A family with a baby, waiting outside in the cold overnight. A pregnant woman, enduring the elements for multiple days. An Afghan who worked for the U.S. Army as a translator, hoping for food and water. Asylum seekers who traveled from as far as Africa and Asia, looking for protection.
These are some of the approximately 150 migrants who said they had been waiting five days or longer for help from U.S. Border Patrol, after they had already crossed into U.S. territory but were being held between the border walls near San Diego.
Recent reports that Border Patrol, a subagency of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), was keeping a large group of migrants between border walls for days without providing shelter, food, or sufficient water highlight the dangers and abuse asylum seekers face at the border – even once they have entered the United States.
Individuals told reporters that some members of the group had been waiting between the layers of the border wall near the San Ysidro port of entry for Border Patrol to process them for an entire week and were very sick. They expressed fear that with the rain and prolonged exposure to the elements, someone could soon die.
U.S. officers were clearly aware of the group and the appalling conditions it faced. The journalists witnessed U.S. agents in vans and ATVs driving by the group several times. When officers finally did stop, migrants quickly approached seeking help – but only a few dozen were allowed to pass through a gate in the second wall at a time. In one instance, Border Patrol agents in SUVs and on ATVs stopped people trying to leave the area through an opening in the wall and “herded” them back in.
Throughout this ordeal, Border Patrol agents gave migrants a single cooler of water for over 100 people. It was supposed to last them 24 hours. The only food provided was passed through the Mexico side of wall from a Mexican church. A volunteer on the U.S. side tried to bring the group blankets and rain gear, despites threats from Border Patrol.
Is this legally allowed?
CBP is bound by detention standards that require the agency to make “every effort” to transport and process people in its custody in the “least amount of time” possible. The standards list 72 hours as the maximum time for migrants to remain in CBP facilities. The guidelines also require the provision of drinking water and food at regular intervals. It is not clear what authority CBP is relying on to hold people in the open air between the border walls.
In the only statement the agency appears to have made about this horrific situation, Border Patrol told one media source that it didn’t have enough space at its stations in the San Diego area to process additional migrants.
Is this an isolated incident?
Unfortunately, no. The reports emphasized that observers and non-profits working along the San Diego-Tijuana border have witnessed similar treatment of groups of asylum seekers since late last year. Reports of this practice have been circulating for months, and is likely to “keep happening.”
Endangering people’s lives now seems to be part and parcel of U.S. border policy. These policies range from sending asylum seekers back to harmful conditions in Mexico under Title 42 to practices – officially sanctioned or not – that have directly caused people to die.
For example, just since March, Border Patrol agents have shot and killed two people, one of whom appeared unarmed and the other who struck an agent with a “wooden club” after repeatedly trying to walk away. Earlier this month, humanitarian volunteers who leave water, food, and first aid materials along trails to try to prevent migrant deaths near San Diego allege that Border Patrol agents have destroyed some of the supplies. Medical professionals working along the border describe a dramatic increase in severe injuries caused by falls from higher border walls – leading to catastrophic, life-altering consequences for migrants and their families.
Last year was the deadliest year on record for migrants trying to cross the border. For the approximately 150 people that Border Patrol kept waiting between the border walls for days, a similar fate likely felt perilously possible. The Biden administration must leave behind ineffective deterrence-based policies that cause incalculable harm to the most vulnerable. The protection of human life and the most basic of human rights shouldn’t be too much to ask of the U.S. government.
Suchi Mathur is a Senior Litigation Attorney with the American Immigration Council, where she works to protect the rights of noncitizens through affirmative litigation and practice advisories for immigration attorneys.
ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council.