After two years of waiting in Mexico and four days of detention in the U.S., Indira Diaz Cortina, 22, an asylum seeker from Cuba, found herself in a parking lot last month, waiting for COVID-19 test results.
She and 37 others were dropped off by Customs and Border Protection agents at a makeshift testing clinic. She had no change of clothes, no shoelaces, no money and no way to contact family members or friends with whom she hopes to reunite.
But Diaz Cortina wasn’t complaining. U.S. authorities finally allowed her entry into the United States with the right to seek asylum. The COVID-19 test was required before she met with church and nonprofit organization volunteers, who would help her connect with loved ones and find a place to stay pending her asylum hearing.
Her arduous journey to the U.S. began when she left Cuba in 2019 with her boyfriend. She said they traveled to Nicaragua, and walked the better part of 1,300 miles through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, only to wait two years at the U.S. border for entry. They have since been separated, she said.
Diaz Cortina said she fled Cuba because she disagreed with its politics, coming to the United States in search of freedom.
“Yes, there were challenges along the way, but it wasn’t that bad,” she said. “Nothing that happened was as bad as living in Cuba.”
Although she had reached Somerton, a town of 16,000 about 12 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, her journey, like those of other asylum seekers, was far from over. An immigration court still has to grant Diaz Cortina asylum, otherwise she may be deported.
More than 600,000 asylum claims were pending through the first quarter of 2021, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures, but only 1 in 13 asylum claims are granted. Those who receive asylum become legal residents.
Scenes like the one in Somerton have been replayed regularly in cities and towns along the border with Mexico since late February, weeks after President Joe Biden was sworn in. During that time, more than 1,800 asylum seekers have been dropped off unexpectedly in Somerton and nearby Yuma by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to Fernando “Fernie” Quiroz, a volunteer with the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition, which aids migrants.
This latest surge of migrants began when the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols – which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearing dates – were discarded under new Biden administration policies.
Once asylum seekers enter the country, CBP policy says they can be held no longer than 72 hours; after that, they must be released or detained longer term. Over those 72 hours, CBP attempts to determine their credibility as asylum seekers and conducts security and background checks. If their statements are found to be credible, the migrants are given a date for a hearing in immigration court. CBP also determines whether migrants can safely be released into the U.S. pending their hearing. If migrants have a clean criminal record and a sponsor who promises to look after them and make sure they attend their asylum hearing, they are more likely to be released.
According to local volunteers and government officials, as CBP facilities began to be overwhelmed by asylum seekers in February, the agency began releasing hundreds and dropped them off in communities close to the border, including Yuma and Somerton, which have few programs or shelters to deal with such numbers. In some cases, asylum seekers were dropped off at bus stations, gas stations or parks.
CBP did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and information.
In Somerton, the surge of new migrants meant that churches and such nonprofit organizations as Campesinos Sin Fronteras, which normally provides services to farm workers and had no experience with asylum seekers, had to step in to fill the void.
When Emma Torres, executive director of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, got a call on Feb. 25 from a Catholic friend who told her 25 Cubans had been left in the streets with no place to go, Torres sprung into action.
“Because I represent a community organization, I became the contact point and Campesinos Sin Fronteras went on the front lines,” Torres said.
Other organizations in the area that normally might have responded to asylum seekers had closed because of COVID-19. So Torres turned to her network of friends and volunteers for help, starting that night with her husband, Rogelio Torres, pastor of Iglesia de Dios Nuevo Nacimiento, a local church.
Rogelio Torres recalled the conversation about the first 25 asylum seekers with his wife. She said to him, “They were just left by immigration services and it looks like they’re waiting. They looked lost, they asked me where they were or what they were going to do because they had families locked inside detention centers and they didn’t want to leave here.”
The group of 25 included mothers and children, pregnant women and some single men, Rogelio said. He and his wife enlisted a few ushers from the church and other community members to pick up and take them to the church, where they were fed and slept in the pews.
The next day, Rogelio dropped the group at Yuma International Airport, only to find more people needing help. After that, volunteers returned to the place where CPB had left the first group because migrants continued to arrive.
“As believers in the word God, we have to extend our hands to help the foreigner,” Rogelio said. “We don’t ask, ‘What is the situation?’”
