NPR News, Classical and Music of the Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'This is America?' Migrants keep arriving at the border, despite tougher asylum rules

Migrants gather at an informal camp near Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on June 14, 2024. Once they cross the border into the U.S., they wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol, in their hope to claim asylum.
Qian Weizhong
/
VCG via Getty Images
Migrants gather at an informal camp near Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on June 14, 2024. Once they cross the border into the U.S., they wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol, in their hope to claim asylum.

Jacumba Valley, Calif.— On an early morning in late June, the heat in this remote area in San Diego County is oppressive.

As NPR drives along the border wall that divides the U.S. from Mexico, we spot a woman walking on the side of the road.

“This is America?” she asks.

“This is America,” we tell her.

“Oh God. Thank you, God," she says, then walks off toward an unofficial migrant camp before we can ask her name.

She’s one of the many migrants who keep on coming, despite executive actions recently signed by President Joe Biden which severely restrict asylum for anyone crossing the southern border without authorization.

Border crossings' ebb and flow

The renewed emphasis on enforcement is working, immigration analysts say, but only as a short-term measure.

Two weeks after the asylum restrictions kicked in on June 4, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 25% decrease in daily encounters along the southern border.

In the long run, these policies will not deter irregular immigration, says Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Every single one of those policies does push the numbers down for a few months, and then they start to recover and come right back,” says Isacson.

He says people will continue to attempt to come to the U.S. if the conditions pushing them to leave home - violence, war, poverty- are more horrific than the ones they may have to face on the journey.

As per the May 4 executive actions enacted by President Joe Biden, when there is a 7-day average of 2,500 unauthorized crossings across the entire Southern border, it triggers a closure to undocumented migrants seeking asylum.

There are a few exceptions, including for underage children and some victims of severe crimes.

But in practice, the rule permanently closes the border down to asylum seekers, since the weekly average is often well above 2,500.

Civil rights groups say these actions, similar to measures taken by former President Donald Trump during his administration, are illegal.

“If you get to U.S. soil and you get to a safe place, we will screen you for asylum,” says Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the ACLU who sued the Biden Administration over the new asylum restrictions.

“We won't necessarily give you asylum if you don't have a credible claim,” he points out. “But we will at least screen you, and it doesn't matter how you get to U.S. soil.”

But none of the people NPR spoke with at the camps in Jacumba had heard of the executive actions, much less of the lawsuit against it.

Their concerns are more immediate: surviving days of walking through rugged terrain under the scorching sun; being cut off from communication with their loved ones and without a court date to petition for asylum, at least not yet.

They are on U.S. soil, but not allowed to move. Stranded. Waiting.

Two migrants were handcuffed after an encounter with Border Patrol Agents on June 14, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Under newer asylum restrictions issued by the Biden administration, most migrants who cross the border with no autorization are to be denied the opportunity to request asylum.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images / Visual China Group
/
Visual China Group
Two migrants were handcuffed after an encounter with Border Patrol Agents on June 14, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Under newer asylum restrictions issued by the Biden administration, most migrants who cross the border with no autorization are to be denied the opportunity to request asylum.

The purgatory of Jacumba

Unlike other migrant routes in San Diego, Jacumba is somewhat geographically exposed. Many people who cross through this area want to turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, to ask for asylum. They are then taken to one of several primitive campsites around the valley to wait for processing – sometimes for days.

These camps have no shelter from the desert elements, no water, no food, and only a handful of port-a-potties. At times, locals report as many as a thousand people waiting at the various locations.

NPR has repeatedly asked Customs and Border Protection for comment on these camps but has received no acknowledgment of their existence.

And yet, hundreds of migrants say they were told to stay put in them, or risk deportation.

New restrictions seed misinformation 

On the day NPR arrived at one of the main camps in early June, about 150 people were waiting in an open field. Several said they’d been sleeping outside for days without shelter from the sun.

After a day of waiting in the heat, a man named Frank became dehydrated and started throwing up. A local humanitarian volunteer gave him first aid. Once Frank had stabilized, he told NPR his story, using only his first name to protect his family.

Frank says he owned a plot of land back home in Colombia, but trouble began when armed groups showed up demanding money from his family.

“I could not pay. They started extorting me. Saying they were going to kill me, kill my family,” he explains.

Frank and his wife couldn’t pay, so they fled to the U.S.

A coyote (a person who guides migrants to the U.S. and across the border), told him that the first 2,500 people to cross the border every day would be allowed to apply for asylum. And that Colombians like Frank, are allowed in.

This is all incorrect.

Misinformation about U.S. immigration policy runs rampant in the Jacumba camps. Some rumors are spread through word of mouth or social media. Others, like the account Frank got, are seeded by organized crime trying to make money off people’s desperation.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent inspects a grup of dozens of migrants waiting to be processed after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 18, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, San Diego, California.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images / Visual China Group
/
Visual China Group
A U.S. Border Patrol agent inspects a grup of dozens of migrants waiting to be processed after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 18, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, San Diego, California.

In limbo and exposed to the elements

When Border Patrol agents finally show up at this informal encampment in Jacumba, they line up the men and women separately.

An officer asks each woman if she is pregnant or sick, and announces that only the single women will be taken in for processing – no couples or families.

Frank looks at his wife. “Tell them you are single,” he urges. They’re going to give you asylum.”

She breaks down into sobs.

“Be strong,” Frank tells her. They kiss goodbye, and she climbs into the Border Patrol van.

Under the new rule, she will most likely be subject to expedited removal, unless she can convince officials of exceptionally harsh circumstances — for instance, that she was a victim of human trafficking.

Biden’s asylum restrictions are an attempt to send a message: without authorization, the border is closed.

A statement from CBP says: “The fact is that people without a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed.”

But beyond official pronouncements and thousands of miles from Washington, in places like Jacumba, the humanitarian crisis could worsen as summer months roll in.

Volunteer aids and immigration protection groups say the most recent policies are punitive and push desperate migrants to cross through more dangerous, even deadly areas.

Dozens of migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico on June 14, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, California.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images / Visual China Group
/
Visual China Group
Dozens of migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico on June 14, 2024 in Jacumba Hot Springs, California.

So close, yet so far

The Border Patrol van takes off, leaving about 80 remaining migrants in a cloud of dust.

One of them, a young man named David, starts to have a panic attack. He says he hasn’t eaten in three days.

Karen Parker, a local volunteer, rushes to assist him.

“Breathe,” she whispers. “Just breathe baby, just breathe.”

David wears thick tinted reading glasses that seem out of place in the rugged landscape where he’s now stuck.

I can’t go back to Colombia,” he says.

When a gang in his neighborhood found out he was gay, David said he was beaten badly and was left partially blind.

He asked NPR not to use his last name, because his mother, still in Colombia, has also been threatened by the gang.

As the dust cloud settles, David exhales in relief as the volunteer Parker pours water over the back of his head.

“You are close. You are so close,” Parker tells him.

But for now, this might be the closest he’ll get to being allowed to stay in the United States.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.