As the number of immigrants arriving at the southern border remains on pace to be the biggest in two decades, asylum seekers who’ve arrived in the tri-state area over the past couple of years know the migration system isn’t working.
“It’s a difficult time for the kids at this moment,” said Pastor Fabian Arias of Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan; he helps asylum seekers as their cases play out in court. “We have a disaster at the border.”
Diego Rodriguez arrived as an unaccompanied minor back in December of 2018. He currently lives in the Bronx after being released from an ice detention facility two weeks ago where he was held for about 30 months.
“It’s not easy over there,” Rodriguez said, speaking of gang violence and economic struggles.
He told PIX 11 it took him 15 days to make the journey from his native Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border. He fled Guatemala due to extreme poverty and because of the threat of violent gangs.
In the summer of 2019, PIX11 traveled to the northern triangle region of Central America where our team saw firsthand how gang violence, poverty and climate change are driving people out of their home countries.
“There is a sense of desperation that these families will not survive in their home countries,” said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.
The number of immigrants at the border seeking asylum has skyrocketed 172,000 in March alone — compared to the last surge in March of 2019 when 103,000 were processed by Customs and Border Patrol; last year, at the height of the pandemic, only 34,000 migrants were processed.
About six in 10 immigrants are expelled under Title 42, an emergency order still in effect from the Trump administration. It allows the U.S. government to expel immigrants due to the pandemic.
President Joe Biden has added an exemption for unaccompanied minors, so that no child without a guardian is turned away.
Joshi said the goal of the exemption is to identify family and adults, do a cursory background check and reunite them with the child.
But still, Joshi said she believes Title 42 should be reversed in its totality to allow family units to also remain in the U.S.
“Many people who are coming to our southern border are being turned away. It’s really shameful it’s morally wrong,” she said. “These are people just trying to take care of their families and that’s how we should treat them.”
Inside a home in Hudson County, New Jersey, there are about a dozen asylum seekers living together as they work to get on their feet.
They’ve all risked their lives to cross the border from their homeland in search of the American dream.
One asylum seeker from Honduras said his two younger brothers were killed by gang members after they refused to join MS-13. (We aren’t using his name, as he said death threats are still being made against him and his family.)
“You can’t go to the police because anything you tell the police gets back to the gang members,” he said in Spanish.
He said his younger brothers, ages 20 and 27, were gunned down in front of their church after refusing to work for MS-13; their own mother witnessed the shooting.
Cristian Gomez came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor during his journey from Honduras, but not by choice — Gomez was kidnapped.
“They threatened to kill us in Mexico; they took all our money then left us in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
Gomez — now under the supervision of Arias — is fighting to remain in the states.
The pandemic has exacerbated inequities across Latin America: the desperation was depicted in a video of two toddlers from Ecuador who were tossed over a border wall alone.
The two children are expected to be reunited with their parents in Ossining, New York.
Arias said more needs to be done.
“This country has space,” he said. “I think we need to feel more compassion, more love [and] open our arms to welcome these people.”