The US Has Arrested Over 1 Million Asylum Seekers in the Past 6 Months

The U.S. has made a record number at its border with Mexico and has arrested more than 1 million asylum seekers in the last six months. We speak with immigration attorney Erika Pinheiro about the Biden administration’s unequal treatment of different nationalities, as refugees from countries like Haiti, Cuba and Cameroon face harsh restrictions on asylum, but Ukrainian refugees seem to be receiving special treatment and even exemption from Title 42. “Asylum is supposed to be a universal standard protecting individuals fleeing persecution from any country, but in practice it’s always been a political tool wielded by the United States to favor those fleeing regimes that the United States opposes,” says Pinheiro.


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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to the U.S.-Mexico border, where Border Patrol officers have arrested over a million asylum seekers in the past six months — a record number in at least 20 years, that comes as many are fleeing economic and political crises, horrific violence, the impacts of the climate emergency, in Haiti, in Cuba, in Central and South America and Africa.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, thousands of Ukrainian refugees have also trekked to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of safety. In the last two months, nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have been processed by U.S. border officers. Most of them at ports of entry. Many Ukrainians were camping out at Tijuana’s border, Mexico, earlier in the month, hoping to gain entry into the United States.

VALENTINA SHYMANEVSKA: I couldn’t — I couldn’t cry in Ukraine. I didn’t cry in Ukraine at all. I am grateful for your tears. I am grateful for this place, this food, and the dream to give him a little more calm until victory. We will travel the same day to Ukraine when the victory is achieved.

DAVID MIRAMONTES: [translated]As this will go on for a long period, the camp is slowly becoming a reality. They will continue arriving in Tijuana as long as the war goes on and there is no direct link from Europe to the United States. They will depend on the kindness and generosity of Tijuana citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian refugees are also staying in Tijuana’s shelter, in addition to the border camp.

YEVHEN SHYSHKIN: [translated] I’m really surprised about how people have been helping us here. The shelter is in perfect condition. It is amazing to see how American and Mexican people want to help us, and how everyone wants to help in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: Immigrant justice advocates have welcomed efforts to process Ukrainian refugees at the border but are condemning the U.S. government’s hypocrisy as it brutalizes and criminalizes Black, Indigenous and other asylum seekers who don’t come from white European nations. Many have waited months or even years to receive asylum processing at a U.S. border port. Many were forced to wait in Mexico, often in extremely dangerous conditions. This is a Honduran asylum-seeker at Tijuana, Mexico.

AUGUSTO MARTINEZ: They won a war. We got worse than wars in Central America. They’ve been at war with the gangs since February. We’ve got a war there with these gangs, you know what I mean, about 15, 20 years behind. We have the same war. Same bullet that kills those people also kills us. You know, I mean, why they’re treating Hispanic asylum people this way? You know what I’m referring to? They can take all the Ukrainian people into the United States, but they don’t take the Hispanic people.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney based in Tijuana, Mexico, and the policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit helping asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She was also monitored and spied on by the Trump administration.

Erika, can you talk about the double standard and what it looks like in Tijuana? We’re not talking about Ukrainians who are flying into the United States, where they can find a lot of bureaucracy. So, they, too, are coming through the southern border, but they’re allowed in.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Yes. Hi. Yeah, we’ve seen thousands of Ukrainians coming through Tijuana. Their trips to Mexico are mostly financed by families and church groups in the United States who help them fly from Europe to Mexico City or Cancún, and then onward to Tijuana. Volunteer groups are on hand at the airport. They coordinate with CBP Ukrainians will be given a number on a mailing list. And CBPCustoms and Border Protection are processing as many as a thousand Ukrainians daily at a port where border officials claimed that they have not had the capacity to process more than 30 asylum seekers per day over the past few years.

The Tijuana administration has also provided enormous resources to Ukrainian migrants. They have even provided shelter for them in a municipal-funded shelter. These services are available months after they evicted violently a group of Indigenous and Black asylum seekers who waited for their chance to seek refuge at the border for more that a year. Many of these people have ended up homeless on Tijuana’s streets.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: These reports are incredible, Erika. I’ve heard reports that there was a special line set up at the border crossing in Tijuana just for Ukrainians, sort of like a TSA line, a line with special priority. Is this true?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: This is correct. Title 42, the Title, closed a portion of the port of entry. COVIDMarch 2020 was the date when border restrictions were implemented. This section of the port has been reopened by Customs and Border Protection and is now solely used for humanitarian processing of Ukrainians. As I mentioned, approximately a thousand people are being transported each day by church groups. They are being processed in an orderly manner. CBP. This shows that border officials have the ability to humanely process thousands upon thousands of asylum seekers if they have the political will.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the impact on those who are still waiting, like Hondurans and Guatemalans. Despite having some of the highest homicide rate in the world in El Salvador, Honduras and El Salvador for decades, there seems to be more Ukrainians processing asylum applications in a few weeks than there were in an entire year for Salvadorans and Hondurans admitted for asylum into the United States. What’s the impact on those who are waiting and watching this?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Well, I can speak for myself and many of the migrants we work with, that everyone wants to help the Ukrainians. Of course the war that they’re fleeing is horrific. They are being treated at border the same way everyone should be treated.

Many migrants have been waiting for years in deplorable conditions. Many have suffered rapes, attempted kidnappings and assaults while waiting in dangerous Mexican border cities.

