Biden's asylum halt is falling hardest on Mexicans and other nationalities Mexico will take

NOGALES, Mexico (AP) — Ana Ruiz was dismayed seeing migrants from some countries released in the United States with orders to appear in immigration court while she and other Mexicans were deported on a one-hour bus ride to the nearest border crossing.

“They're giving priority to other countries,” Ruiz, 35, said after a tearful phone call to family in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas at the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter. The shelter's director says it is receiving about 100 deportees a day, more than double what it saw before President Joe Biden issued an executive order that suspends asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border when arrests for illegal crossings reach 2,500 a day.

The asylum halt, which took effect June 5 and has led to a 40% decline in arrests for illegal crossings, applies to all nationalities. But it falls hardest on those most susceptible to deportation — specifically, Mexicans and others Mexico agrees to take (Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans). Lack of money for charter flights, sour diplomatic ties and other operational challenges make it more difficult to deport people to many countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the U.S. is working with countries around the world to accept more of their deported citizens, citing challenges from diplomatic relations to speed producing travel documents.

“The reality is that it is easier to remove individuals to certain countries than other countries,” he said in an interview Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona. “We do remove individuals to Senegal, we do remove individuals to Colombia, we do remove individuals to India. It can be more difficult.”

Mexicans accounted for 38% of border arrests in May, down from 85% in 2011 but still the highest nationality by far. The Border Patrol's Tucson sector has been the busiest corridor for illegal crossings for much of the last year. Last month, nearly three of every four arrests there were of Mexicans, helping explain why the asylum ban has had more impact in Arizona. U.S. authorities say the seven-day average of daily arrests in the Tucson sector fell below 600 this week from just under 1,200 on June 2.

Border agents in Arizona have been severely tested since late 2022 by nationalities that are difficult to deport — first from Cuba and later Mauritania, Guinea and Senegal. Many cross near Lukeville, about a four-hour bus ride to a major processing center in Tucson.

Many Mexicans cross illegally much closer to Tucson in Nogales, Arizona, some by climbing over a wall with ladders made from material at a seatbelt plant on the Mexican side to try to disappear into homes and businesses within seconds. Others turn themselves in to border agents to claim asylum, entering through gaps in the wall that are being filled in. On Tuesday, a group of 49 predominantly Mexican migrants were waiting for agents.

Some are taken to the Border Patrol station in Nogales, where they can be held for six days if they express fear of being deported under the asylum halt and seek similar forms of protection that would allow them to remain but that have a much higher bar, such as the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Most are taken to a cluster of giant white tents near Tucson International Airport, which opened in April 2021 for unaccompanied children. It now has space for 1,000 people, including single adults and families, who sleep on foam mattresses or raised beds.

On Tuesday, about a dozen people who said they feared deportation sat on benches in a cavernous room to hear instructions on the screening interview, which includes a four-hour window to call attorneys or others to prepare. They were then directed to one of 16 soundproof phone booths.

The Tucson processing center didn't even conduct screenings before Biden's asylum halt. That resulted in more migrants being released with orders to appear in U.S. immigration court, a practice that has plummeted in recent weeks. The screenings by asylum officers take about 90 minutes by phone.

Many migrants who fail interviews are deported to Nogales, a sprawling city in the Mexican state of Sonora, and end up at San Juan Bosco, where a giant fan in a former chapel offers relief from blistering summer heat.

Francisco Loureiro, who runs the shelter in a hardscrabble hillside neighborhood, said word has gotten out among Mexicans that they will be deported if they surrender to agents to seek asylum and that more will try to avoid being captured. He said one deported migrant accepted a smuggler's offer outside the shelter Tuesday to try to sneak across undetected.

Ruiz said she did not get a chance to explain to an asylum officer that she feared returning to Mexico due to cartel violence. “They were very direct, yes-or-no questions. You couldn't explain why you were afraid,” she said.

Mayorkas said complaints about the screening predate Biden's June order.

“I have confidence in our agents and officers that they are abiding by the guidelines, that our guidelines are strong, and we have the expertise to individuals who manifest fear,” he said.

Anahi Sandoval, 30, said she tried to avoid capture after crossing the border in Nogales and was abandoned by her smuggler in the desert. She said she fled Chiapas after she and her husband, who owned a doors and windows business, refused to be extorted by gangs; her husband was killed and she left her daughter with a relative.

“The Colombians get a pass but not the Mexicans,” said Sandoval, who failed her screening interview. “It makes me angry.”

Araceli Martinez, 32, said she fears returning home with her 14-year-old daughter to a physically abusive husband but no one asked her and she didn't know that she had to ask until she was on a bus to Mexico. Previously, Border Patrol agents had to ask migrants if they feared returning home. Under new rules, migrants must ask unprompted or express obvious signs of distress, such as crying.

Martinez was eager to spread a message to others: “People come thinking there is asylum, but there isn't.”