The numbers and names of migrants who are able to request asylum are read from an unofficial list in May 2019. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Border policies enacted during the pandemic have effectively ended asylum as we’ve known it at the border – essentially accomplishing a Trump administration goal pre-COVID-19.

Border officials have stopped processing asylum-seekers at the ports of entry, many of whom had already been waiting months to try to request asylum. Border officials have also been able to start immediately turning back asylum-seekers, including minors, who try to cross between ports of entry.

Even asylum-seekers who are enrolled in the Migration Protection Protocols program, which requires them to wait in Mexico, are now indefinitely stuck as their court hearings have been postponed due to the pandemic, with no word of when they may resume again.

I spoke with a Venezuelan asylum-seeker who I’ll call Juan. Juan has been stuck in Tijuana under the COVID-19 border restrictions, about his experience. Voice of San Diego is withholding his true name because he fears for his safety both in Venezuela and in Mexico, where he currently resides.

Juan was a political activist in Venezuela. He was persecuted by government authorities for his activism, he said. They followed him, extorted him, tried to kidnap him. In October 2019, he fled the country.

There has been an 8,000 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refuge or asylum worldwide since 2014, according the United Nations Refugee Agency. The country has undergone a profound economic and political crisis, in which people are experiencing widespread poverty and chronic shortages of basic necessities. There are also numerous reports of systemic human rights violations against those who protest the government, according to the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Juan arrived in Tijuana around the end of February or beginning of March.

He said he was kidnapped in Mexico and forced to cross into the United States. Around March 6 or 7, he remembers jumping a fence and walking through mountains. Juan said he reached a road, where he saw a car that ended up being a Border Patrol vehicle.

Juan told the agents that he feared returning to Venezuela and to Mexico. He was taken to a Border Patrol station, enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols and sent back to Mexico.

His first court date was scheduled for the end of March, only days after immigration courts closed due to the pandemic. Juan said he showed up at the port of entry for his case, only to be told all cases were postponed. He’s heard nothing since.

Remaining in Tijuana has been difficult, Juan said. Many people discriminate against migrants.

“It’s difficult for me because I can’t really work,” he said in Spanish.

He’s been making ends meet through odd, temporary jobs when he can get them.

Most of the migrant shelters are full. He’s been staying in an albergue – a sort of hostel – that costs $60 a month and don’t include costs to access internet or to use hot water to wash clothes. All kinds of people stay there, including some addicted to drugs and some who’ve brought in weapons. Juan said he’s been threatened there, too. He hides his phone and other valuables for fear someone will steal them.

Juan has dealt with some health issues, both physical, like skin infections, and psychological, but has struggled to find care.

He said he hopes that once President-elect Joe Biden takes office that the U.S. government will pass legislation to designate Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status, which has been blocked by Republicans in Congress since 2019. Temporary Protected Status offers protections for nationals of certain countries that have such dire problems that it is unsafe for people to be deported there.

“We hope the new administration helps the people who are asking for asylum, who are here waiting, as soon as possible,”

When I asked Juan what he would need to make it until the inauguration, he told me “a miracle.”

“That would be the word,” Juan said. “Look, we’re living in deplorable conditions.”

Juan’s situation isn’t unique, said Jewish Family Service supervising immigration attorney Luis Gonzalez. JFS is representing Juan and other asylum-seekers enrolled in MPP who are stuck in Tijuana, and trying to help connect them with services as they wait for the pandemic to end and for their immigration cases to resume.

Many asylum-seekers were victims of torture in their home countries, Gonzalez said. Not only do they not have access to resources to help them process that trauma, but many face new persecution at the hands of criminal organizations and the police in Mexico.

“They can’t continue like this in Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t have access to the essential things that they need to survive. They’re in a situation where their case isn’t moving forward and things in Tijuana are moving backwards. The longer this goes on, the worse the situation will get – the access to basic needs, the safety and security issues, the access to medical services.”

Border COVID Update

COVID cases have been increasing for the past five weeks in Mexicali, Radar BC reports. Last Wednesday, Zeta reports, registered COVID cases in Baja California surpassed 500. On Thursday the number of cases decreased, but roughly half were still in Mexicali, according to Zeta.

Cases have also been increasing again in Imperial County, Radar BC reports. The number of cases in Imperial County has surpassed the number in Baja California.

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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