But it’s worse than that, actually. Since Ukrainians and even Russians have been coming to Tijuana, in particular, whereas other asylum seekers could approach the border and ask for protection previously — you know, of course, they would be turned away — but now Mexican law enforcement officials are posted at the border with an immigration van. If a Honduran attempts to approach border officials, they are likely to be arrested and taken to a Mexican immigration jail for trying to seek safety in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Erika, Axios reported on Tuesday that President Biden’s inner circle has been discussing delaying the repeal of Title 42 border restrictions now set to end May 23rd. These are Trump-era pandemic restrictions, which prevent people from entering the United States for public health and safety reasons. These have been lifted for Ukrainians. You can also talk about the number and nature of Republicans and Democrats who have demanded that Biden reimpose Title 42.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Part of the problem here is the way the media has been discussing Title 42. I have seen numerous stories in which the migrants, who have been waiting patiently at the border for the ports of entry to reopen, have been characterized as a “surge” or a “wave.” I’ve seen language referring to the repeal of Title 42 as a “crisis.”

Now, DHSAccording to the Department of Homeland Security, approximately 25,000 people are waiting at the border for Title 42’s repeal. Keep in mind that U.S. border officers have processed more than 10,000 Ukrainians in the last few weeks. Again, they have the ability, and the capacity, to process the asylum seekers who are currently waiting at the border quickly, in an orderly, and humane way, if the political will is there. There is one difference: the majority of those waiting at the border are Black and Indigenous as well as other asylum seekers who aren’t white Europeans.

So, you know, I think we need to talk about migrants who are currently waiting in a new way. I think that’s a huge part of the problem. But it’s really — seeing that kind of rhetoric in the media and seeing that repeated by members of Congress, who, frankly, should know better, is extremely disappointing, and it’s really dehumanizing for folks who have been waiting patiently at the border for it to reopen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Erika, this border policy seems to have a context that is both racial and political. As I understand it, there’s been a significant increase over the past year in the number of Cubans crossing into the United States along the Mexican border and getting asylum. For example, during the Central American War period, Nicaraguans fleeing Sandinista rule received a much higher percentage of asylum grant from the United States than Salvadorans and Guatemalans. What’s your sense of the political — that, basically, the United States favors granting asylum to refugees from those countries with which it has political — for which it politically supports?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: That’s always been the case with asylum. Asylum is supposed to be a universal standard protecting individuals fleeing persecution from any country, but in practice it’s always been a political tool wielded by the United States to favor those fleeing regimes that the United States opposes.

Now, it’s actually really interesting with the Ukrainians. The United States will not grant asylum due to general conditions in a country. I would not be able to get asylum as a Ukrainian simply because my country has been at war. So, all of these — most of these asylum seekers, the 10,000 who have been processed from Ukraine, actually probably wouldn’t qualify for asylum under U.S. law, whereas many of those who are turned away, including Russians who are fleeing the same conflict — I’ve spoken with dozens of Russians here in Tijuana who protested the war against Ukraine, have been brutally repressed by the Putin regime, fled the same issue, and are — have been turned away from ports of entry and are waiting here in Tijuana. They would qualify for asylum under U.S. laws, but are being turned back under Title 42.

So, I think there’s two things happening here. One, some nationalities are being allowed to access humanitarian protections within the United States while others are being denied. The second is that once they arrive in the United States, it becomes a political issue rather than a legal question whether they are granted asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: Alejandro Mayorkas (Habitat Security Secretary) was born in Cuba and is currently a Cuban refugee in America. I wanted to ask you about the fact that you have Ukrainians given shelter in indoor facilities, while Haitians, Central Americans and others have had to sleep on the streets or makeshift camps outside ports of entry, and, finally, to ask you, yourself, Erika, the kind of work that you’re doing — the Trump administration — right? — was sued; the ACLU sued on your behalf because you were targeted by the Trump administration as they monitored and surveilled your immigration advocacy work — if there’s a difference under the Biden administration.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: I have seen signs that — very clear signs that the surveillance of my work continues under the Biden administration. Of course, it’s not to the same extent that it was under the Trump administration, during which I was detained in Mexico, removed from Mexico at the behest of the U.S. government. I am now in an entirely different position. We have a stronger stakeholder relationship with Biden’s administration.

With respect to the current situation, I can tell that I would have been in federal prison if I had done or even thought of doing for a Central American migrant, what the Ukrainian Americans or other Ukrainians are doing for the Ukrainians. Let me give you an example. Like I said, these trips are funded by U.S. Citizens. Many times, U.S. citizens drove the Ukrainian refugees to the border by putting them in their cars. I believe that we should do all we can to help those fleeing horrific violence, including the Ukrainians. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. However, if I did the same thing, or would I do it for a Haitian migrant? If I drove up to the border and put them in my car, I would be charged with smuggling. So, even that double standard, where those helping white migrants are given unfettered access to the ports of entry, are given — you know, are processed at a clip of a thousand a day, where those of us trying to organize on behalf of Black and Brown migrants are persecuted for the same activities, it’s really just — it’s hurtful, honestly, and it’s really astounding to see it play out like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Erika Pinheiro: I want to thank for being with us, immigration lawyer, policy, and litigation director at Al Otro Lado. A binational nonprofit that assists immigrants on both sides U.S.-Mexico borders, speaking to me from Tijuana.

Next, Texas will execute Melissa Lucio in just one week. She’d be the first Latina to be put to death in Texas. We speak to the Innocence Project lawyer who’s fighting to save her life. Stay with us.

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