NOGALES, Mexico — In their monthlong odyssey taking them from violence-plagued El Salvador to the streets of this Mexican outpost on the Arizona border, the dream of finding protection in the United States somehow kept Carolina Cortez and her two children going.
But when they finally arrived in Nogales about two weeks ago and made their way to the fortified crossing where they planned to submit their request for asylum, the family’s quest for safe haven was turned upside down by a dismaying new turn on the Mexican border, as the numbers of asylum seekers surge once again: They would have to wait.
“We’ve slept on the ground of Nogales since then,” said Ms. Cortez, 36, alongside her 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “We fled a war zone dominated by gangs, walked across the desert, ran out of money,” she added, describing their journey from the Salvadoran town of Olocuilta. “I have no idea what to do now but wait.”
At an array of points along the United States-Mexico border, at lonely sentry boxes, remote bridges and crowded border crossings, the scenes over the past few weeks have been similar: desperate asylum seekers from Central America, many of them children, camped out on Mexican soil as they wait to apply for admission to the United States.
The growing number of Central American refugees sleeping near crossings on the border points to a resurgent exodus of people from countries grappling with gang violence, drug cartels and a lack of economic opportunities, as well as a shift in policies in the United States effectively making it harder for Central Americans to request asylum.
In a ruling on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that immigration judges should not necessarily consider claims of domestic abuse or gang violence as a basis for asylum claims, absent other evidence that someone has suffered persecution as a member of a social group protected by law — a move that establishes a major new roadblock for thousands of Central Americans trying to seek refuge in the United States.
As word of the shift by Mr. Sessions spread on Monday to places on the border, a sense of even greater despair set in among some who have been sleeping near crossings.
“I’m sickened by a change like this since my country is a place where gangs extort money from innocents, and if you don’t pay you get a shot in the head,” said Yadira Barrios, 22, a maid from the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras who has been camping out with her 4-year-old son, Marvin, near the border turnstiles in Nogales.
“The only thing I can do now is remind myself that our fate rests in God’s hands,” said Ms. Barrios, emphasizing that she is an evangelical Christian who attends a Pentecostal church. “I know there are also many people of faith in the United States. I hope they can pray for me and my son now.”
But the Trump administration is also forcing significant numbers of asylum applicants to wait in Mexico before even submitting an application. Though there have been reports of asylum seekers being turned away since shortly after President Trump took office, the numbers appear to have climbed in recent weeks, with an unusually large number of applicants camped out near border crossings in California, Arizona and Texas.
Trump administration officials said Customs and Border Protection officials were taking a “proactive approach” to make sure only those with valid entry documents approached border stations, while those without legal documentation were being scheduled for processing as time permits.
“Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” an agency spokesman said in a statement.
“No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum,” the spokesman added. “CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing once space becomes available or other factors allow for additional parties to arrive. This has been occurring intermittently as needed at several locations as well where the volume of arriving people exceeds the capacity of our facilities.”
The spokesman said any delays are expected to be “temporary.”
In downtown Nogales, near dentistry offices offering cut-rate root canals and pharmacies peddling Viagra prescription-free to American tourists, the bottleneck has produced a grim sight at the turnstiles where legally authorized border crossers step from Mexico into the United States.
Families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras huddle together on the ground near packages of donated diapers and cans of baby formula. Some have endured this limbo for nearly two weeks, sleeping on the ground at night and trying to stay cool during the day as temperatures in this outpost in the Sonoran Desert surpass 100 degrees.
“We made it here on foot and by bus,” said Justo Solval, 25, a laborer traveling with his 21-month-old son, Jonathan. They set out from Suchitepéquez in southwest Guatemala, escaping extortion gangs in an effort to request asylum in the United States, Mr. Solval said.
But after arriving in Nogales about a week and a half ago, they have been sleeping on cardboard pizza boxes in a squalid entryway to a bathroom at the border crossing.
“We depend on strangers for food, for water, for everything,” Mr. Solval said. “I wanted to do everything legally, to ask for asylum in the proper way, but this is a setback I did not expect for us.”
