Tired and confused, first migrants reach California border after Biden's asylum order

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Shortly after President Biden’s executive order to restrict asylum access took effect late Tuesday, 50 migrants completed a nine-hour trek through the mountains just north of Tecate, Mexico.

They lined up single file against the brush, in a dusty clearing steps from Highway 94, and waited for Border Patrol agents to pick them up. The migrants, a group including men, women and children from Cuba, Ecuador, China and Brazil, were exhausted, nearly out of food and water.

Many hadn’t heard of the order, which raises the legal standard for asylum claims and blocks access for those crossing the border illegally when average arrests are higher than 2,500 a day.

Lucas Lu, 32, did know about it and worried he had arrived too late to seek asylum. The rule goes against American values, he said.

“It’s not fair,” he said, sitting with his legs crossed in the dirt. “We risked our lives to get here.”

The Chinese former hotel manager had a back brace wrapped around his T-shirt and leaned on a walking stick. He said he had sustained a spinal injury while traveling by boat in Panama. Getting to the southern border had taken him three months.

Lu said he was fleeing authoritarian repression in search of safety, dignity and the ability to speak freely without the threat of jail.

Just past 11 p.m. three sprinter vans and five other vehicles pulled up to the site.

Gracias a Dios,” one woman exclaimed in the dark. “Thank God.”

The agents brought out trash bags and told the migrants to dump their food and water. One picked up Lu’s walking stick and hurled it into the brush.

“None of this, OK?” he said.

They patted migrants down and loaded them into the vans. An additional 45 migrants were coming down the hill, one agent said, plus groups of 40 and 90 in other areas.

Before and after the order took effect at 9 p.m. Pacific time, the night appeared relatively quiet overall, with many of the crossing sites east of San Diego deserted.

After migrant arrivals rose, making San Diego the top sector across the border, arrests dipped again in recent weeks.

But the daily average of arrests between official ports of entry remains above the 2,500 threshold.

During a call with reporters Wednesday, a senior Department of Homeland Security official said the day started with just over 9,000 people in custody who were arrested before the order took effect — on par with average figures over the last month. The agency didn’t see a significant increase in arrivals of migrants trying to beat the deadline.

Since then, migrants have been removed pursuant to the order, the official said, declining to provide figures. The agency is ramping up efforts to maximize the impact of the order in the coming weeks.

Migrants from Mexico can be quickly returned, and the Mexican government previously agreed to accept some migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba. The official acknowledged it will remain challenging to remove migrants from other countries, such as China, that don’t regularly accept deportation flights.

In Tijuana, Jose Garcia Lara, director of the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter, worries the executive order could cause a crisis as migrants become bottlenecked in northern Mexico.

The shelter, which has capacity for 200 people, had seen about 60 people daily, Garcia Lara said. In recent days, that number had gone up to 100.

Garcia Lara said the shelter numbers tend to be low when more people choose to cross the border illegally. Shelter residents are those waiting for an appointment with border agents through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection phone app, which is glitchy and slow.

He remembers the arrivals of Haitians in 2016, the caravans of Central Americans after that, the way the pandemic-era border rule kept migrants out of the U.S. and crowded in Mexican shelters.

Recently, migrants have shown up not just from the Western Hemisphere but from all over the world — and they’ll keep coming, he said. “We’re used to it,” he said. “What we’ll do is receive them.”

Rosario de Leon, 38, from Mexico’s Chiapas state and her wife, Gracia Cortez, 27, from El Salvador have waited two months for an appointment. They said they had faced discrimination as a gay couple, including in Tijuana, and fled gang extortion.

Cortez said the new rule is fair. Hopefully, it means more appointments could open up through the app, she said.

“It’s not fair that someone enters irregularly while others are following the rules,” she said. “We all need to be patient.”

Across the border at a trolley station in San Ysidro, Mariela Diaz, 28, waited Tuesday afternoon for her husband to be released from federal custody.

Diaz, from Colombia, charged her phone and caught up on the news of the executive order.

“I’m an immigrant, but it’s also something that is getting out of control,” she said. “I understand the president’s decision.”

She was relieved she arrived before the order took effect. Still, she felt for those who would arrive too late.

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