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US land border crossings open for vaccinated non-citizens, but not asylum seekers

Human Rights organization Hope Border Institute reported asylum seekers were turned away by CBP at the El Paso port of entry.

EL PASO, Texas — This week, land border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico opened to vaccinated non-citizen travelers coming for non-essential reasons.

The land border crossings have been mostly closed since March of 2020. Americans and non-citizens with certain documentation have been able to cross. At the time of closure, the U.S. Government cited COVID as the reason.

But with the open for travel for vaccinated shoppers, or family members who hadn’t seen loved ones in close to two years, some Human Rights organizations report asylum seekers, who used to be able to present themselves to Customs and Border Protections officers on the bridges, have been blocked from coming through the land ports of entry.

On Monday, Hannah Hollandbyrd went to the international bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez Mexico to downtown El Paso. Hollandbyrd went to observe, as part of her job as a policy specialist for the Hope Border Institute, a non-profit that works on immigration policy issues.

“I wanted to be there to understand what messages people are getting,” Hollandbyrd told KENS 5. “See if people believe that they could present themselves, see how Customs and Border Protection agents would respond. I thought it was an important day to highlight the contrast that people who want to go shopping can do that now, Mexican visa holders who wanted to go shopping in the U.S. could do that. But people fleeing for their lives could not access protection.”

On November 1, 2021, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a guidance to the Office of Field Operations (OFO) on Management and Processing of Undocumented Noncitizens at Southwest Border Land Ports of Entry.

OFO is the largest part of CBP and is responsible for border security.

In part, the memo instructs Southwest Border OFO management “to consider and take appropriate measures, as operationally feasible, to increase capacity to process undocumented noncitizens at Southwest Border POEs, including those who may be seeking asylum and other forms of protection.”

“It's pretty clear that people should be processed and cannot be pushed back away from U.S. soil,” Hollandbyrd said. “It's not what I saw.”

“I observed several asylum-seeking families, mothers with their kids and fathers with their kids, mixed families, like a woman with her brother-in-law, and her sister and their child's families from Honduras and from Mexico, start to gradually form a group at the top of the bridge,” she described. “I started by speaking with two families, and then an hour later, it was five families. And then an hour later, it was 10 families. What happened is that they would go up to the agents at the middle of the bridge and request asylum. And the agents would say, there's no capacity. And you should come back later.”

The CBP Guidance from November 1, 2021 also said, “…undocumented noncitizens who are encountered at the border line should be permitted to wait in line, if they choose, and proceed into the POE (Port of Entry) for processing as operational capacity permits. Absent a POE closure, officers also may not instruct travelers that they must return to the POE at a later time or travel to a different POE for processing. Officers also may not preclude those in line from departing and returning at a later time. Once in the United States, an individual must be inspected and processed by CBP Officers.”

“For many of the families, this is not their first time trying to access the port of entry,” Hollandbyrd said. “Some of them have been there the week prior and been told, ‘well, this week, everything is changing. So, come back, come back when the border reopens,’ essentially. There was a lot of confusing messaging and people. People were doing what they had been told to do, and then told to wait.”

“We had a group of eventually about 40 people waiting at the top of the bridge with kids and people when man was on crutches,” Hollandbyrd continued, “people were tired and confused and just really wanted to be processed for asylum. But they were not able to be processed, unfortunately. They were turned back.”

“If the United States had turned away my family, I wouldn't be here talking to you today,” said Noah Gottschalk, a Global Policy Lead at Oxfam America, a global human rights organization.

“It's really troubling that the U.S. is using either public health rationale or capacity constraints to limit its obligations under international law,” he said. “Now what we're seeing is the border open for non-essential travelers, tourists, business people who are coming to the U.S. for non-essential travel, when people who are coming for the most essential travel you could imagine, seeking asylum from persecution are being denied.”

“That's despite Biden's promises that he would restore asylum, that he would reverse some of the harmful practices of his predecessor,” Gottschalk added.

KENS 5 reached out to the White House for comment but have not heard back.

Hollandbyrd said in the five hours she spent on the bridge, she saw a wedding, people being expelled and a rescue of a sick dog by a group that does this type of work.

“It was a good thing that the dog was able to get the treatment that it needed,” she said, “But it's also sad to see that the dog was let in and people with a range of different needs, very vulnerable, with kids were not able to make it across.”

“We have a default immigration system that is racist and cruel, but there hasn't been the political will to do something else,” Hollandbyrd said. “I always find myself thinking, it does not have to be this hard. Like, this just doesn't have to be this hard. There are ways to just set up a system that's robust, where people can present themselves to be processed. We can set up other legal pathways, so that people who have a legitimate, who have a desire to migrate, or the need to migrate but might not qualify for asylum have some option. There's a lot we can do. That's not so confusing, and difficult and cruel. There's just so much better.”

CBP didn’t answer KENS 5's questions whether any ports of entry had processed asylum seekers on Nov. 8 or 9. It provided KENS an emailed statement:

CBP employees have been made aware of the memo which formally rescinds the Trump Administration’s ‘metering’ policy, which was used to turn back asylum seekers trying to enter ports of entry (POE). The new guidance lays out a vision for the lawful, orderly processing of individuals applying for asylum at POEs. Among other improvements, CBP is working to accelerate ongoing efforts to digitize processing at POEs and more effectively use data to increase throughput. 

DHS continues to expel migrants pursuant to CDC’s Title 42 public health authority. Those who cannot be expelled under Title 42 and do not have a legal basis to remain are placed in expedited or full removal proceedings. Our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey. Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves and should not be attempted.

The change effective November 8 only provides an exemption for fully vaccinated, non-essential, foreign nationals with valid travel documents. Those who do not possess valid travel documents will not be allowed to enter the U.S. 

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