alitas provided services to approximately 18,000 people. So far, that has yet to happen.
“The numbers are not where we were back in 2019,” Piña told me. “Yes, we’re busy, but we’re not going crazy. The building’s not on fire.”
Piña has lived his share of border news cycles. Growing up on the U.S. side of the binational cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, he came of age as the border entered a period of unprecedented militarization spurred by bipartisan “get tough” policies, the drug war, and the war on terror. He came to work for Casa Alitas during the Obama administration, at the tail end of the decade’s first large-scale arrival of unaccompanied Central American children and families seeking asylum in the U.S. Though most of the kids came through the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Arizona received its share of young people seeking refuge as well. The pattern would repeat itself under President Donald Trump. It is now happening again under President Joe Biden.
While Casa Alitas has not seen the same number of new guests that came through under President Barack Obama and Trump, the present moment is not without its challenges.
Walking deeper into the shelter, Piña described a disturbing pattern he’s picked up on in recent weeks. “Thirty percent of the guests coming from certain areas of the border are missing family members,” he said; many were coming through Yuma, on the western edge of the state.
To explain the gravity of the problem, Piña opened WhatsApp, showing me a borderwide shelter group devoted to missing persons. The previous week, during a dinner with a group of new guests, Piña passed his phone around so his companions could see the text group. When it came back to him, seven new names had been added — the missing family members and loved ones of the people he was seated with.
“I lost it when I looked at it,” Piña said. A Honduran woman told him that she and her husband were taken into custody together. After some time, an official pointed at her to go and him to stay. She had no idea where he now was. For Piña, experienced as he is, it was the kind of moment where the right words are hard to find. “We’re seeing that on a consistent basis,” he said. “It’s appalling.”
With national political and media attention returning to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks, most of the focus has been on the record numbers of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Texas. Thousands of those children have been moved into facilities well beyond capacity. Republican lawmakers have seized on the moment to file midnight dispatches from the banks of the Rio Grande reporting that Biden and the Department of Homeland Security are presiding over the humanitarian crisis that stems from a break with the policies of Trump. Biden and DHS, in turn, have run with a message that the border is closed and asylum-seekers should stay away until further notice.
The processing of unaccompanied children in the United States presents clearly urgent questions of human rights, law, and policy. It is also just one facet of the larger story of Biden’s first months in office on the border.
Asylum-seekers themselves described profound feelings of vulnerability and fear with no end in sight.
Through interviews in migrant shelters and border communities in Arizona and Sonora, The Intercept found that the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump-era policies — particularly the choking off of asylum access at U.S. ports — is making one of the deadliest stretches of the U.S.-Mexico divide more dangerous, endangering the people the president purports to support and enriching the illicit networks he purports to oppose. In Nogales, data compiled in intake interviews on the Mexican side of the border and shared with The Intercept suggests a sharp rise in violence and extortion targeting migrants and asylum-seekers over the past year by organized crime and Mexican security forces, as well as an explosion in the previously prohibited practice of Border Patrol agents dropping people off in dangerous locations in Mexico in the middle of the night. Shelter operators on both sides of the border reported routinely seeing cases of families separated by U.S. authorities. Asylum-seekers themselves, some of whom have been waiting months or years to make their case in the U.S., described profound feelings of vulnerability and fear with no end in sight.
As a presidential candidate, Biden attacked Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance,” in which more than 5,000 children were taken from their parents at the border, as a stain on the moral fabric of the nation. The president-elect promised a humanitarian approach, one that upheld “the dignity of migrants” and “their legal right to seek asylum.”
The damage the Biden White House committed itself to undoing was immense. Though Trump ordered an end to zero tolerance, his administration replaced the policy with an equally punishing program known as “Remain in Mexico.” More than 71,000 people were forced to wait out their cases in Mexico, often in the border’s most dangerous cities, where migrant kidnappings are big business. In the span of two years, the number of documented cases involving individuals enrolled in the program who experienced some form of violence — assault, rape, kidnapping, torture, murder — was double the roughly 1.5 percent of individuals who were granted refuge.
