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Behind Asylum Seekers' Experiences At The U.S.-Mexico Border

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to the southern border, where the Biden administration is allowing some migrants in. Those are migrant children and unaccompanied minors and a small number of other asylum-seekers. But thousands of others are still being turned back to Mexico. Max Rivlin-Nadler of member station KPBS in San Diego reports from both sides of the border.

MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: For two years, Herson Eduardo Cano and his family have been waiting in Mexico for their chance to ask for asylum in U.S. immigration court. The engineer says he fled Honduras with his wife and their two young children in 2019 after a gang tried to extort him and threatened to kill him.

HERSON EDUARDO CANO: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVLIN-NADLER: I spoke by phone with Cano last month when the family was living in a shelter in Tijuana. It wasn't any safer in the border towns where they've been forced to wait under the Trump administration's remain in Mexico program. Wherever they went, they were robbed and assaulted. Local police harassed them and he says they couldn't find work.

CANO: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVLIN-NADLER: But then there was hope for Cano and his family. The Biden administration announced that it would soon start allowing some asylum-seekers enrolled in remain in Mexico to cross into the U.S. while keeping the border closed to almost everyone else because of the pandemic. A week later, the Cano family was in a hotel in San Diego.

CANO: (Through interpreter) Our children are very happy. They can feel our happiness too. And so we barely slept from the joy, the happiness. We still can't believe it.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Two days later, they were boarding a plane to Minnesota. Cano and his family are now with relatives in Minneapolis, where he's already found work as a painter. His kids are enrolled in school and got to play in the snow. He has advice for those left behind in Tijuana.

CANO: (Through interpreter) It saddens me. I understand the sacrifices that must be made, but I ask that they please do not attempt to cross the border, that they trust the policy of President Joe Biden.

(CROSSTALK)

RIVLIN-NADLER: But in Tijuana, there's a lot of confusion among migrants about what exactly Biden's policy means for them. When Margie Rosales (ph) heard some asylum-seekers were being admitted into the U.S., she packed up all of her possessions and her 2-year-old daughter and headed to the port of entry. She also fled violence in Honduras two years ago and has been waiting for months in Tijuana for a chance to claim asylum.

MARGIE ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVLIN-NADLER: She hopes President Biden opens his heart and lets her and her daughter in. A month later, Rosales is still there. Now, a line of hundreds of asylum-seekers and tents has sprung up behind her. Rosales says it's been tough because of the rain. Her clothes are now wet. There's been freezing temperatures.

ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVLIN-NADLER: But Rosales and many of the others waiting at the port do not qualify for entry, and the Biden administration hasn't said when they will. Some families are now so desperate they're making the heartbreaking decision to send their children across alone, contributing to the influx of unaccompanied children arriving at the southwest border. Margie Rosales says she can't bear to send her younger daughter by herself and she doesn't plan to sneak across.

ROSALES: (Through interpreter) That is why I'm here - to be legal - you understand? - to ask for help. My daughter and I are in danger in Honduras. I can't go there. I'm very afraid because of that.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Administration officials are asking Central Americans not to come to the border until they can improve the process, but thousands of migrants like Rosales are already here. For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler in Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.