Brownsville, Texas — After a months-long trek across four countries, Dayana and Lazaro, two political dissidents from Cuba, reached the U.S. southern border in 2019 hoping to apply for asylum. But the spouses met starkly different fates.
Dayana, who was pregnant at the time, was allowed to enter and stay in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. Lazaro, however, was sent back to Mexico and instructed to wait there indefinitely for his U.S. asylum court hearings.
Lazaro said he was not given an explanation for being turned back to Mexico. "It was difficult for me, because it was a forced separation," he told CBS News in Spanish.
"They didn't let us say goodbye," Dayana said.
The Trump administration required Lazaro and 70,000 other asylum-seekers from Latin America to wait in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated. It argued the policy, known as Remain in Mexico, was needed to reduce unauthorized migration and discourage economic migrants from using the asylum process to enter the U.S.
Individuals and families with children were sent to some of the most dangerous and crime-ridden areas of Mexico. Hundreds were kidnapped, extorted, assaulted and even murdered, according to human rights groups. A sprawling and squalid migrant tent camp sprung up in the Mexican city of Matamoros and became a symbol of the Trump administration's hard-line asylum policies.
Lazaro and Dayana said their separation took a heavy emotional toll. Dayana said she worried about losing her baby because of the adverse emotional impact of the separation.
"It was very difficult," Dayana said. "I was very unwell for days. In fact, I was unwell for months. I had depression during the pregnancy. And I had postpartum depression as well."
Lazaro was stranded in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for a year and seven months and missed the birth of his daughter, Ashley, who was born in the Dallas area last July. He said he hit an emotional low point during the coronavirus pandemic, when the court hearings for his asylum case — the gateway to reuniting with Dayana and meeting Ashley — were postponed indefinitely.
"It was a very big blow," Lazaro recounted. "I had that expectation of meeting the baby and being with my wife and suddenly all of it fell apart."
Disillusioned, the family placed their hopes on Joe Biden, who campaigned on ending Trump administration border policies he derided as inhumane and draconian. Mr. Biden vowed to scrap the Remain in Mexico program, which he said had forced asylum-seekers to live "in squalor."
"I didn't sleep on Election Day," Lazaro said.
"I still can't believe it"
On the day of Mr. Biden's inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suspended the Remain in Mexico policy. In February, the Biden administration said it would allow some of those returned to Mexico to continue their asylum proceedings in the U.S. as long as they had pending cases.
Working with Mexico, the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Biden administration established a process to admit these asylum-seekers at selected ports of entry. The U.N. set up a website for eligible asylum applicants to register for an appointment to enter the U.S., while IOM stood up COVID-19 testing sites.
Late last month, CBS News was granted exclusive access to the Brownsville port of entry, one of six official border crossings that has been processing asylum petitioners with pending cases. More than 20 asylum-seekers arrived at the Brownsville port of entry that day through the Gateway International Bridge after testing negative for COVID-19 in Mexico.
The group of asylum-seekers, which included families with children, was greeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. Their belongings were checked for contraband, and they were then taken inside a tent facility, where government personnel checked their case information and collected biometric data. All asylum-seekers wore face shields and masks.
Barring a few cases delayed by computer glitches, the asylum applicants were processed in a matter of minutes.
"These are people that we already knew who they were," said Aaron Bowker, director of communications for the Office of Field Operations, the CBP branch that oversees ports of entry. "We were able to leverage that technology and, with the help of those NGOs and those international organizations in Mexico, to get the information sent to us in advance so that when they were metered to arrive at the port of entry, it could be as smooth a process as possible."
Once the processing was completed, the group was escorted outside the port of entry and officially released from U.S. custody. A bus came to pick them up so they could begin their journey to their respective destinations, often the homes of family and friends, where they have been allowed to live while their cases are adjudicated by U.S. courts.
"We're very happy and thankful," a mother from Honduras told CBS News as she prepared to board the bus with her young daughter.
According to DHS figures, more than 10,000 asylum-seekers have been admitted into the U.S. through this new process, including Lazaro, who was allowed to enter the country in March.
Asked how he felt when he reunited with Dayana and met Ashley, Lazaro called the moment "indescribable."
"It was a very strong feeling," Dayana interjected. "I spent two days with headaches. I would look at him every day and tell him that I couldn't believe that he was here."
"When I saw the baby and held her — I still can't believe it," Lazaro added.
The Biden administration has touted its drawdown of the Remain in Mexico policy as a model for the future of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border, highlighting the COVID-19 testing and digital registration process. The program is a safe and orderly alternative to crossing the border illegally to request U.S. refuge, officials have said.
"Under the leadership of President Biden, we have put in place a safe and humane system to process individuals with active MPP cases as the first phase of a program to restore orderly processing at the Southwest Border," DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement to CBS News. "We are moving quickly to rebuild our immigration system and undo the cruelty and chaos of the prior administration so our country again shows the world we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."
So far, however, the Biden administration has kept ports of entry closed to most asylum-seekers without pending cases through "non-essential travel" pandemic-era restrictions. It has also continued to use the public health authority known as Title 42 invoked under former President Donald Trump to expel most migrant adults and some families to Mexico without allowing them to apply for U.S. asylum.
While there has been some small-scale processing of vulnerable asylum petitioners at ports of entry in recent weeks, Biden administration officials have not said when and if large-scale processing will start, frustrating some advocates and human rights groups.
"If the administration is talking about essentially using this system for new asylum seekers, all that means is once again just having metering again," said Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney who helped Lazaro and Dayana, referring to the pre-pandemic U.S. practice of placing migrants on waitlists to request protection at a port of entry.
"That cannot be the only system that exists for people to be able to exercise their legal rights. It is legal to seek asylum. It is enshrined in our laws," Levy continued.
Meanwhile, Lazaro and Dayana are looking forward to starting a new life with their daughter in the U.S. Like other asylum-seekers admitted into the U.S., they still have to continue their immigration proceedings to pursue asylum or other forms of permanent legal status.
"We hope to push forward in this country. To work and raise the baby," Lazaro said. "May she grow up loving her country, loving her homeland. She is one more American that we have here."
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