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Migrant advocates criticize Biden administration's proposal to limit asylum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to get some additional perspective about this proposed rule change. As we just heard, one of the elements is to get asylum-seekers to seek protection in another country they've passed through on their journey. More often than not, that country is Mexico. So let's talk to James Fredrick, a reporter in Mexico City who's been following the story on his end. James, thanks so much for joining us.

JAMES FREDRICK: It's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So we just heard from a U.S. lawmaker, a conservative Democrat, who supports this rule change. And we know that a lot of U.S. pro-immigration and civil rights advocates are very much against it. What has the response been so far in Mexico?

FREDRICK: Well, from the Mexican government, there hasn't been an official statement yet. This isn't a surprise. The rule, as we know, is months away from when it could even take place. So we'll wait to hear on that. But as you say, advocates both in the U.S. and here in Mexico have been pretty outspoken against this. Everyone I spoke to has been against it. Here's what Dan Berlin from the International Rescue Committee said about it.

DAN BERLIN: Yeah, we were quite disappointed when the notice of the proposed rule came out. We believe that this proposal does not reflect the values that have been expressed by the U.S. government regarding asylum-seekers and refugees and will result in a lot of people being excluded from international protection.

MARTIN: Can you just tell me more about why migrants would not want to request asylum in a country like Mexico?

FREDRICK: Well, the first answer to that is that many do. Last year, Mexico got almost 120,000 asylum requests. Most of those came from people from Central America. But Mexico's refugee agency is severely underfunded and understaffed, and there really is not the same kind of infrastructure in Mexico to support asylum-seekers like there is in the U.S. The other issue, of course, is that Mexico is not safe for everyone. I spoke to a Honduran asylum-seeker yesterday who's in Ciudad Juarez with her 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. They fled Honduras because she had been threatened by a gang - she and her son - and that's why they want to seek asylum in the United States. That's also the reason she asked us not to use her name on air, and here's what she said about being in Mexico right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says things are really difficult in Ciudad Juarez, that it's really dangerous. Shelters are full. Many migrants just have to live on the streets. She says they feel very unsafe in Mexico and would not want to request asylum there. But these new limits on asylum would trap more people like her in places like Juarez, Tijuana, Reynosa, and organized crime really takes advantage of people in these uncertain situations.

MARTIN: Another element of this new proposed rule is that would-be migrants would have to announce their intention to seek asylum using an app which came out last month. Can you tell us, are you hearing anything about this app?

FREDRICK: Everyone you talk to on the Mexican side of the border will talk to you about this app. It's called CBP One. It's like any other app. You go to the Apple Store or the Google Play store and download it, and it's how you book an appointment, essentially, to request asylum. And let's listen to that Honduran asylum-seeker again, who knows this app very well by now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says the first thing she does every morning is log on to the app to try to book an appointment. She's done this every single morning for more than a month for appointments that are opened about two weeks ahead of time. The problem is that she can sometimes get an appointment for one person, but she's not alone. She's with her two children. And every time she tries to book an appointment for three people, she gets an error message. I've heard complaints from everyone I've spoken to who's used the app.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what else are you hearing from the advocates in Mexico that you've been speaking with?

FREDRICK: Well, a big thing I heard was the timing of this announcement. President Biden was in Europe, and he spoke in Poland and specifically praised the Polish people for how welcoming they have been to Ukrainian refugees, and they felt like the timing of this proposal was a slap in the face. The idea behind the rule is that the U.S. doesn't have enough capacity for all of these asylum-seekers. But Nicole Ramos from the immigrant legal aid group Al Otro Lado in Tijuana doesn't think that's true.

NICOLE RAMOS: We see how quickly the U.S. government can act when we see how it responded to the arrival of 30,000 Ukrainians to the San Diego-Tijuana border last year.

FREDRICK: She says, when the government ramped up to receive these Ukrainians, they were able to process about a thousand people a day. Few of them were detained, families weren't split up, and so she feels like the Biden administration is just choosing not to do the same thing with many nationalities.

MARTIN: That's reporter James Fredrick in Mexico City. James, thank you so much.

FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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