Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden’s asylum order takes shape along Mexico border in San Diego

About 70 migrants between the U.S.-Mexico border walls wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after President Joe Biden’s order to restrict asylum on June 5 in San Diego.  (San Diego Union-Tribune)
By Alexandra Mendoza San Diego Union-Tribune

On Friday morning, three days after President Joe Biden signed an executive order limiting access to asylum, a group of migrants from Vietnam climbed the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Ysidro using a makeshift ladder.

At a humanitarian aid station set up nearby, they asked for water and noodles for the little ones with them and waited to turn themselves in to Border Patrol.

Throughout the day dozens more migrants arrived in the area, known as Whiskey 8. Among them was a child who suffered a fall from the wall and had to be taken away by ambulance, said Adriana Jasso, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee of San Diego.

It’s a scene that has played out for months on this stretch of the San Diego County border. So far, the restrictions meant to curb illegal immigration have brought “no noticeable change” as migrants continue to cross, she said.

“For our routine, so far nothing has changed,” Jasso said.

However, what happens to these migrants once they cross into the U.S. has begun to noticeably change.

Rather than release many of the asylum seekers that Border Patrol encounters, the agency appears to have begun detaining and returning some of them – either back across the border to Mexico or putting them on planes to home countries that will accept them.

On Thursday, the first group of 27 migrants from San Diego – 26 from Guatemala and one from Venezuela – were returned to Mexico through PedWest and then transported in vans by Mexican officials to an immigration station in Tijuana. Those without legal permission to remain in Mexico were then transported, some by bus and others by plane, to a migrant station in Tabasco in southern Mexico, Mexican officials said.

On Friday, a group of nine – eight from Guatemala and one from El Salvador – were returned from San Diego, and on Saturday, four people from Guatemala.

Mexican officials said they believe these returns are related to the executive orders and that the pace had picked up.

Mexico has an agreement to take up to 30,000 people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela per month, in addition to people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to officials.

The effect of the executive orders on street releases in San Diego County, which resumed in late February after a county-funded migrant center closed, remains to be seen.

The Iris Avenue Transit Center in Otay Mesa, often bustling with asylum seekers newly released from Border Patrol custody, was quieter than usual Friday. No new migrants were dropped off by Border Patrol buses as evening approached.

Volunteers believed that could be because migrants who were being released from custody were being transported directly to shelters, which typically take in more vulnerable groups, such as families with children or those with medical issues.

But on Saturday morning, buses were again seen at the station, and dozens of people were released. Many said they had crossed the border on Tuesday or “about four days ago.”

Eduardo González from Guatemala said he learned of the new restrictions after arriving in Tijuana. “There was this fear that they wouldn’t accept us,” he said, “but thank God we were lucky.”

County supervisor Jim Desmond said Friday morning that Border Patrol had released more than 1,000 migrants to the streets since Biden announced the executive action Tuesday. The action didn’t go into effect until 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. The vast majority of migrants who have been released in San Diego County over the past several months have stayed temporarily – a few days – before moving on to final destinations throughout the country, according to county officials.

Border Patrol officials in San Diego did not answer questions about the number of migrants being returned under the executive order, but an official with Department of Homeland Security confirmed they had begun along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I don’t have a number at this time, but yes, deportations have already begun under this new process,” DHS spokesperson Luis Miranda told Baja California journalists Thursday.

Under the executive action, migrants are screened by an asylum officer only if they spontaneously volunteer fear of being returned to their homeland. They will also be screened under a higher standard.

The new protocol does not affect some groups of migrants, such as unaccompanied children or those facing life-threatening emergencies, as well as those with CBP One appointments, according to DHS.

The asylum restrictions are only enacted when the average number of undocumented-migrant encounters at the southern border reaches 2,500 a day in a given week.

Soraya Vázquez, deputy director of the binational organization Al Otro Lado, which provides legal services to migrants, said the U.S. government likely hopes the returns – and associated legal consequences on a person’s immigration record – will have a deterrent effect on migrants considering crossing illegally. “People are going to measure the risk and whether it’s in their best interests,” she said, “and obviously it’s not.”

The White House said the rule “will enhance security and deliver more timely consequences for those who do not have a legal basis to remain in the United States.”

Those consequences can include deportation, someone being banned from entering the U.S. for five years or more, and criminal charges, according to DHS.

Vázquez said that at Al Otro Lado’s next weekly legal orientation clinic in Tijuana the group plans to educate migrants thinking about crossing about the consequences under the order.

The Jacumba Hot Springs area east of San Diego has continued to be a popular crossing spot, and humanitarian volunteer Sam Schultz said that he has noticed a larger presence of Border Patrol agents in the past few days. “There has been a significant show of force by the Border Patrol on the actual border,” he said. “It’s rare.”

There, too, migrants appear to be crossing in similar numbers as before, he said.

“Not any significant changes,” he said Friday. “But who knows? We will see tomorrow morning.”

Miranda, the DHS official, said the order will remain in effect until the daily number of unauthorized southwestern border crossings drops to 1,500 per day for a week. He estimated that the current average is 4,000 people per day.

He said the threshold figure was determined based on a number where the law could be “administered correctly and properly.”

“That 1,500 doesn’t mean they can all come in,” he said. “What it means is that existing resources can be devoted to that population without the pressure of additional arrivals.”