A Tale of Two Christmas Seasons at the U.S.-Mexico Border 

For the past two years just ahead of the holiday season, I have visited detention centers and shelters for people released by Department of Homeland Security in Arizona and handed out water, food, and blankets to asylum seekers waiting for the Border Patrol along the border fence near Sasabe. In Nogales, Mexico, I also attended the Kino Border Initiative’s binational Posadas—religious festivals commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey in search of a safe place to give birth to Jesus; the Posadas are marches and meals expressing solidarity with those who come to the border seeking safety. Last year I also traveled to Yuma, Arizona and this year to Jacumba and to San Diego, California, where I spent time observing and helping organizations that support people who have recently crossed the border.  

Year on year, this trip helps me understand changing dynamics at the border. Here are some of my observations:

Despite Ineffective Policies, Good Reception Models Exist 

I was impressed by the extraordinary efforts of volunteers and representatives of non-profits doing the work of welcome—especially in the face of enforcement and processing policies that have made humane reception more difficult and the asylum system more arbitrary. Some of the enforcement policies have changed. Last year, Title 42 was still in place, while this year a regulation is in place barring from asylum most people who have transited other countries and crossed the border without an appointment booked through CBP One, a mobile app available in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and English. Some enforcement policies have stayed the same, including use of physical border barriers, detention, and expedited removal. All of these policies—which have certainly not deterred migration—are among those proposed for permanent codification into law in Congressional negotiations over funding for Ukraine.   

I was struck by efforts at Casa Alitas in Tucson to empower asylum seekers and connect them to services. (This stood in marked contrast to the assembly-line set up that I found at the Regional Center for Border Health in Yuma last year, where there were no warm meals or clothes for asylum seekers released by CBP and quickly bussed to the airport in Phoenix or to Washington DC). Receiving over 1,800 people from all over the state each day at Casa Alitas requires not only logistical savvy, hundreds of volunteers and trained staff, partner organizations on site to help those who speak rare languages or are survivors of torture, case managers for those without sponsors, and sufficient funding for busses, shelter, medical care, meals, and clothes. It also means equipping asylum seekers with tools (via Whatsapp messages) to help themselves, including giving them information about how to get the best priced plane tickets and what resources are available in their destination cities. It would also help if Border Patrol could share manifests of the people it drops off and the if the airport could provide Casa Alitas with a designating waiting area. This is the kind of coordination and support that meets the current moment. And it should be done in the spirit of a line I heard at the Posada: “As we listen to the stories of people [seeking safety]…we knock at the door of change…to open new pathways to dignity for migrants.”  

People Fleeing Violence Will Not be Deterred and Need Increased Pathways and Humanitarian Support   

On both trips, I listened to stories of what led people to leave home. Some of their nationalities and reasons for flight changed from last year, a reflection of rising insecurity in certain places and the selective availability of supplementary migration pathways. At both Posadas, I sat with Mexican families who fled Guerrero and Puebla to seek safety and better lives for their children. But this year, near Sasabe, I met several groups of people who described extortion, violence, and lack of protection and corruption by the Mexican authorities in Veracruz, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas. I was with the Tucson Samaritans in Sasabe who have been helping many people from Sudan, as well as several countries in west Africa, over the past two months. Unlike last year, I met no Cuban families – they have largely stopped crossing in Sasabe or Yuma and instead use CBP One at land border ports of entry or at airports through the CHNV parole program. But I met many Ecuadorians in both Arizona and California, including three very scared unaccompanied minors in Jacumba and a father sitting with his family along the border fence near Sasabe who said: “It’s horrible back there [in Ecuador]. It’s not safe for the kids anymore.”

Donated blankets, snacks, water, and burnt wood from makeshift campfires line the wall in Sasabe, Arizona. Many migrants who are not picked up by border patrol, are forced to spend the night outdoors. The Tucson Samaritans and partner organizations bring supplies for them. Many of these blankets are reused when new migrants arrive. Photo: Refugees International, December 2023.

Despite their obvious vulnerability and calls by volunteers, Border Patrol did not prioritize these children and families for transport and processing. On the day I was near Sasabe, several Border Patrol vans drove towards waiting families—and a woman who was eight months pregnant and a person in a wheelchair—but did not pick many of them up and returned mostly empty. Recently, cartel violence came up to and across the border in this area; also there now are private security guards and construction workers contracted by the government to close gaps in the border gate and weld certain parts shut. Rather than deter crossings, this pushes asylum seekers to cross further east and makes them harder for Border Patrol agents to reach (especially without adequate vehicles). Until they do, the Tucson Samaritans, alongside their partners Green Valley Samaritans and No More Deaths, provide them with blankets and food.  

