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Politics and Government

Thousands of asylum seekers still await the end of the pandemic border policy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A Trump-era pandemic policy shutting U.S. borders to most asylum-seekers will stay in place. Those restrictions had been scheduled to end on Monday, but today a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from that plan. Meanwhile, thousands of asylum-seekers are in limbo. Alisa Reznick with member station KJZZ reports from Nogales, Mexico.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: At this shelter in Nogales called the Kino Border Initiative, a few hundred asylum seekers are meeting with legal advocates and being handed plastic plates of fresh food by volunteers. Richcar, from Haiti, crossed through 10 countries with his wife to get here.

RICHCAR: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: He says they left Haiti about two years ago after gang members tried to kill him. We're only using his first name for his protection. He and his wife went to Chile at first. He says they faced discrimination and more threats.

RICHCAR: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: "I saw many ugly things when I was on the road to get here," Richcar says. They had heavy rain in Panama. He says he watched people slip and fall off steep mountain ridges to their deaths. It took a month for them to reach Mexico. They came to the border to begin the long process of applying for asylum in the U.S. But like thousands of others, they were blocked by the U.S. policy, closing U.S. entry points to most migrants during the pandemic. Last month, news came to Nogales that the policy was slated to end in May.

RICHCAR: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: Richcar says hearing that, he felt happy and sad; happy knowing that maybe his long journey might finally end in the U.S, but sad knowing this moment had come too late for thousands of other Haitians who've been sent back because of the policy.

RICHCAR: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: "If I could change my country, I would," he says. But because he can't, he says he needs to get to the U.S. to protect his life. He says living in Nogales is dangerous. He says they can't work without permits, and they've been threatened. He knows migrants who have been kidnapped and held for ransom by members of organized crime.

It's a risk hundreds of migrants stuck in Nogales know well, like Mari, a single mother from southwestern Mexico. She fled with her 12-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter after gang members burned parts of her town to the ground. We're only using Mari's first name for her safety.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: She says, when the U.S. government announced it was lifting asylum restrictions at the border, she felt like this little door was opening for her and others, a hope.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

REZNICK: Last fall, she and dozens of other migrants held a protest. With vaccine cards and negative COVID tests in hand, they went to the border crossing and tried to ask for asylum. Each was turned away.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: There is no pandemic argument to keep them out, she says. It felt like things might finally change for her this month. She was in line to get an exemption and be allowed in - or so she thought.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: In a message on WhatsApp, Mari told me legal advocates called her again last week, just as the lawsuit to keep the pandemic policy was going before a judge in Louisiana.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: She says they were told families would have to wait. She's not sure what will happen next, but she's trying to protect her kids.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: So she says that she'll keep up the fight. She still has hope.

For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Nogales, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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