On both sides of border, migrants, faith leaders and immigration advocates protest to save asylum

Clara Migoya
Arizona Republic

NOGALES, Sonora — Nearly 400 people assembled at the Plaza Miguel Hidalgo downtown and marched toward the U.S. port of entry to demand the restoration of asylum and an end to a rule that quickly expels illegal border-crossers under a public health justification.

Childrens' voices reverberated among the chants: "President Biden, Save Asylum." Families pushing strollers or holding babies on their arms, carrying backpacks, water bottles, umbrellas and banners crowded Calle Internacional and then stopped by the 60-foot steel border wall.

On the other side, about 100 people stood in solidarity.

"It's a political act in the large sense, but it is first and foremost a humanitarian action," said Bishop Edward Joseph Weisenburger, who came from the Catholic Diocese of Tucson to accompany migrant families.

Faith leaders from all parts of the country flew in to support the protest: Sisters of St. Joseph from Detroit, members of Dolores Mission Church from Los Angeles, as well as faith leaders from Chicago and Washington. Nuns from San Miguel Catholic High School and the leadership of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Tucson also attended.

Migrant women staying at the San Juan Bosco shelter walk in protest demanding respect for their right to asylum on Sept. 25, 2021, in Nogales, Sonora.

The protest, called the Restore Protections for Holy Families March, was the initiative of the hundreds of migrant families stranded in Nogales' shelters and was organized by Kino Border Initiative and the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.

Ultimately, the goal is to increase empathy and transform how we treat those who seek protection, said Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, a nonprofit that provides social justice education and has worked with Kino Border Initiative for a number of years.

"It's not only a border issue, it's emblematic of how we treat people in the interior," he said.

Asking for asylum in the pandemic

The asylum system has been broken for a long time, but changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted it even more, says Alba Jaramillo, executive director of Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides free legal services for asylum seekers.

Title 42 of the U.S. Code allows the rapid deportation of all unauthorized border-crossers, including asylum seekers and even unaccompanied children. It comes from a 1994 public health act and allows the U.S. government to block the partial or total "introduction" of people from a foreign country who pose a risk of introducing disease.

These emergency powers were used by the former Trump administration in March 2020 to close the border and allow the Department of Homeland Security to immediately return migrants crossing the border with no due process.

"The fact is that under international and national law, asylum seekers should be able to walk up to the border and ask for asylum," Jaramillo said.

Migrant families with an asylum claim cannot approach agents at the port of entry, which is closed to anything but "essential travel."

Families walk by the U.S.-Mexico border fence during a protest advocating for asylum seekers on Sept. 25, 2021, in Nogales, Sonora.

If they attempt to cross in one of the gaps at the U.S.-Mexico border and turn themselves in to agents, they are usually dismissed and expelled swiftly without due procedure through Title 42.

The public health order seems nonsensical, advocates at the march said, given that U.S. citizens can make leisure trips to Sonora's beaches and come back without COVID-19 tests or quarantine requirements. Someone living in Sonora can also enter the U.S. by air travel — which is back to pre-pandemic levels  — but cannot do so through land ports.

Overall, the U.S. is failing its domestic and international obligation to protect those fleeing violence and persecution, advocates and legal organizations said.

Until Title 42 is rescinded or travel restrictions are lifted, there is no way for families to request asylum.

The long-term goal

The protest was held in anticipation for the Vatican's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, celebrated Sunday, and will have echo actions in Washington, D.C., and Chicago in coming days.

It is the ninth march organized by Kino Border Initiative since last year.

At the wall, using speakers and megaphones, migrants and shelter organizers read testimonies in Spanish and English. Families wearing white shirts that read "Save Asylum" stood under the afternoon drizzle looking up to the wall, where speakers stood.

A crowd of migrant families, immigration advocates and faith leaders stand in protest Sept. 25, 2021, in Nogales, Sonora, demanding the restoration of asylum processes at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Then faith leaders gave the group blessings. After that, 26 migrant families attempted to present their asylum claims at the Dennis DeConcini port of entry. It was the fourth time an action of this kind was attempted after a demonstration.

The crowd funneled through a narrow street and made its way to the port of entry turnstiles. The first family, a group of four kids, a baby and two adults, approached the port of entry accompanied by the Kino Border Initiative executive director and Bishop Weisenburger. 

A few minutes later they came back, the oldest kid with tears in his eyes, the adults disheartened.

Customs and Border Protection agents turned them away and then closed the whole pedestrian port of entry, pulling down the metal screen. After the family walked away, Mexican guards blocked the entrance to the corridor on the Mexican side, too.

Shoulders slumped, the family joined the crowd, who silently clapped and then chanted a hymn. Red balloons went up to the sky.

CBP agents reopened the gates about an hour after and migrant families, joined by faith leaders and volunteers acting as legal observers, made a second try. Chelsea Sachau, an attorney with the Florence Project, said the families' pleas fell on "deaf ears," and they were all turned away.

"The point of the migrants self-organizing to stand up for their rights to request asylum was to make themselves visible, and I think they achieved that today," she said.

Noah Schramm, a project coordinator with the Florence Project, said the "horrific" images of the treatment of Haitian migrants at Del Rio has created a momentum that could lead many to realize this desperate situation is shared by too many.

“There have been many groups agitating for the Biden administration to rethink its policies for asylum seeking," Schramm said.

“I hope this is a final wake-up call to both the administration officials and the general public that there are real families in real danger that are here and in need of protection.”

Have news tips or story ideas about the Arizona-Sonora borderlands? Reach the reporter at cmigoya@arizonarepublic.com or send a direct message in Twitter to @ClaraMigoya.