Detention and Expedited Removal are Part of the Problem (Not Solutions)  

Both times I visited Eloy Detention Center, problems with the use of expedited removal were painfully obvious. But this year, I was also struck by the consequences of the “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways” regulation that bars most people who cross the southern border from eligibility for asylum. Both years, people detained at Eloy waited several months in detention for their credible fear interviews and did not get transcripts of their interviews. Last year, I met a man who could not—while in detention—get the evidence he needed from Peru that would help him prove his asylum claim, namely medical records and a denunciation proving he was victim of a violent attack. This year, an asylum seeker who fled attacks and threats in Ecuador because he is indigenous, described – in a way that made clear he is still traumatized – being kidnapped in Mexico and therefore missing his CBP One appointment. Spanish was not the best language for more than half of the people attending a Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project “Know Your Rights” information session I observed this year, and several detainees had absolutely no way to communicate with the guards—even to just ask to retrieve some papers from a cell. A man from the Republic of Georgia described severe beatings he and his wife were subjected to by the police at well-known anti-Russia protests this past spring and summer. The couple went into hiding and then determined to seek asylum in the United States since his wife’s immediate family lives in New York. Because they crossed the U.S. border without authorization, the couple is not eligible for asylum under the regulation. They were also separated from each other; his wife was taken to an ICE facility in Louisiana where she is not getting the medical care she needs.  

Family Separation Must be Eliminated from our Reception System  

Forms of family separation are inherent in the U.S. reception system as it is now set up. In the parking lot of a former school in San Diego where Border Patrol drops off asylum seekers to whom they have given notices to appear in immigration court, I spoke to several adults separated from the partners, siblings, parents, and grandchildren they traveled with. This separation is not only psychologically traumatizing but complicates the logistics of reception: asylum seekers are reluctant to leave San Diego for their final destinations without their loved ones, or at least knowledge of their whereabouts—and many wait anxiously for additional CBP busses to arrive or make frantic calls to relatives. A 24-year-old Colombian said his family of four was separated three ways—he and his 20-year-old brother were separated from each other and also from his mom and 16-year-old brother. A Cameroonian asylee who now works as a paralegal for Al Otro Lado shared an informative video (in the appropriate languages) about what happens to children considered “unaccompanied” by U.S. authorities with a grandfather from China, a grandmother from Honduras, and a grandmother from Colombia. All were concerned about tender-aged grandchildren too young to understand what was happening and wondering why they could not go to them. Later in the day, the Colombian grandmother received a call from her daughter, who had heard from her granddaughter. As she waited for the next bus for the airport, the Colombian grandmother told other asylum seekers what she learned from her experience, directed them to the Al Otro Lado table for help finding relatives, and told them to stay strong. 

Conclusion: What Works and What Doesn’t 

Many of the people I spoke to who crossed the border without authorization would likely have used ports of entry or alternative pathways if they knew how to do so and could qualify for them. In San Diego, none of the numerous people I spoke to from Guinea and Burkina Faso knew the consequences of not using CBP One. There is only one place in all of Arizona (Nogales) where about 100 CBP One appointments are available each day; at ports to the east (at Naco and Douglas) and to the west (at Sasabe, Lukeville, and Yuma), there is no way to ask for asylum without “circumventing a lawful pathway.” And we seem to be in a doom loop whereby increased unauthorized crossings near some of these ports lead to closure of the ports to all other travel. None of the options being considered as part of the “border deal” in Congress—such as raising the legal standard for asylum eligibility or eliminating the parole authority that provides alternative pathways—will lead to fewer unauthorized crossings.   

As Mexican and U.S. authorities meet to discuss increased enforcement, it is important to remember that brute force—by the Mexican National Guard or with barbed wire at the U.S. border—lead to unconscionable suffering and abuse but do not stop people from migrating. Simply bussing migrants southwards in Mexico will not stop them from migrating northwards again. Further, in a testimony at the Posada, one migrant mother directed a request for a safe place to live, schooling for her children, and dignified work to the Mexican authorities. Mexico and the United States have collaborated on increased enforcement for years. Now they need to work together—including through pilot programs in Sonora and Arizona—to increase access to protection, employment, and integration for those at the border. Reception on both sides of the border requires coordination between U.S. and Mexican federal, state, and local officials, as well as nonprofit and civil society organizations and the private sector. It also should incorporate various interactive platforms to engage asylum seekers and migrants to be part of the solution.

Featured Image: Along the border wall in San Diego, California, a sign reads “No Serás Olvidada” meaning “You will not be forgotten.” Taped onto the sign are drawings by migrant children. Migrants’ shoelaces are tied together at the top. Photo: Refugees International, December 2023.