TIJUANA – The day that President Joe Biden's administration ended a public health measure blocking many asylum-seekers at the Mexican border during the coronavirus pandemic, Teodoso Vargas was ready to show U.S. officials his scars and photos of his bullet-riddled body.
Instead, he stood frozen with his pregnant wife and 5-year-old son at a Tijuana crossing, feet from U.S. soil.
He was unsure of the new rules rolled out with the change and whether taking the next few steps to approach U.S. officials to ask for asylum in person could force a return to his native Honduras.
“I can’t go back to my country,” said Vargas, a long scar snaking down his neck from surgery after being shot nine times in his homeland during a robbery. “Fear is why I don’t want to return. If I can just show the proof I have, I believe the U.S. will let me in.”
Asylum-seekers say joy over the end of the public health restriction known as Title 42 this month is turning into anguish with the uncertainty about how the Biden administration's new rules affect them.
Though the government opened some new avenues for immigration, the fate of many people is largely left to a U.S. government app only used for scheduling an appointment at a port of entry and unable to decipher human suffering or weigh the vulnerability of applicants.
The CBP One app is a key tool in creating a more efficient and orderly system at the border “while cutting out unscrupulous smugglers who profit from vulnerable migrants,” the Department of Homeland Security said in an email to The Associated Press.
As a Honduran man, Vargas does not qualify for many of the legal pathways the Biden administration has introduced. One program gives up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans a month a shot at humanitarian parole if they apply online, have a financial sponsor in the U.S. and arrive by air. Minors traveling alone also are exempt from the rules.
Migrants who do not follow the rules, the government has said, could be deported back to their homelands and barred from seeking asylum for five years.
Vargas said he decided not to risk it. He has been logging onto the app each day at 9 a.m. for the past three months from his rented room in a crime-riddled Tijuana neighborhood.
His experience is shared by tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers in Mexican border towns.
Immigration lawyer Blaine Bookey said for many on the border “there seems to be no option right now for people to ask for asylum if they don’t have an appointment through the CBP app."
The government said it doesn’t turn away asylum-seekers but prioritizes people who use the app.
Bookey's group, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, is one of the lead plaintiffs, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, challenging some of the new rules in federal court in San Francisco, including a requirement that people first apply for asylum in a country they crossed on the way to the U.S. They are asking the court to allow an asylum request by anyone on U.S. soil.
Texas Republican lawmakers also have sued. Among other things, they argue the CBP One app encourages illegal immigration by dispensing appointments without properly vetting whether applicants have a legal basis to stay.
More than 79,000 people were admitted under CBP One from its Jan. 12 launch through the end of April. From May 12 to May 19, an average of 1,070 people per day presented themselves at the ports of entry after securing an appointment on the app, the government stated. It did not provide updated figures but said the numbers should grow as the initiative is scaled up.
The administration also has highlighted improvements made in recent weeks. The app can prioritize those who have been trying the longest. Appointments are opened online throughout the day to avoid system overload. People with acute medical conditions or facing imminent threats of murder, rape, kidnapping or other “exceptionally compelling circumstances" can request priority status, but only in person at a port of entry. The app does not allow input of case details.
Still, some asylum-seekers claim to have been turned away at crossings while making requests, lawyers say.
Koral Rivera, who is from Mexico and eight months pregnant, said she has been trying to obtain an appointment through the app for two months. She recently went to a Texas crossing to present her case to U.S. officials, but said Mexican immigration agents in Matamoros blocked her and her husband.
"They tell us to try to get an appointment through the app," said Rivera, whose family has been threatened by drug cartel members.
Priscilla Orta, an immigration attorney with Lawyers for Good Government in Brownsville, Texas, said one Honduran woman in the Mexican border city of Reynosa said a man whom she accuses of raping her tracked her down though her phone, which she was using to secure an appointment.
The woman was raped again, said Orta, who has not been able to reach her since.
“That is harrowing to realize that you’re just going to have to put up with the abuses in Mexico and just kind of continue to take it because if you don’t, then you could forever hurt yourself in the long term," the lawyer said.
Orta said she previously could ask U.S. border officials at crossings to prioritize children with cancer, victims of torture and members of the LGBTQ community, and usually they would schedule a meeting. But local officials informed her they no longer have guidance from Washington.
“They do not know what to do with these most extremely vulnerable people," Orta said, adding that migrants face tough questions. "Do you risk never qualifying for asylum? Or do you try to wait for an appointment despite the danger?”
Vargas, a farmer, has no doubt he could prove he and his family fled Honduras out of fear, the first requirement for U.S. entry to start the yearslong legal process for safe refuge. His iPhone is filled with photos of him lying in a hospital bed, tubes snaking out, his swollen face covered in bandages. He has knots of scar tissue on each side of his head from a bullet passing through his right check and exiting the left side of his head. Similar scar tissue dots his back and side.
His spirits were up after Title 42 expired and fellow asylum-seekers at a Tijuana shelter left with appointments. Two weeks later, he was dismayed.
“I can't find enough work here. I'm either going to have to return to Honduras, but I'll likely be killed, or I don't know,” he said. “I feel so hopeless.”
Salomon reported from Miami.