With the onset of the coronavirus, Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, imposed a full-on asylum lockdown. Title 42, the obscure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention law that Miller relied on, was implemented over the objections of public health professionals at the agency. Under the rule, Border Patrol agents can summarily “expel” individuals, including asylum-seekers, back to Mexico after an “encounter” in the field without a hearing. The entire process often takes less than two hours. It’s been used more than half a million times in the past year, with more than 637,000 expulsions and counting, including the removal of at least 13,000 unaccompanied children. According to data obtained by CBS News, of the hundreds of thousands of people — including tens of thousands of families — processed through Title 42 in the past year, 0.3 percent have been given an opportunity to make their case in the U.S. As Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Counsel, recently noted, “far fewer families have so far been permitted to seek asylum today than under the Trump administration in 2019.”
While Biden ordered an end to Remain in Mexico on his first day in office, he’s kept in place Title 42, the most sweeping barrier to asylum access on the border in U.S. history. The Intercept sent the White House a detailed list of questions concerning conditions observed in Mexico resulting from Title 42. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment, leaving open the question of how extending Miller’s crowning border achievement comports with the president’s vows to break with the legacy of his predecessor.
CBP confirmed to The Intercept that the nighttime drop-offs happening in Nogales and ports across the country are a direct result of Title 42 and part of a borderwide shift that began last year, which has seen the Border Patrol summarily expelling people, including families with young children, to places that previously did not receive individuals removed from the United States — including towns controlled by organized crime with no transportation services.
“There’s an agreement between Mexico and the United States as to when and where people will be returned under Title 42,” John Mennell, CBP’s supervisory public affairs specialist in Arizona, told me. This agreement is distinct from prior agreements between the two countries that have governed the repatriation of individuals onto Mexican soil for years, which typically limit removals to certain ports and prohibit releasing people between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Whether this agreement exists in writing or is informal is unclear — neither the Department of Homeland Security nor Mexico’s immigration office would say. What the public generally fails to understand, Mennell said, is that when people are encountered by Border Patrol agents in the desert under Title 42, the system is designed to unfold outdoors — typically at a Border Patrol “forward operating base” — as quickly as possible. “It’s only if you’re going to be detained and released into the interior or turned over to ICE or turned over to an NGO that you might go to a Border Patrol station,” he said. “Everybody that gets expelled goes right back to the border.”
“So a lot of these single males that we’re catching here in Arizona, yeah, they’re going back — at all hours,” Mennell said. “The whole idea is not to be transporting people. It’s to expel them where they entered as quickly as possible.”
Title 42’s implementation is under fire in the courts, with advocacy groups arguing that it is a thinly veiled scheme to deny asylum-seekers their rights. Despite Homeland Security’s position that Title 42 is needed to stem the cross-border spread of Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of people continue to pass through the nation’s ports every day. In November, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop expelling unaccompanied children under the rule. The decision was overturned, but Biden chose not to renew the policy. Beyond that, the Biden White House has been clear in its desire to implement Title 42 in as sweeping a manner as possible. In his first press conference as president, Biden himself indicated that contrary to Title 42’s public health justifications, its purpose was to stop migration.
“We’re in negotiations with the president of Mexico,” the president said. “They should all be going back.”
Mexico has complicated the administration’s efforts by declining to accept certain populations of would-be expellees. In the Arizona-Sonora area, those populations have generally included Cubans, Brazilians, and until very recently, Venezuelans. According to Mennell, the “vast majority of people apprehended in Arizona are still expelled under Title 42, to include families, unless it’s from a demographic that Mexico will not accept.”
As for family separations resulting from Title 42, Mennell said any number of reasons could explain why individuals might be split up. In the case of a husband and wife, for example, “she could be from a country that they’re not accepting but he was from a country that they were accepting. There’s a myriad of reasons why two single adults, who were traveling together, though they might be married, might be dealt with differently.” A positive Covid-19 test would not be a factor, he added: “It wouldn’t matter to us because we would either release them or send them back before they were tested for Covid.”
In addition to expulsions, Title 42 makes applying for asylum at the ports impossible for most people, raising the likelihood that desperate individuals and families will try their luck in the desert. With record-setting heat, more migrant remains were recovered in Arizona in 2020 than any year in the past decade. More than 3,200 people have lost their lives trying to cross the deserts of Southern Arizona since the mid-1990s. In November, federal law enforcement officials told the Arizona Republic that Title 42 had led to a return to the “dark days” of human smuggling in the state.
