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Senate border bill would upend US asylum at the border with emergency limits and fast-track reviews

A sweeping Senate bill on border security would bring dramatic changes to places like Jacumba Hot Springs, where hundreds of migrants wiggle through a border wall with Mexico every day in boulder-strewn mountains near San Diego to surrender to border agents and seek asylum

Javier Arciga
Monday 05 February 2024 22:35 GMT

Nearly every day since September, hundreds of migrants from China, Colombia and other countries have wiggled through openings in the border wall with Mexico and walked dirt trails to surrender to U.S. agents and seek asylum. Some days, more than 1,000 arrive in the boulder-strewn mountains near San Diego, alone.

While they wait to be processed and given a court date, they live in tents and makeshift structures of tree branches in scattered campsites. These encampments would likely vanish under a Senate bill that would make sweeping changes to immigration laws, including allowing a border emergency authority that would restrict asylum when arrests for illegal crossings hit certain thresholds.

In addition to the emergency authority, the bill released Sunday aims to have asylum officers screen applicants within 90 days of their arrival in the country using a tougher standard and, for those who pass, decide cases within another 90 days. Cases would ideally be decided in six months instead of six years, as is common in a court system backlogged with more than 3 million cases. It would do so largely by spending $4 billion to hire more than 4,300 asylum officers who would take on the work now reserved for immigration judges.

The $118 billion bill, which combines border security with aid for Ukraine and Israel, faces opposition from Donald Trump and his allies, who consider it weak, and from some Democrats and progressives who think it would gut the asylum process at grave human cost. If it overcomes long odds, the legislation would radically upend how asylum is handled at the border. Asylum, once a policy afterthought, is now the border's dominant challenge.

Overwhelmed border agents have been unable to quickly process surrendering migrants in Jacumba Hot Springs and elsewhere along the border, forcing them to wait outside for hours or days. In fierce winds on Friday, they rubbed their hands over small campfires and sat closely together in tents to generate body heat. Paramedics aided a young crying girl with a high fever.

"I am happy to have arrived here because I want to achieve my biggest dreams, be a better person and provide for my family,” said Juan Andres Valverde of Colombia, who reported getting robbed by authorities in Mexico.

His advice to other migrants: “If you're able to do it, then do it. The truth is that it isn't easy to get here."

Mbala Glodi, 42, arrived in Jacumba Hot Springs, a tiny border town east of San Diego, after crossing the border illegally in September. Like the vast majority of those arriving, he was quickly released with a court date. After spending time in New York City's shelters, a church found a family to take him in Vermont.

“Things were difficult (in the United States) in the beginning,” Glodi, a former student protester who says he faced government repression in his native Angola, said by phone Monday from Vermont. “After getting accustomed, all will turn out well with God's help.”

He's due in court May 5.

Samuel Schultz, a volunteer who distributes food and other supplies to migrants in Jacumba Hot Springs, said he is perplexed as to why U.S. authorities don't allow people in at official land crossings, free of the risks of hypothermia, because they are eventually released. “They let them in anyway,” he said.

But under the Senate legislation, asylum would be suspended for those who cross illegally when arrests for illegal crossings average 5,000 per day over seven days along the Mexican border, or 4,000 at the Homeland Security Department's discretion. The last month that daily arrests were below 5,000 was February 2021. Asylum would also be suspended if arrests top 8,500 in a single day.

The “border emergency authority” could be in effect no more than 270 days in its first year, 225 days in its second year and 180 days in its third and final year. Unaccompanied children would be exempt.

Biden administration officials acknowledge that Mexico's help would be critical for the new emergency powers, as it was during a public health emergency from March 2021 to May 2023. U.S. authorities expelled people who crossed the border from Mexico more than 2.7 million times during that time, denying rights to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The legislation would allow Homeland Security to continue using humanitarian parole, including the Biden administration's policy to allow up to 30,000 people a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela if they apply online with a financial sponsor and arrive at an airport.

It would also allow 1,400 people to seek asylum daily at official land crossings with Mexico in a “safe and orderly manner,” even when a border emergency is in effect. That would effectively preserve an online appointment system introduced in January 2023 that allows up to 1,450 people to enter the United States each day at land crossings.

U.S. authorities currently dole out about 400 appointments a day at a border crossing in San Diego under CBP One, as the online system is named. Families line up in Tijuana, Mexico, with suitcases and paperwork showing appointments at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Many try for weeks or even months to land a time in the oversubscribed system.

Maria del Rosario Lanza, 42, crossed the border in San Diego with a CBP One appointment in January 2023, beginning an asylum case that will likely take years to decide. She came with her sister and her sister's 8-year-old grandnephew, who was riding on the back of his father’s motorcycle in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa in 2019 when an assailant fatally shot his father. They fled after flooding destroyed their home.

The Honduran woman lived in Chicago and Washington before settling in Fort Worth, Texas. Her next court date is Jan. 5.

“God is with me,” she said Monday.

___

Spagat reported from San Diego.

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