NOGALES, Sonora — Migrants and advocates in Mexican border cities criticized President Donald Trump over his intention to turn away certain migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of containment efforts against the new coronavirus.
Trump said Wednesday there are no plans to shut down the southern border, but he signaled that other restrictions on migrants and asylum seekers could come any time.
“We are invoking a certain provision that will allow us great latitude as to what we do,” Trump said.
That provision in a law allows the U.S. surgeon general, with Trump’s approval, to temporarily ban the entry of certain individuals, such as migrants, to avoid the spread of certain communicable diseases, such as COVID-19.
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As of Wednesday night, there have been no confirmed cases along the Arizona-Mexico border. Tucson and Hermosillo, Sonora, the two biggest cities in the region, reported new cases in the past week.
To date, Trump hasn’t announced any restrictions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
However, the threat of shutting down access to the U.S. asylum process for thousands of migrants already waiting in Mexico stoked anxiety in border communities such as Nogales, Sonora, on Arizona’s border with Mexico.
Hundreds of families are waiting in line for up to four months to present their claims before U.S. asylum officials in Nogales, Arizona.
There are dozens more migrants who the U.S. government sent to Nogales under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” since the program began here at the start of the year.
Migrants waiting for the chance to pursue asylum claims expressed concern about the prospect of getting stuck in Mexico, without access to the U.S. asylum process, for an undetermined amount of time as COVID-19 spreads.
“Even if we decided to go back, because there’s no lack of desire to do so, we can’t because the borders are closed,” said Maria Antonia Castillo, a Honduran migrant, sent to Nogales under MPP.
Castillo has been waiting in Nogales for nearly two months. She and her teenage daughter are sharing an apartment with two other mothers and their children, including an 8-month-old boy, which is forcing them to take COVID-19 seriously.
All six have their court hearing on April 13 in El Paso, Texas, more than 300 miles away. They had planned to go to Juarez the week before their hearing. But the coronavirus situation might disrupt those plans.
So far, the Trump administration has continued holding court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols, even though the Justice Department has postponed other immigration proceedings around the country.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was implementing some changes in its enforcement actions at the border.
“As our partner agencies take steps to protect their workforce from COVID-19 exposure, CBP is adjusting prosecution referrals to prioritize the most serious criminal offenses based on our partners’ capacity,” the agency said in a written statement.
Some migrants have decided to leave
Tracey Horan, education coordinator for the binational migrant aid group Kino Border Initiative, said migrants returned under MPP are aware about the volatility of the situation. Many are choosing to leave Nogales, rather than wait in place.
“People are getting kind of nervous with the uncertainty about the virus, and thinking that, well, if they don’t go to Juarez now, maybe the buses will shut down,” she said. “So the number of people we’ve seen here that we’re serving with MPP, I would say, has gone down.”
Others such as Castillo are staying put, afraid to spend too much time outside the apartment she shares because of COVID-19.
The roommates put up blankets at one end of the space to insulate themselves from the cold. As heavy rain fell Wednesday in Nogales, daytime temperatures barely peaked above 50 degrees. They don’t have a heater.
Castillo said they are expecting their first asylum hearings under MPP in El Paso to be delayed.
They intend to stay in Nogales, even if that means getting stuck here. The group has been stocking up on whatever food they have been able to get. Bags of oranges — to boost their immune system, Castillo said — sat next to an electric burner stove.
“We’re here in a worse-off situation, because even if we wanted to go to another country, they won’t let us through,” she said.
Several migrants waiting for months, and whose numbers are about to be called for processing in the U.S., gather each morning at the DeConcini crossing in downtown Nogales.
They declined to answer questions, but said they are trying to find out what will happen to them. They haven’t been able to find out much yet.
A waiting area for migrants near the border crossing has been closed for several days. The entrance door is boarded up. And they haven’t gotten a response from the phone number listed on a sheet taped to the entrance.
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Organizations such as the Kino Border Initiative, which feeds and provides other services to migrants in Nogales, criticized the Trump administration’s plans to further restrict asylum access over COVID-19.
“Now, not even the experts know what to tell us about what it’s going to look like. So it’s creating a lot of anxiety for people who are already in really uncertain conditions,” Horan said.
On Wednesday morning, the Kino Border Initiative transitioned the operation of its soup kitchen from an aging, cramped building to its expansive, new Migrant Aid Center.
Instead of using the large hall inside the center, as originally intended, the group opted to convert a covered patio into a makeshift serving and dining area.
Horan said they decided to use an outdoor setting as a precaution against COVID-19, because there’s better ventilation in the patio than in the indoor hall.
Several migrants wore face masks as they waited to be served. They removed the masks to eat, but immediately put the masks back on.
Dozens more migrants waited outside for their turn as others finished eating inside the dining area. Horan said the group is looking to open as soon as possible a new shelter space in the aid center that can house 139 migrants. They didn’t have a timeline yet.
Dr. Alberto Dicochea, municipal health director for Nogales, said the city is expecting COVID-19 cases. Any restrictions that leave migrants stranded in their city could put them at greater risk to spread the virus, he added.
“We clearly understand that (the shelters) are places where lots of people in need congregate,” he said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go, or the ability to maintain small groups.”
Dicochea said their focus is on providing migrant shelters with educational tools on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as cleaning and disinfectant items such as soap and hand sanitizer.
“It’s not an easy situation, especially in those circumstances. But we’re working to find solutions,” he said.
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