The complicated and patchwork ways in which Title 42 has manifested on the ground has spurred confusion as to exactly what is happening at the border. Because Title 42 expulsions are not formal deportations, single adults often try to enter the U.S. again, meaning that recent apprehension numbers include individuals making multiple attempts to enter the U.S. The discussion of these numbers often obscures the fact that most of those people never enter the immigration system — let alone the interior of the United States — in any meaningful way.
“Every time we do some of these policies, we just further the problem.”
Humanitarian aid providers on the ground say that as long as Title 42 remains in place, so too does one of the most consequential facets of the Trump era on the border: denied access to asylum.
“You’re essentially rebuilding that same problematic system that Trump had,” Piña said. Until there is a safe and viable mechanism for people to seek asylum in the United States, he argued, violence and suffering south of the border will continue. “The cartels, the police — everyone extorts them,” he said. “Every time we do some of these policies, we just further the problem.”
Esmerelda sat with her hands folded in her lap in the common area of the comedor. It was morning at the Kino Border Initiative’s shelter in Nogales, Sonora. Two lines of people filtered into the two-story building: new arrivals, virtually all of them expelled under Title 42, and return visitors. The crowd skewed young — families with young children and young men on their own. The new arrivals, many still wearing the dusty desert clothes they were apprehended in, checked in at the intake desk, unpacking their stories before grabbing a plate of hot food and heading for the showers.
Esmerelda was not a new arrival. She and her family came to Nogales in November 2019, fleeing violence and persecution in their home state of Guerrero. As a front line in Mexico’s dirty war, Guerrero was the site of staggering state violence from the 1960s through 1980s. More recently, the state came to symbolize the terror and violence of the drug war. In 2014, it was the site of one of the worst atrocities in the nation’s history: the enforced disappearance of 43 college students by Mexican security forces and organized crime. Today Guerrero is a known “epicentre of organised crime in Mexico, with more groups jostling for turf than in any other single region,” the International Crisis Group noted in a 2020 report, adding that collusion between police and organized crime in the state is “rampant.”
For Esmerelda and her family, it was the murder of her husband’s father and the threats that followed that sent them north. Nearly two years after she first presented herself at the port in Nogales, she’s still waiting for an opportunity to make her case. Esmerelda and her husband, along with their four children as well as two nieces and their kids — 13 people in total — have crammed themselves into a tiny apartment not far from the shelter. In the past couple months, la mafia has assaulted her husband twice, she told me, robbing him, stealing his phone, telling him that if speaks up he will be murdered. There’s an idea along the border that Nogales is a safer city for migrants, she said: “A lot of people say it’s calmer.” While that may seem true from the outside, the lived experience is something else entirely. “You have no value here — it’s dangerous,” she said. “We know that the police are colluding with organized crime.”
“They think that we’re with the guides who bring the people,” Esmerelda said. To be with the guides, as she put it, is to occupy a position in the violent power struggles that color so much of the illicit movement of people and things along the border: It’s a signal of affiliation. It’s a problem, Esmerelda explained, because it’s not true. “We aren’t guides,” she said. “We’re asylum-seekers. We want to enter. We don’t bring people. That’s what they think, that’s why we’re threatened.”
“You have no value here — it’s dangerous. We know that the police are colluding with organized crime.”
When Esmerelda and her family came to the border, the Trump administration was still using a tactic known as “metering” to strangle asylum access at the ports. An investigation by the DHS Office of the Inspector General would conclude that the practice was built on lies that ports were at capacity when they were not, including in Nogales. Esmerelda had no way of knowing that at the time; her family was doing what top U.S. officials had publicly said they should do, seeking asylum the “right way” by applying at a port of entry.
In time, metering was overtaken by Remain in Mexico, which was overtaken by Title 42. When the Biden administration began dismantling Remain in Mexico at the beginning of the year, it started with cases out of Texas and California. The same has not been true in Arizona. “I have no indication that it’s going to start here,” Mennell, the CBP official, told me. Because she’s a Mexican citizen, Esmerelda was never in Remain in Mexico. The metering list she was on has effectively disappeared, and with Title 42 still in place, the list’s potential relevance in the eyes of the Biden government is in doubt. Even if she and her family were permitted entry into the U.S., they would face an uphill battle: It is notoriously difficult for Mexicans to win asylum in the United States. For now, and for the foreseeable future, she and her family are stuck.