That encounter and similar ones in the days that followed prompted Emma Torres to expand her organization’s mission and establish an informal network of organizations and volunteers, now referred to as the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition, to aid asylum seekers in towns that lack infrastructure and resources.
For Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls, the latest unexpected influx of migrants was an unwelcome reminder of what happened nearly two years ago when large numbers of migrant families seeking asylum were released into his city, which was unequipped to handle them. At the time, Nicholls declared a state of emergency.
This time, Nicholls said, the federal government knew the policy would shift with Biden in the Oval Office and it should have learned from the last release of migrants and worked with local officials to avoid chaos.
“If they began in January, by the time February hit, which was when we started having releases in Yuma, our government could have been more prepared with boots on the ground and funding in place,” he said. “That wasn’t done.”
Nicholls said he began to meet with nonprofits and organizations to discuss potential responses, noting that this time it might be even more difficult to plan a response. In 2019, Yuma had a building that could be used as a shelter and had willing participants who agreed to help out. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated that building as an option and created extra steps of necessary testing and quarantining.
Earlier this year, Nicholls said, there were no good options for a sustainable response to migrants being left on the streets or at bus terminals. But he said there has been growing coordination between CBP and nonprofits in the area where Torres and her network continue to make an impact.
In addition, Nicholls said, CBP is working with the Regional Center for Border Health, a Somerton nonprofit organization that focuses on providing access to affordable health care. The Regional Center for Border Health now receives migrants from Border Patrol and provides COVID-19 testing for all asylum seekers.
Now, migrants arrive at a pop-up facility made up of white tents in the parking lot of the Regional Center for Border Health with volunteers wearing medical gowns and N95 masks. They walk through the facility, receive COVID-19 rapid testing and sit in the shade until results arrive.
The team serves 30 to 60 people per day, said Quiroz with the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition, who’s helping to coordinate with CBP at the site. He volunteers from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, or at least until the bus leaves to take migrants to shelters in Tucson or California, where they stay until they can locate family, friends or sponsors while they await their asylum hearings. Campesinos Sin Fronteras and the Center for Border Health are paying for the buses but hope to get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some days, Quiroz said, he and his fellow volunteers work double shifts. One day, they aided a group of 60 in the morning and 60 in the afternoon.
When Cronkite News reporters visited April 12, Quiroz and his team had received 36 asylum seekers, from Brazil, India, Cuba and Venezuela.
Volunteers passed out water and the center provided food while the migrants waited for the chartered bus. Children were smiling, sitting with their families, sipping on bottled water through straws. Parents looked at their children with tired eyes, but seemed relaxed knowing they had finished a big piece of their journey: making it into the United States.
“I see those individuals, I come from a family of immigrants. My mother came here for one reason alone, to give me a better life,” Quiroz said. “For me to turn my back because I was able to climb the ladder of success doesn’t mean I can’t turn around and assist those who are seeking the American dream that is still alive and vibrant. … I see them, I see my family, I see the struggle my mom went through, and it’s a blessing to be here.”
Although nonprofits and Customs and Border Protection are coordinating some efforts, overwhelming numbers of migrants continue to be released. In Gila Bend, 125 miles east of Somerton and 80 miles from the border, town officials declared a state of emergency after asylum seekers were dropped off there in March, saying that the town of 2,000 had no means to provide for them.
Pima County tried to keep up with the influx when supervisors voted 4-1 in March to fund transportation for asylum seekers to get them to shelters in Tucson, Phoenix and other larger cities.
Before late February, asylum seekers had been waiting in Mexico under restrictive immigration policies that began during the Obama administration in 2016, including “metering” – a policy that limits the number of migrants who can request asylum at port of entries into the U.S. Under metering, asylum seekers were not allowed into the U.S., instead required to put their names on a list and wait for their turn to request asylum.
The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico policy, was similar in that migrants who arrived at the Mexico-U.S. border were barred from entering the country and made to wait in Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security. More than 65,000 cases were enrolled under the protocols, creating a backlog of potential asylum seekers waiting south of the border. There were reports of violent crime against migrants who set up makeshift camps.
