YUMA, Ariz. - Migrants who entered the U.S. illegally under moonlit skies and waist-deep cold water Friday were devastated to learn they may be sent back to Mexico under expanded limits on the pursuit of asylum.
About 200 migrants who walked in the dark for about an hour to surrender to Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona, included many Cubans — who were stunned to hear that a ban on asylum that previously fell largely on other nationalities now applies just as much to them. Several were political dissidents of the Cuban government who were driven to leave by longstanding fears of incarceration and persecution and a new sense of economic desperation.
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans will be expelled to Mexico if they enter the U.S. illegally, effective immediately. At the same time, he offered humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 people a month from those four countries if they apply online, pay for their airfare and find a financial sponsor.
Mario Enrique Perez, 32, said he would rather be incarcerated in the U.S. than be returned to Mexico, where, he said, he and his wife endured many slights and poor treatment during a two-month journey across the country. They frequently had to get off buses to avoid shakedowns at government checkpoints, slowing their pace.
A view of the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on January 19, 2018. The Mexican government reaffirmed on January 18, 2018 that they will not pay for US President Donald Trump's controversial
The vast majority of Cubans reach the U.S. by flying to Nicaragua as tourists and make their way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Perez said they trade information "like ants" about which routes are safest and easiest, which is why he picked Yuma.
Nelliy Jimenez, 50, said she rode horses on her three-month journey through Mexico to avoid shakedowns at government checkpoints. Her son, whom she described as an active dissident, fled to Spain years ago. She held out in Cuba despite links to her son — even getting jailed during the July 2021 protests — but held out until economic desperation forced her to sell her convenience store in the city of Cienfuegos to finance her trip to the United States.
She hopes to settle with relatives in Nebraska.
"I did not see this coming," Jimenez said of the new limits on asylum.
Niurka Avila, 53, said the Cuban government surveils her and her husband, who are known dissidents. She spoke with disgust of Cuban officials, saying she couldn’t bring herself to wear traditional guayabera dress because they do. They "appropriated" it, she said.
Avila, a nurse in Cuba, said that Mexico was not an attractive option and that she and her husband hope to join family in Florida.
"(Mexico) is a violent place, and our family is here," she said.
The new rules expand on an existing effort to stop Venezuelans attempting to enter the U.S., which began in October and led to a dramatic drop in Venezuelans coming to the southern border. Together, they represent a major change to immigration rules that will stand even if the Supreme Court ends a Trump-era public health law that allows U.S. authorities to turn away asylum-seekers.
"Do not, do not just show up at the border," Biden said as he announced the changes, even as he acknowledged the hardships that lead many families to make the dangerous journey north.
"Stay where you are and apply legally from there," he advised.
Biden made the announcement just days before a planned visit to El Paso, Texas, on Sunday for his first trip to the southern border as president. From there, he will travel on to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants have been denied a chance to seek asylum 2.5 million times since March 2020 under Title 42 restrictions, introduced as an emergency health measure by former President Donald Trump to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But there always has been criticism that the restrictions were used as a pretext by the Republican to seal off the border.
Biden moved to end the Title 42 restrictions, and Republicans sued to keep them. The U.S. Supreme Court has kept the rules in place for now. White House officials say they still believe the restrictions should end, but they maintain they can continue to turn away migrants under immigration law.
On Friday, spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov of UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, welcomed the expansion of safe and regular pathways that will now be available to an "unprecedented number" of people trying to enter the United States, but said the agency also wants more details about how the new process will be implemented.
"These are quite significant and multifaceted announcements," he told reporters in Geneva at a regular U.N. briefing. "We’re analyzing what has been announced and especially the impact that these measures may have — including on the situation and the thousands of people that are already on the move."
Cheshirkov reiterated the U.N. agency's long-running concerns about the use of Title 42 because of the risk that many people may get sent back to Mexico "without considerations of the dangers that they fled and the risks and hardships that many of them may then face."
"What we’re reiterating is that this is not in line with the refugee law standards," he added. "Seeking asylum is a fundamental human right."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Colleen Long, Zeke Miller and Rebecca Santana in Washington; and Gisela Salomon in Miami.