Esmerelda has two U.S. citizen children living with her in Nogales. They refuse to cross the border without her. For her 16-year-old daughter, who had hopes of becoming of a doctor, the stress of an uncertain life in the border city has been brutal. She’s largely stopped eating, Esmerelda said, and begun to engage in acts of self-harm. “She had a dream,” Esmerelda said. As a mother, Esmerelda is doing her best to hold it together. She puts on a strong face so her kids don’t see her sad, she said, but it’s not easy. “Psychologically, I’m not good,” Esmerelda said. “I’m sitting here in Nogales with the problems I brought from Guerrero, thinking about what happened there, what’s happening here.”
While the Biden administration has hammered on a public message of “don’t come” to would-be asylum-seekers, three of the four people I interviewed in Nogales were already at the border when the president was sworn in. José, from Ecuador, arrived six months ago. Emily, from Guatemala, made it to Nogales in February. Both described direct threats of violence against themselves or their families as the principal motivation for packing up and heading north — “We had no other option,” Emily told me — and both said they felt unsafe in Nogales. “I’m very afraid,” José said.
Nedy, a 22-year-old from Guatemala, had a different story. He could tell people he was fleeing violence and persecution, he explained, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth was that he needed money. His father had a heart condition, and he required an operation. Nedy made a promise to help. He spent 22 days on buses that took him from southern Guatemala to the Sonoran Desert. He crossed the border with a group but was soon abandoned. He wandered for three days without food or water. “Three days in the desert without guides,” he said. “With nothing.” At one point, he tried flagging down a drone that passed overhead. He eventually found a road, and a passerby gave him food and water before he was taken into Border Patrol custody and expelled. It was then, he learned, that his father had died.
In an interview later that afternoon, Joanna Williams, KBI’s executive director, painted a grim picture of the landscape for asylum-seekers in Nogales.
Through intake interviews conducted at its shelter, KBI tracks abuses experienced by migrants on both sides of the border, including kidnappings, threats, extortion, abandonment in the desert, and nighttime expulsions. KBI is particularly concerned about the nighttime expulsions.
“It’s been relentless,” Williams told me. According to shelter data shared with The Intercept, there were 14 instances of nighttime expulsions reported in January, 33 in February, and 23 in March, making for 70 instances of night expulsions in 90 days, as compared to zero in the first three months of 2020.
Nighttime expulsions frequently involve more than one person, Williams noted: Shelter guests often report being returned in groups of around 30 people, though some have numbered up to 100. That would suggest that the number of people expelled at night in Nogales during Biden’s first months in office could range from several hundred to several thousand, though it’s important to recall that KBI’s data only reflects the people who were able to find the shelter and report what happened, meaning it is an undercount of the true number of individuals impacted. And this is only in the city of Nogales. As Animal Político, a Mexican news outlet, noted in an investigation published in February, nighttime removals have been happening in some the “most remote and dangerous” locations for migrants on the border for more than a year now.
Williams added that KBI is “regularly seeing” expulsions at 2 in the morning. “It’s uniquely frustrating to us as an organization because we fought for years to restrict the hours of repatriation here,” she said. “They’re supposed to be from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and now it’s any time.” When people are expelled in the middle of the night, there are no Mexican immigration officials to receive them, Williams explained. While on paper there are populations that the Mexican government will not accept, “when they’re sending them back at 2 in the morning, there’s not a Mexican official on the south side to object to it.”
Even during daytime hours, the Mexican government is not registering the individuals and families expelled under Title 42, Williams explained. Budget cuts have decimated Mexico’s primary immigration agency. Grupos Beta, a component of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration created to provide humanitarian aid to migrants, “barely even has money to put gas in their cars,” she said. “There’s no rhyme or reason, at least that we can tell, of who’s being released,” she added. In one recent case, a man who turned up at the shelter said he had been pressured by drug traffickers to carry a load across the border. “The drug cartel was trying to force him to carry drugs, and he refused,” Williams said. “He wanted to give the Border Patrol information.” According to Williams, the man was told that would take too much time because it involved filing a police report. He was expelled.
For years, asylum at the ports has served as a “safety valve” for people who were wrongly removed.
Like Casa Alitas in Tucson, KBI has documented “multiple cases” of families separated under Title 42. Just that morning, Williams had spoken to a Cuban man who was expelled from Texas while his wife was moved into a detention center. For years, asylum at the ports has served as a “safety valve” for people who were wrongly removed, Williams explained, “an option to turn yourself in without paying a smuggler.” Under Title 42, that safety valve is all but gone. To get an asylum-seeker through the port now requires going through CBP headquarters. “We have fought tooth and nail for certain individuals who are particularly vulnerable — I think we’ve gotten two people in through that after months and months of work,” Williams said. “That’s two people out of the hundreds who are waiting.”
