Desperate and bewildered, migrants stuck at US gates as Title 42 ends

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo river to turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents before the lifting of Title 42, as seen from Matamoros, Mexico 11 May, 2023AFP

Hundreds of migrants from around the world seeking a better life in the United States have instead found themselves trapped in squalid conditions near the Mexican border, tantalizingly close to their destination, and desperate.

On the eve of the expiration of Title 42, the Covid-era provision blocking most asylum-seekers from seeking legal entry into the United States, hundreds of migrants have camped out at the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego.

Some of them have been stuck for nearly a week, hoping to turn themselves in to US Customs and Border Protection officials, but instead are waiting in the open air, stuck in a legal limbo.

“We are very tired and hungry and I have been here for six days,” said Pham Thanh, 28, of Vietnam, speaking through the bollards of a 30-foot (10-meter) border barrier.

“President Biden, I’m asking to save us, please,” he said.

Confusion reigns among the migrants - though the expiration of Title 42 once might have offered a better chance for asylum, new rules taking its place will deny asylum to almost all migrants who cross illegally, forcing them to decide whether they have a better shot at life in the U.S. by crossing now or later.

The estimated 400 migrants come from around the world. Reuters spoke to people from Vietnam, Afghanistan and Colombia on Thursday. They are camped out in US territory on a strip of land between two imposing border walls.

The southern wall marks the official US-Mexican border and is relatively easy to traverse. There are some gaps or places where it is easy to climb. The second, northern wall - 30 feet (10 meters) tall in many places - hems them in. Many would like to enter the United States and turn themselves in to seek asylum.

Customs and Border Protection officials did not immediately respond to a Reuters request to explain how they are handling these migrants.

Border Patrol agents have organized them into groups, prioritizing those who arrived first and women traveling with children, according to Reuters witnesses. Each is given a color-coded wrist band - a sort of time stamp to mark their place in line.

The highest priority group is occasionally called away for processing. Agents take pictures of their faces and passports.

‘Left here for a week’

“I wasn’t that well informed. I thought that coming here, asking the country for help, we would be received with open arms. I didn’t think we’d be left here for a week, in the cold and rain and with very little food,” said Luisa Fernanda Herrera Sierra, 22, of Colombia.

On the north side of the second wall, helmeted Border Patrol agents zip about on four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles. When they are present, aid groups stand back. But when they leave, aid workers distribute food and water through the bollards in the wall, again prioritizing women with children.

Beyond food and water, another lifeline volunteers provide is the charging of cell phones, so that migrants can communicate with loved ones back home.

Hashmutallah Habibi, 26, of Afghanistan, said he set out for the United States because “we cannot sit at home and wait for good things to happen in our country.”

But he never expected to get stuck at the foot of a dusty ravine, without a shower or clean clothes for six days, with a sick sister.

“I’m just hoping and praying that today they take us in because if they don’t take us then my future and my family future is dark because we escaped from dark place,” Habibi said.

Many of the migrants know they have a difficult road ahead, as many if not most or all have not applied for asylum in another country before arriving here.

Fabian Camilo Hernandez, 26, of Colombia, who is traveling with his wife and 22-month-old baby, said he would not have set out on the journey had he known what was to lie ahead.

“It’s hard to see him crying, not sleeping well,” Hernandez said. “I don’t want to think about what might happen. I just hope they let us in.”