In spring 2020, President Donald Trump invoked a provision of Title 42, which allowed CBP to turn anyone away at the border because of the threat of COVID-19. In March 2021 alone, more than 101,000 people were turned away at ports of entry, according to CBP data.
Biden campaigned on the promise of immigration reform, giving hope and encouragement to migrants seeking entry into the U.S., said Sara Pierce, a policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, D.C., seeking to improve immigration and integration policies.
“But at the same time, migration always happens for a variety of diverse reasons. There are worsening economic conditions because of the pandemic, people being displaced because of natural disasters. So with those factors already in the mix, when a new administration comes in with the perception that they might be more generous, that could also be kind of the tipping point for people who are already facing difficult conditions to decide that now is the time to migrate.”
While the Biden administration has allowed Indira Diaz Cortina and other asylum seekers to enter the U.S., it has also drawn criticism from immigration advocates for keeping Title 42 pandemic restrictions in place.
After completing the Somerton COVID-19 testing, Diaz Cortina boarded a bus for a four-hour journey to the Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson.
There, Diego Lopez and his team of volunteers welcome their guests with food, water and clothes, help coordinate flights and transportation and try to answer questions they may have.
“There’s a gantlet of issues for anyone who may come through our door. Specifically, there’s missing family members, which is huge,” said Lopez, who is Casa Alitas’ program director.
Diaz Cortina was separated from her boyfriend upon arrival in the U.S., a common occurrence in processing. Men and women routinely are separated at the border, and asylum seekers often assume they will be reunified, Lopez said, but the Border Patrol makes no effort to do so.
This prompted the shelter to create a new help desk, where long-term volunteer Tony Fines works to solve those tough problems.
“Our view here is we keep on working at it until we get it done,” Fines said. In the past, he has worked for days finding and contacting migrants’ family members. Along with trying to end separations, Fines schedules flights and travel logistics and to help migrants get their documents in order.
“It gets hectic,” Fines said as he worked with another woman looking for her husband. He learned that her husband had been taken to La Palma Correctional Center, a private detention facility for men that limits outside contacts.
“When we found out where her husband was being detained, I said, ‘The biggest gift anybody can receive in these places is a letter from the outside,’” Fines recalled.
He gave the woman an envelope and a sheet of paper to write a letter with the return address of the sponsor with whom she would be staying.
“It’s pretty common that we have to give people bad news that their relatives are in detention, and I have to tell them they aren’t getting out anytime soon,” Fines said.
Casa Alitas, which in Spanish means “house of wings,” is in a juvenile detention center that was converted in 2020 as a migrant shelter, Lopez said. The shelter had been housed at the old Benedictine monastery in Tucson and held 300 people, but Casa Alitas had to downsize during the pandemic.
On April 12, children run around the shelter barefoot and work on coloring books. The brightly painted walls illuminate the room and dinner is rolled out on a cart. Language barriers make it difficult for volunteers to find proper clothing sizes for the migrants, and they resort to Google translate to try to communicate in Creole, Portuguese and Hindi.
In the morning, volunteers will drive groups of migrants to the airport or bus station as they hope to connect with family members or sponsors across the U.S. Diaz Cortina said she was going to Tampa, Florida, to be with her boyfriend’s family to wait for her hearing date, the next step in her asylum process.
Pierce, with the Migration Policy Institute, said that process must be changed to handle the “current reality of flows,” at the border. The setback is the amount of time, finances and resources needed from the administration.
In the meantime, local governments and nonprofits are straining.
“These organizations are on the front lines and ultimately the federal government ends up relying on them to basically care for and support the people who are released from custody at the border,” said Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Back in Somerton, Quiroz is proud of how the community has responded but troubled by how the federal government handled the asylum seekers.
“The small group we did, it was a community group that just said, ‘We need to do something, what can we do?’ Mind you with no funds, no structure, no building, but look at what we created,” Quiroz said.
“For me to see people dropped off in the middle of the street, that’s not humanitarian. That’s not American and who we are and what we stand for.”
Cronkite Borderlands Project is a multimedia reporting program in which students cover human rights, immigration and border issues in the U.S. and abroad in both English and Spanish.
Photos by Taylor O’Connor/Cronkite Borderlands Project