June 23, 2021

Two Days at the Nogales Border

[Cross-posted from ImmigrationProf Blog]

Revised edition posted June 24, 2021

By Raquel Aldana

We parked our cars on the U.S. side of the border at an empty parking lot in the desolate, hot Sonoran desert landscape. We were a small team of four: a lawyer, a student legal intern, a community organizer, and I, a law professor from King Hall. I was there to volunteer with a small team of attorneys from Arizona which has been coming to the Nogales border for the past four years to provide legal orientations to asylum-seekers. In recent months, they have shifted the focus of their services to helping process hundreds of asylum seekers stranded in Mexico.


Our uneventful, uninterrupted, and unnoticed crossing by foot across the Mexican border made me conscious immediately of the vastly different experiences of human mobility across borders that we, as U.S. citizens, experience. I confess, however, that I subtly checked for the umpteenth time that my little blue U.S. passport was indeed in my backpack as I looked over the other side to the U.S. border I would be crossing back to later that day. As a Central American immigrant and naturalized citizen of nearly four decades, somehow that fleeing yet lingering feeling of outsider overtook me. I know it had a lot to do with my extremely personal identification with the migrants I would be meeting in the next two days. The chasm between the enormity of the circumstances that forced their displacement and the meager solutions we could offer them overwhelmed me.


The circumstances at the border have been fluid since the Biden administration took office. In theory, the border remains shut for asylum seekers based on so-called health reasons in response to the pandemic under Title 42. But now, a type of slightly less chaotic metering process was in place – one that essentially permitted migrants lucky enough to access non-profits “get in line” to be allowed to present themselves to the border to seek asylum in a process coordinated by different binational and/or international humanitarian organizations along the southern border. That was progress. When I was first trained by the Arizona non-profit’s border attorneys back in March of this year, only migrants with extreme and urgent humanitarian grounds for seeking parole, usually based on grave victimization in Mexico, could hope to enter. That process literally called for a sifting of trauma among a sea of trauma, and it felt hallow. This new process, which seemed mostly to create more filters, now in the hands of non-profits, to ensure that migrants both had a “fear of return” + a negative COVID-19 test or an active MPP case + a negative COVID-19 test before presenting themselves at the border, created some path to an otherwise shut border. Especially for those stuck in Mexico waiting for this moment, some for as long as two years, this provided renewed hope.


Hope is exactly what I encountered with at least nine of the ten migrants I met over the course of two days. Here are their brief profiles:[1] a Mexican mother of five and her husband who had made their living selling fruits and vegetables in the street until the extortionists threatened their lives and livelihood; a young Salvadorean couple and their toddler, fleeing after being forced to testify against a gang for a murder and who feared for their lives; a Honduran woman and her son running away from a gang-ridden after a family member was murdered; two adult siblings each running from different forms of violence: one from a much older, abusive husband to whom she had been married off as a child, forcing her to leave behind her children; the other from an extortionist gang he had been violently forced to join and who now sought to kill him for his desertion; a gay man from who had been nearly killed by three strangers who could not stand his homosexuality; and a Venezuelan refugee family who firmly resettled in Mexico but was now facing extortion from a gang who was threatening his livelihood in his new home. I felt that what I could offer them was so little: a kind ear to listen and validate their suffering, and my attempt to prepare them as much as possible for their journey if and when they made it to the other side. For some, I had to tell them they were ineligible for asylum and could only seek withholding of removal or relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Others I had to prepare for the likely possibility of mandatory detention and tried to paint a picture for them as much as possible of this reality. For all, I had to inform them how hard it is to win asylum and how desperately they would need to secure a lawyer to even have a shot at winning. The only saving grace was that all of them had family in the U.S. I urged them to tell their family to identify a lawyer in anticipation of their arrival. In speaking to each of them, I realized how much hope is altered by our circumstances. Their desperation made them either ignore or accept with resignation my account of the reality that awaited them when they crossed the border. All but one remained resolute to cross the border. I fully understood it. One of them who was barred from asylum due to prior immigration history said to me, as he held his son sleeping soundly in his arms, “maybe a miracle will happen and they will grant me asylum.” His hope eclipsed my legal explanation of his ineligibility. At that, I could only smile as I touched his shoulder and caressed his little boy’s hand and wished him well.


I have spent over two decades of my professional career as a human rights lawyer and scholar trying to address the underlying causes of forced migration. I remember a priest who once described the phenomena of forced migration as the most visible expression of failed democracies, the type we can no longer ignore because their suffering has spilled across borders. I fully grasp the response of many in the U.S. who feel we simply cannot absorb all the world’s problems by accepting all refugees, no matter how awful their stories. It is much easier to say this when you have never had to sit across the table from the migrant who most desperately seeks no more than a fourth of what you have. I do believe there is a lot we can do to help migrants stay home and live dignified lives. If you are interested, I invite you to read two of my most recent reflections on serious and complex solutions that we must take up if we are to reduce forced migration from Central America. You can find these here and here. What we cannot do is pretend that harsh immigration policies that shut down borders, detain migrants, or that make asylum standards nearly unreachable will suffice to quell the desperate hope that fuels forced migration.


One of the migrants with me during these past few days was a ten-year-old boy. He was beautiful and surprisingly happy and well-adjusted. Unlike his mom, his eyes sparkled as he mischievously hovered over me to marvel at how fast I typed and to ask me questions about living in the U.S. and being a lawyer. I told him I, too, had come to the U.S. at the age of ten. I wished so much, then, that his life could be closer to mine at his age. You see, I came with my entire family in a plane, through a church sponsored visa in 1982. I would learn later that we, too, had received death threats. But my parents, as ministers of a U.S.-based church, had access to church-sponsored visas. I, too, was a precocious, intelligent child, like that beautiful Honduran boy. I remember looking up at the “EXIT” sign as we exited U.S. immigration at the Miami airport. “Look dad,” I exclaimed proudly, “this is a great country, they are wishing us success.” You see, exito means success in Spanish. This is my desperate hope: that rather than exit we can hope for exito for these migrants' lives stuck at the border.   



