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The U.S. Needs Better, Not Less, Access To Asylum

At the Arizona-Mexico border, a woman and her children wait for nearly two months on a layer of blankets just outside a U.S. port of entry. They are fearful of falling asleep lest they lose their chance to ask for asylum.

A Mexican man tearfully recounts how U.S. border authorities forced him to sign a ‘voluntary’ return to Mexico, despite his pleading that he couldn’t return. The next day, he crossed back into the United States between official ports. “May God be with us all,” he says, looking around at the dozens of asylum seekers who wait with him.

A Mexican woman narrates being kept in U.S. custody for eight days without access to a shower, held in frigid temperatures, subjected to verbal attacks, and told to sign return papers she did not understand, or she would “go to jail for five years.” She says she was never asked whether she needed asylum.

As U.S. lawmakers discuss imposing even harsher restrictions on asylum, these stories from the border illustrate why people fleeing for their lives cannot and should not be deterred from asking for protection. The more the U.S. government shuts the door to asylum seekers, the more families will be driven to cross the border by remote routes, endangering their lives, enriching organized crime, and forcing the government to invest resources in picking up people in the desert whose only wish may have been to present themselves to U.S. authorities and do things “the right way.” 

Photo by Stephanie Brewer

Part of the line of mostly Mexican asylum seekers who will spend weeks to months waiting outside the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales, Sonora, having been unable to obtain CBP One appointments.

The impossible wait to seek asylum “the right way”

From December 3-7, 2023, WOLA staff visited Nogales (Mexico), Tucson, Arivaca, Sasabe, Ruby, and other parts of the Arizona borderlands. Since July, this sector has seen the highest number of Border Patrol migrant encounters, with 55,224 in October 2023 and 18,900 during the first week of December 2023 alone.

In Nogales, dozens of asylum seekers sit side by side in a line that stretches back from the DeConcini port of entry, in a cramped space where documented border crossers line up all day long. They will spend weeks to months here, following a months-long wait on an improvised “waitlist” just to be called to the line.

The waitlist, managed by a municipal Nogales official, is the result of a U.S. policy that generally restricts access to asylum to those who secure appointments through the “CBP One” app, which has wait times of months. CBP One applies especially strict limits on Mexicans, who thus find themselves stranded in the very country from which they seek to flee persecution. The mostly Mexican families in the waitlist line have been unable to obtain CBP One appointments, despite months of trying; they now await their chance to seek asylum without an appointment. They come largely from violence-affected states such as Guerrero, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. Some fled their homes after being told, “Wherever we find you, we will kill you,” a threat not to be taken lightly given criminal networks’ expansive reach.

Driven to the desert: Families wait in life-threatening conditions to turn themselves in

Regardless of nationality, people often cannot wait for months in Mexico, struggling to make ends meet, caring for children, and seeking to avoid attacks by criminals and extortion by authorities. This drives some to cross between ports. Others who have paid smugglers further south are also channeled to irregular crossing points. They emerge in some of the most isolated areas of wilderness in the region, where they will spend hours to days waiting.

Photo by Ana Lucia Verduzco

A view of the border wall between the areas of Sasabe and Arivaca, Arizona, where dozens of asylum seekers wait to turn themselves in to Border Patrol. In other, even more remote areas of the desert, hundreds of people have been found waiting at a time.

We drove along the border wall east from Sasabe, Arizona with the humanitarian organization Tucson Samaritans. Within minutes, we encountered approximately ten asylum seekers; minutes further down, some 80 people waited, including many small children. They were fleeing Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Cuba, and Honduras, among other countries.

Medical emergencies are common, and aid workers described their desperation as “people are dying” in the desert. Local aid groups alert Border Patrol to remote locations where asylum seekers are waiting. “Border Patrol is leaning on us,” a volunteer told us. But how quickly or humanely Border Patrol responds to migrants in distress or waiting asylum seekers often depends on “what agent you get”. 

Once asylum seekers are in Border Patrol custody, agents sometimes seek to intimidate or deceive them into accepting a ‘voluntary return’ to Mexico, a practice documented repeatedly by Kino Border Initiative (KBI), an organization providing shelter and aid to asylum seekers and advocating for their rights.

Photo by Stephanie Brewer 

As daily arrivals increase, humanitarian aid organizations provide basic services to asylum seekers in the borderlands, who wait anywhere from hours to days in remote wilderness areas before being picked up by authorities.


By severely limiting people’s ability to ask for protection at ports of entry or imposing arbitrary hurdles for making a claim once in U.S. custody, current practices push asylum seekers towards remote desert areas or force them to make repeated crossings. This places the lives of some of the hemisphere’s most vulnerable people in grave danger.

Far from doubling down on this destructive cycle, the U.S. government must redirect its efforts.  Prioritizing increased capacity at ports of entry and investing in the asylum case system could allow faster asylum determinations while upholding due process.

Families forced to make the painful choice to flee their homes have already lived through dangers no human being should have to endure. Their arrival at the U.S. border should mean being treated with dignity and fairness, reflecting the values of compassion and justice that should define our response to those seeking refuge.

Source : Wola