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Border Crossings, Expulsions Surge During Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to head now to the U.S.-Mexico border, which remains largely closed to migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the number of illegal border crossings is way up and so are expulsions. As Alisa Reznick of Arizona Public Media reports, migrants are desperate to escape conditions in desolate Mexican border towns.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Roberto was terrified of crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.

ROBERTO: (Through interpreter) Yes, I was very afraid. I heard many people die in that desert because of dehydration and because they were bitten by a snake.

REZNICK: Roberto fled gang violence in El Salvador to find a new life with an uncle in the U.S. He asked that we not use his last name because he fears for his life. Twice, he crossed the border, illegally, and twice he got caught. U.S. Border Patrol agents immediately sent him back to Sasabe in Mexico under pandemic-era protocols that allow agents to rapidly expel most migrants with no due process. Gail Kocourek with the humanitarian aid group Tucson Samaritans says migrants like Roberto desperately want out of Sasabe.

GAIL KOCOUREK: What are you going to do? I could sit here and starve, or I could try to go into the States, where my family is or my friends are.

REZNICK: More than 66,000 migrant apprehensions took place at the Southwest border in October, four times the number in April. Data also suggests people are trying to cross, illegally, more than once and in more remote and dangerous places. In Arizona, this year marked a grim milestone. The remains of 200 migrants were found in the desert borderland, the most in almost a decade. Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, insists the pandemic protocols are needed to safeguard public health.

MARK MORGAN: CBP has removed more than 300,000 migrants, all who were at potential risk of further introducing COVID in the United States, helping to avoid and prevent a COVID catastrophe.

REZNICK: But the new protocols may actually be driving crossings higher. That's because the process is so streamlined that migrants are no longer charged with illegal entry, meaning people have little reason not to try over and over again. And now the Border Patrol doesn't give most migrants a chance to make their case in court. Instead, they're simply dropped off in Mexico. That includes remote places like Sasabe, a hotbed for organized crime and smugglers.

DORA RODRIGUEZ: All they do is they take the fingerprint, they process them, and then they ship back to a town where we know there is no resources for them.

REZNICK: Dora Rodriguez is an aid worker in Tucson who makes regular trips to the border to help migrants. She says resources in larger cities, like legal aid, are nonexistent in Sasabe. The nearest migrant shelter is more than 70 miles away.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: On a recent trip there, Rodriguez and other volunteers with Tucson Samaritans handed out winter jackets and socks to a group of Guatemalan migrants. She says it's normal to see the Border Patrol drop off 100 people a day in Sasabe. Most are dehydrated and hungry. Some have blisters on their feet and tattered shoes.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: Forty years ago, Rodriguez braved the desert herself. She fled the civil war in El Salvador and almost died trekking through the Arizona borderland. She was rescued by the Border Patrol. Now she says asylum seekers in her situation would simply be turned away.

RODRIGUEZ: I never thought that I would be living what I see now in this country, never because this is a country of hope, right? This is a country of freedom, but it's not at this moment.

REZNICK: Rodriguez met Roberto, the Salvadoran teen, in September after he'd been expelled. They developed a kinship and kept in touch. They're from the same hometown. Roberto has gone back home. I reached him on WhatsApp and asked why he returned.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

REZNICK: He says he ran out of money to pay the coyotes and didn't want to suffer again. And knowing, at least for now, that there's no chance of asking for asylum, he's not sure when he'll try to come again.

For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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