As it was with Trump, Biden’s continuation of Title 42 elevates the risk for asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico with each passing day. “We’re just hearing more and more accounts of assaults and robberies,” Williams said. A review of abuses reported in Nogales in the first three months of 2020, the months immediately preceding the onset of Title 42, and the first three months of 2021 shows substantial increases in every category except for those related to detention, which is largely nonexistent due to the new rule. According to the data, reported kidnappings in the first three months of 2021 were double what they were one year prior. There were more than four times as many reports of migrants and asylum-seekers being threatened; five times as many reports of extortion; and eight times as many reports of people being abandoned in the desert.
Criminal groups in Nogales are only part of the problem. More than half of the extortion cases reported by migrants and asylum-seekers in 2021 were attributed to Mexican security forces, most hailing from the federal government.
For two consecutive presidential administrations, the U.S. relied on foreign security forces to suppress migration flows. The outsourcing led to systemic human rights abuses under both Obama and Trump. Last week, the Biden administration announced that it is continuing that model, having secured agreements with the governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to deploy thousands of troops to their own borders. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “The objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey.”
The news came less than two weeks after a Mexican soldier shot and killed a Guatemalan migrant at a checkpoint on the nation’s southern border and just four months after an elite U.S.-trained Mexican special operations unit massacred 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, on the nation’s northern border. KBI intake interviews indicate that abuses by migrant interdiction forces are already cropping up in northern Sonora, Williams said, particularly in the mountains outside the town of Sasabe, where smugglers often stage migrants before setting off north.
“National Guard will come in and rob them and beat them up and burn their belongings, never actually detain them, but harass them basically,” Williams said, referring to a quasi-military component of the Mexican federal government that has served as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s anti-migrant shock troops. Based on the accounts of individuals who’ve reported being robbed, she added, “they’re profiting enormously out of it.”
The Mexican community of Sasabe lies about 80 miles west of Nogales, beyond the Tumacacori Mountains on the other side of the Altar Valley. With a population of around 1,500 people, it is a well-known smuggling town controlled by organized crime. In recent weeks, areas surrounding Sasabe have transformed into a “war zone,” El Universal reported in mid-March, with factions linked to the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly vying for control of the territory.
For years, Gail Kocourek, a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, has brought humanitarian aid to Sasabe. She has twice embarked on a weeklong walk to honor the lives of migrants lost to the desert that begins in the border town and continues nearly 80 miles north to Tucson. “I don’t know what it is about this community,” she told me. “It’s a poor little run-down community that I just love.”
Last year, Kocourek invited two experienced humanitarian aid providers to join her on a visit to Sasabe. Sister Judy Bourg, a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, spent a decade working in Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. Dora Rodriguez crossed the border herself as a refugee fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and nearly perished in the process; today she runs Salvavision, a nonprofit that coordinates aid and support to asylum-seekers, people in immigration detention, and individuals who have been deported.
What the women found in Sasabe took all of them by surprise. After witnessing an expulsion from the southern side of the port one afternoon in early September, the trio followed a group of migrants behind the local Grupos Beta office. Rounding a corner behind the building, they came upon some 40 migrants sitting on a concrete slab surrounded by Mexican soldiers holding rifles. As the women soon discovered, the Border Patrol was making upward of 700 expulsions a week, including families, through what was historically Arizona’s quietest port. Mexican military units, meanwhile, were rounding up migrants in the mountains outside town. The three women and their organizations quickly mobilized a response, bringing biweekly loads of food and humanitarian aid supplies to Sasabe.
Four months after The Intercept first reported on the practice, Mexico’s immigration office called on CBP to stop expelling people through Sasabe on account of the absence of security in the area. Today the expulsions continue at a rate of roughly 200 a week, Rodriguez said — lower than last year but still far higher than anything the town saw pre-Covid-19. Mennell, the CBP spokesperson, acknowledged that Sasabe was not used for removals prior to Title 42, though he added that “the people who are being expelled through Sasabe also entered in that general location, so it’s not like we’re taking them back to some place they’ve never been.” He described the remote crossing as having “the most restrictive hours of any of the locations where we return people” and said nighttime expulsions were not happening there.