After a 44 percent decline in illegal entries during Mr. Trump’s first year in office, the number of migrants showing up at the southwest border is on the rise again. Federal agents arrested nearly 52,000 people at the border in May, the third consecutive month of increase.
The latest data suggests that recent measures to crack down on illegal immigration have not deterred migrants, many of whom make the arduous journey over land from Central America to escape gangs and drug cartels, though others come in search of better jobs and education opportunities.
Some immigration experts argue that the asylum system in the United States is being abused by applicants who are seeking to move to the country primarily for economic reasons. But scholars who have examinedthe system closely say that the flow of asylum seekers from certain regions, especially the northern triangle of Central America, comprised of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, reflects widespread human rights abuses in those countries.
“You always have to be careful of fraud, but having some economic motives for requestingasylum shouldn’t necessarily be disqualifying,” said Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a law professor at Temple University. “Widespread violence in some countries contributes to dire economic problems. Most people applyingfor asylum are fleeing a desperate situation.”
The Trump administration in recent months deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the border, and on May 7 introduced a “zero-tolerance” policy that calls for prosecuting everyone who illegally enters the country.
Those who petition for asylum at official crossings like the one in Nogales are not considered illegal border-crossers, and are not prosecuted under that policy, yet their numbers are also so substantial that the Trump administration is struggling to control the influx.
Under current law, people who claim fear of persecution in their home countries are entitled to what is known as a credible fear interview. If they show a “significant possibility” of winning their asylum case, they are usually admitted into the United States to await a court hearing before a judge who decides their case.
Their cases join a ballooning backlog in the immigration courts, 700,000 in total, meaning they could take years to be decided, even though the Justice Department recently said it would set completion targets for judges.
Credible fear claims at the border soared 1,700 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose officials conduct the interviews.
Across the country, only about 20 percent of all applicants were granted asylum in fiscal year 2017. That proves that people are making many claims without merit, administration officials contend.
“The asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy, and public safety — and to the detriment of people with just claims,” Mr. Sessions said Monday. “Saying a few simple words — claiming a fear of return — is now transforming a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return into a prolonged legal process, where an alien may be released from custody into the United States and possibly never show up for an immigration hearing.”
The government has been seeking to hold more migrants in detention to speed up their removal. It is also discouraging people from applying for asylum, immigrant advocates and lawyers say, by criminally prosecuting those applicants who enter the country illegally rather than letting them turn themselves in at an official border station. These people can only apply for asylum once their criminal case has been heard and they have served time.
Some migrants who have presented themselves at a port of entry to claim asylum have had their children taken from them, though that was only supposed to happen to those being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border, according to several immigrant advocacy organizations, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging such family separations in court.
In many cases, young people are making their way to the border alone to claim asylum — and they, too, are now facing delays and possible other roadblocks. Miguel Antonio Ayala, 16, a high school student from Honduras, arrived in Nogales recently and was among those camping out at the border crossing. He said he planned to request asylum in an effort to reunite with a sister living in Boston.
“My dream is to find work and attend university to study medicine,” Mr. Ayala said. “I want to obey the laws of the United States and contribute to society. There’s nothing for me in Honduras. I’d rather live on the streets of Nogales for a thousand days if it means not going back.”
While some of the migrants have found beds in shelters in Nogales, others said they avoid the facilities out of fear of theft or abuse. Instead, they prefer to guard their spot on the asphalt so as not to lose their place in line when American officials at the crossing allow a handful each day to submit their asylum requests.
For those in Nogales who cross the border each day to work on the American side, the influx of Central Americans has become part of their routine in the slow-moving line at the crossing. Sometimes they need to step over families of migrants in order to present their documents.
“My heart goes out to these people because all they want is to provide for their children,” said Aridaid Rodríguez, 21, who lives on the Mexican side of the border but works each day at a McDonald’s restaurant on the American side. An American citizen, she said she was born in Phoenix but had to move to Mexico at the age of 9 when her Mexican-born mother was apprehended by immigration agents in Arizona and deported.
“Where’s the dignity in treating families this way?” Ms. Rodríguez asked, referring not to her own saga but to that of the Central Americans sprawled out near the turnstiles. “No one should be forced to live like animals just to cross into the United States.”
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