Sitting comfortably in a folding chair in the front row among dozens of asylum seekers waiting to take a COVID-19 diagnostic test in Arizona, Gloria Estela Vallora enjoyed the benefits of her Colombian passport.
She and eight of her relatives, from 4 to 63 years old, flew to Cancun and spent two nights in the paradisiacal tourist destination. Then they took another flight to the border of Mexico with U.SThey walked 20 minutes to US border agents and spent a night in detention. Within hours, they were with a family friend in Utah.
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For Colombians and migrants from other countries that do not require a visa to enter Mexico, a flight to Mexican territory can become your ticket to an asylum application in Mexico. U.S. Once they reach a Mexican border town, they can walk across the border in broad daylight and turn themselves in to federal agents. By doing so, they avoid the risks of traversing Mexico and other countries by land and avoid the US government’s strict asylum restrictions.
U.S has expelled migrants more than 1.5 million times under a public health order that has been in place since March 2020 to combat the coronavirus pandemic, but this measure has not been applied across the border.
Mexico accepts back its migrants and those from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under the measure, known as Title 42. Migrants of other nationalities are eligible for deportation, but generally U.S it does not expel them by air due to expenses or due to the distance in diplomatic relations with their countries of origin, as in the case of Cuba and Venezuela. Instead, they are quickly released on US soil to continue their asylum process.
The most benefited are Colombian migrants and those from other nations who can enter Mexico without the need for a visa, allowing them to reach the border with U.S and walk to the other side.
“With my weight, it is not as easy to move as before”, joked Vallora, 59, who fled the violence in the city of Bucaramanga. She was interviewed at a warehouse outside Yuma, Arizona, where medical services personnel test migrants for COVID-19 before they are bused to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Under pressure from U.S, Mexico has expanded its visa requirements to more countries, delaying or possibly eliminating the option of flying to the border. Your only alternative may be to travel illegally by land.
Last year, Mexico began requiring visas for citizens of Brazil and Ecuador and, as of January 21, also for Venezuela. The Ministry of the Interior (Interior) said that the most recent measure is in response to the tenfold increase in the number of Venezuelans who travel irregularly to a third country, evidently referring to the United States.
In December, US authorities detained Venezuelan migrants nearly 25,000 times at the border, more than double the September count and almost 200 times the number from the same period a year earlier. Venezuelans represented the second nationality with the most encounters on the southern border of U.S during the month of December, only behind the Mexicans.
In a WhatsApp group named “Venezuelans to U.S”, users constantly ask how to obtain a Mexican visa and which are the consulates that grant the closest appointments. Some users offer help in exchange for payment, while others warn of potential scams.
A WhatsApp message dated January 23 advertises a guide on a flight to the city of Mexicali, Mexico, and across the border for $1,800, including food and lodging. He adds that the Mexican authorities will confiscate their passports at the airport and return them to them for $100.
Groups of between 75 and 125 migrants gathered at dawn for several days this month in front of a hole in the border wall near Yuma, the Border Patrol sector where more than 30% of Venezuelans were detained during December. There were practically no Venezuelans, neither Mexicans nor Central Americans. The groups were mostly made up of Colombians, Cubans, Indians, Haitians and Russians.
Venezuelans who continue to be released in U.S They claim they entered Mexico before the visa requirement came into force and condemned the measure.
“It’s a journey”, said Daniel Sandrea, who flew to Mexico on January 19 accompanied by his 13-year-old son and plans to settle in Chicago with a friend.
Sandrea, 42, said she fled Venezuela because, as a police officer in the city of Mérida, she could no longer obey orders to threaten and harass opponents of President Nicolás Maduro. “We fled from a dictatorship”he said as he waited for a bus to Phoenix from the warehouse of the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, a sunny Yuma suburb of 14,000 people.
During the month of December, authorities detained Colombians, most of them well off, 4,100 times, compared to just 73 the year before.
Alejandro Pizza, 34, arrived this month with 16 members of his family after deciding his business selling imported farm equipment in Bogotá could not survive threats of extortion. They vacationed for four days on the beaches of Cancún before catching a flight to Mexicali, where they hired four Uber drivers to take them to the hole in the border wall in Yuma.
Flights typically arrive after 10 p.m. in Mexicali, where migrants find a hotel before boarding a bus or taxi for the hour-long drive to Los Algodones, a town to the east packed with of dentists and ophthalmologists who serve Americans and Canadians who spend their winters in Mexico.
From that point, they walk about 10 minutes on a concrete ledge of the Morelos Dam towards the border agents in Yuma. Others take a slightly longer hike to another access further south. The two points are connected by an unpaved road, which has the border wall on one side and date palms and irrigation canals for plots of lettuce, herbs and other crops on the other.
Among the migrants who pack the vans for a brief stay in a Border Patrol tent are many from countries with visa requirements, and who travel clandestinely overland until they reach the border. Cubans usually begin their journey in Nicaragua, the closest country to U.S where they can fly.
The situation of the Haitians is even worse. Love Bre, who came by bus and on foot from Chile, made the mistake of allowing a Mexican to guide him, his wife and his daughter over a hill and through the dam into Yuma.
“He even stole my watch”, Bre, 35, said as he held his wrist as he entered the warehouse in Somerton to undergo a COVID-19 diagnostic test and board the bus to the Phoenix airport. The thief also took $180 from them.
US authorities have taken some 15,000 migrants to the Regional Center for Border Health since February of last year, said Amanda Aguirre, executive director of the medical services company. About 90% are soon placed on the bus to the Phoenix airport, while the rest are transferred to shelters.
It’s too early to tell whether travel restrictions will stop Venezuelans, and that could depend on how easily Mexico issues visas.
U.S it does not even recognize the Maduro government in Venezuela, which makes flights virtually impossible. Last month, U.S began deporting Venezuelans to Colombia without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum, and said it would continue to do so “regular form”.
Karla Macaveo, 28, arrived in the City of Mexico from Venezuela six days before the visa requirement came into force. She flew to Mexicali, took a taxi to the border crossing into Yuma, and planned to fly to Delaware. This doesn’t compare to making the trip overland.
“It was much easier”, he said smiling as he waited to board one of the four buses that departed for the Phoenix airport that day.
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