Like Nogales, Sonora, Sasabe is home to a port where asylum-seekers are systemically rebuffed. And like Ajo, Arizona, Sasabe is receiving a population of people that it has no resources to support. Unlike those other locations, however, in Sasabe there is neither a well-run migrant shelter nor a network of committed volunteers waiting to receive people expelled by the U.S. government. There’s not even a bus station. Instead, there are smuggler stash houses and taxis managed by organized crime. The best that an asylum-seeker who climbs into one of those vehicles can hope for is that they will only be price gouged.
In an attempt to fill the humanitarian void, the Tucson Samaritans and Salvavision, through Kocourek and Rodriguez, have been working with local contacts to open a migrant welcome center within eyesight of the port, hoping that if it’s close enough to the border, people can reach the building on foot before being snagged by smugglers or kidnappers. “Casa Esperanza,” the name they have given to the new facility, is slated to open next month. The Intercept joined Kocourek and Rodriguez on a recent visit to the site.
Crossing the border into Mexico, Kocourek and Rodriguez stopped at the Grupos Beta office to unload pallets of water and food. Expulsions had been steady, the young Mexican official supervising operations told me, with the Border Patrol dropping people at the port day and night. Humanitarian deliveries to the mountains outside Sasabe, where KBI has received reports of the Mexican National Guard shaking down migrants, had been halted in recent days — the fighting there was too intense.
Rodriguez was on a mission to deliver legal documents to a young Salvadoran mother and her 13-year-old daughter. The pair fled after the mother, a street food vendor, failed to pay la renta — extortion money — to the local gang. The mother received text messages warning that if she didn’t pay up, she would never see her daughter again. The two crossed the border a year ago this month and were promptly expelled back into Sasabe in the middle of the night. The materials Rodriguez carried would consecrate a vanishingly rare and precious thing for asylum-seekers on the border: legal representation by an attorney in the U.S. The plan was to meet at the office of Martha Imelda Arce Burgos, the mayor of Sasabe, where Rodriguez would collect the signatures.
“We started to have 100 people a day. Men. Seniors. Minors. Children. Pregnant women.”
Maestra Martha, as she is known in Sasabe, took a seat at her desk as we waited for the family to arrive. With a blue medical mask covering her face, she described how Title 42 changed her community. Prior to the pandemic, Sasabe did not receive deportations. “Never,” Arce told me. Then came the spring. “We started to have 100 people a day,” Arce said. “Men. Seniors. Minors. Children. Pregnant women.” Arce, who said she considered the expulsions a form of punishment, estimated that Sasabe received around 10,000 people during a six-month period.
CBP could not say whether this estimate was accurate; the agency is not tracking how many people it is expelling through individual ports.
“A lot of the people who were deported, they didn’t go back to their city of origin,” Arce said. “They stayed here.” Arce estimated that more than 2,000 people — roughly one-and-a-half times the community’s preexisting population — have settled in Sasabe since Title 42 went into effect.
Eventually the mother and daughter entered through the mayor’s open door. Rodriguez laid the legal documents out on the desk and explained what they meant. The mother followed along, listening carefully as Rodriguez described her rights. She signed the paperwork, thanking the women for what they had done.
As we pulled through the port, back on U.S. soil, a Border Patrol vehicle backed in. Five people exited the back, crossing the line into Mexico. As we continued north, the outline of a solitary figure ambling along the highway came into view. Kocourek hit the brakes. His name was Julio. Like Nedy, the young man in Nogales, he was a 22-year-old from Guatemala. He had been separated from the group he was traveling with three days earlier. Twenty-four hours had passed since he had anything to eat or drink. He had 10 miles to go before reaching anything resembling civilization. We gave him food and water — Rodriguez explained that giving him a ride could land us in prison — and wished him luck. As we continued on, a helicopter passed low over our vehicle, headed straight in his direction.
A few days later, Rodriguez received word that the Salvadoran mother and daughter, now represented by an attorney, would be given the opportunity make their asylum case. “We are celebrating her success!!” Rodriguez wrote in a text. Four days later, the pair joined the rare population of asylum-seekers permitted to pass through the port of entry in Nogales. They rested for the night at Casa Alitas before beginning the next leg of their journey.
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