July 11, 2018

The travel ban in numbers: Why families and refugees lose big

By Raquel Aldana

[Cross-posted from The Conversation]

On June 16, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the 9th Circuit’s nationwide injunction against the third version of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. This ruling marks Trump’s first court victory since he issued the original travel ban back in January 2017.

Thousands now face indefinite separation from family members from the affected countries. Thousands more will be denied safe harbor from persecution.

Trump asserts the travel ban is necessary to protect national security. This claim is contested by many, including 26 retired generals and admirals, who filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the travel ban.

As a researcher who studies the effect of U.S. immigration laws and policies on human rights, I consider it important to explain the significant numeric scale of the ban’s impact on refugees and U.S. families.

Refugees and family members are not the only categories of foreign nationals from the enumerated countries in the travel ban who will be denied entry. Students, tourists, business travelers and workers will also be turned back. But refugees and fa-

mily members raise the most compelling human rights and humanitarian reasons for people to care.

Travel restrictions vary by country. The least restrictive measures apply to Venezuela. Only certain government officials and their immediate family members are indefinitely suspended from travel on short-term business or tourism. The effect of these unusual restrictions are likely to be minuscule and will not impact family unification or refugee admissions. For this reason, I didn’t include Venezuela’s numbers in my analysis.

All other nations are subject to indefinite bans on travel for permanent immigration to the U.S. This ban applies to immigrants who want to unite with family in the U.S. and refugees. Each nation also faces different travel restrictions for temporary immigration. The most restrictive travel restrictions apply to North Korea and Syria. All temporary immigration from these countries is suspended indefinitely. For Libya and Yemen, only temporary travelers for business and tourism are suspended indefinitely. For Iran, all temporary immigration is suspended except students and exchange visitors. Finally, for Somalia, all temporary migration is not suspended but subjected to additional scrutiny.

The travel ban does allow case-by-case exemptions for certain people if admission is found to be in the national interest. This includes lawful permanent residents, asylum-seekers, refugees and students, among others. In his dissent, however, Justice Stephen Breyer attempted to document how many waivers to the travel ban had been granted, concluding that the government applied the waiver in such a tiny percentage of eligible visas as to render it meaningless.

The measurable impact on family immigration

Family immigration to the U.S. from any single nation is determined by two factors. First, the demand for such visas from existing family members already in the U.S. who can sponsor certain family members. Second, for those visas that are numerically restricted, the availability of those visas to that nation in a given year.

In general, a nation’s patterns of family immigration tend to remain fairly steady over the years. So it’s possible to estimate, based on recent data from the seven (excluding Venezuela) travel ban nations, approximately how many immigrants seeking to unite with their families will be banned indefinitely from entry into the U..

During each of the last three years for which detailed profiles are publicly available – 2014 through 2016 – Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen sent between 8,000 and over 15,000 parents and children of U.S. citizens.

These same nations also sent between 3,000 and over 7,000 other eligible family members, such as siblings of U.S. citizens and spouses of lawful permanent residents.

Combined, in just three years, more than 35,000 family members from these nations came to unite with their families in the U.S. Among these nations, Iran and Yemen sent the most, followed by Syria and Somalia.

The travel ban also significantly affects family members’ ability to even visit each other in the U.S. Even when the ban was stalled by the courts, the overall number of nonimmigrants, or temporary migrants, from these nations significantly decreased.

Iran, for example, has sent by far the largest share of nonimmigrants of any of the travel ban countries in the last decade. In 2016, nearly 30,000 nonimmigrants came to the U.S. from Iran. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 came.

What this means for refugees

According to United Nations, the travel ban affects nations in significant humanitarian crises with substantial flows of refugees.

Syrians are the most affected. This group represents a total 5.5 million refugees, the largest share by far of the world’s overall 25.4 million refugees. But Iran and Somalia each also have nearly 1 million refugees, while Yemen has nearly 300,000 and Libya nearly 100,000. Four of these nations – Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – face protracted refugee crises. Only North Korea reports a low figure of 2,245, although this likely reflects North Koreans’ fear of escaping or reporting their presence when they do.

A high supply of refugees doesn’t necessarily translate to high numbers of refugees admitted into the U.S. Still, over the past decade, the U.S. has consistently offered refugee protection to Iran and Somalia. The peak for both these nations was in 2016, when the U.S. admitted more than 9,000 refugees for each nation.

Since 2015, Syrians also began to receive refugee protection in substantial numbers, with 2016 also being the highest number of 12,587 refugees admitted.

President Trump has reduced the levels of refugee flows into the U.S. to historic lows. This will affect all refugees. Venezuela, for example, which today reports 1.5 million refugees, is unlikely to find safe harbor for most of its refugees in this current climate.

Not unlike family immigration, the indefinite ban on temporary visas will affect the ability of nationals from all of these nations to travel to the U.S. to seek asylum.

The U.S Supreme Court’s ruling forecloses judicial oversight over much of President Trump’s immigration policies, at least those affecting the entry of foreign nationals. This includes those facing high stakes at the border: family separation or lack of safe harbor from persecution. For now, the nations included in the travel ban face an indefinite iron locked door, with no hope that their knocking will be answered.