First asylum-seekers arrive in Presidio

PRESIDIO, OJINAGA – According to an article published last week in the Heraldo de Chihuahua, Colonel Jose Porres Olson, Deputy of Immigration in Ojinaga, said that the Presidio–Ojinaga International Bridge was partially shut down by U.S. officials for four hours last Wednesday, February 13. This began after a group of traveling Hondurans arrived in Ojinaga with intentions to cross the bridge and claim asylum in the United States. The Heraldo announced that some asylum-seekers were successful in reaching Presidio.

Customs and Border Protections (CBP) Press Officer Ruben Jauregui confirmed that “just a small group, under 10 Hondurans,” crossed over the international pedestrian bridge last week. Jauregui stated that although asylum-seeking is growing along the Southern border, the Presidio port is only now getting people applying for asylum. “It’s recent; it started this week.”

It is unusual for asylum-seekers to travel to Presidio, because the terrain to the south is mountainous, and difficult to travel on foot. Immigrants to the U.S. usually aim for larger ports of entry on the southern U.S. border, but those ports have recently seen clashes between immigrants and enforcement. Crackdowns on the border have driven travelers to cross more dangerous, remote paths. El Heraldo reported that Customs and Border Protection responded to last week’s group and “positioned themselves mid-bridge,” preventing the Hondurans from stepping foot on U.S. soil. Reports said the group gave up during the partial closure, but attempted to cross again later, and were successful.

Officer Juaregui disputed the Herald’s claim that the partial closure was related to the Hondurans’ crossing, stating, “No, the bridge did not shut down. The partial bridge closure was related to construction, and will continue, so [the bridge] may be cut down to one lane of traffic.” He said any future shutdowns or partial closures at the Presidio bridge would only be caused by the ongoing construction to widen the port of entry.

CBP has adopted a similar tactic in nearby El Paso to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching U.S. soil. Officers are stationed in the middle of the pedestrian bridge, and stop immigrants from crossing the U.S./Mexico boundary. The current administration asserts that if immigrants cannot physically put their foot across the international border, they cannot legally claim U.S. asylum at the border.

U.S. residents who cross the bridge frequently recently noticed a similar tactic at the Presidio and Ojinaga crossing.

They observed CBP officers at the actual boundary of the two countries blocking the northbound lane of traffic on the bridge with a CBP vehicle, and an officer stationed in the pedestrian path with an AR-15, which seems unrelated to construction since this was witnessed late at night on Saturday, January 19. After the Hondurans were successful in their second attempt to cross last Wednesday, CBP’s Port of Entry officials handled the administrative tasks of documenting the arriving immigrants and their asylum requests. Jauregui said that foreign travelers “present themselves, and request or claim credible fear, or request asylum. The process at the ports of entry is minimal.” After processing, the port contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who arrested the asylum-seekers and took them to detention centers.

Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo said he encountered “a lot of Central Americans at the bus station,” while visiting Ojinaga last week. If immigrants and asylum-seekers begin crossing into Presidio, he believes, “It means more ambulance call outs. More police department calls out. It has an effect, whether it’s the church and donations or anything else.”

But asylum-seekers do not stay in the cities they cross into, because they must surrender in order to make their asylum claim. Unlike undocumented immigrants who do not enter through ports of entry, asylum-seekers surrender and are turned over to ICE. and transported to detention centers across the country. There, they are detained for weeks or months before getting a trial date for their asylum hearing. Only then are they released into the U.S. to wait for their day in court.

Aside from bridge construction, Jauregui did mention that CBP will continue to do “operational exercises” in preparation for “what might occur.” In El Paso, CBP has recently closed or narrowed bridges for hours at a time for these exercises, most notably, an exercise on November’s election day. That exercise was cancelled after public outcry of intimidation tactics. These exercises show force, and have ramped up along the border as national rhetoric about the caravans has grown.

The officer did not confirm whether an exercise was occurring during the Honduran group’s crossing. Jauregui added that there have been floods in the Presidio area before, and, “It’s imperative that we’re prepared for natural disaster, or anything else coming to us.”

For decades, Central Americans have immigrated to the U.S., but in the past year, many have begun traveling in groups now deemed “caravans,” and are requesting asylum in the United States. Asylum is only granted to 10% of applicants, and that percentage has declined further since 2016. To get asylum, immigrants must meet the international definition of a refugee—“a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future ‘on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.’”

Ultimately, immigrants still choose this difficult route because they are allowed to reside in the United States while waiting for their court date, rather than remaining in the home countries they fled.

In the city of Presidio, business carries on as usual, despite the bridge’s first “caravan” arrival. Mayor John Ferguson said he had not heard about the Honduran group’s arrival, but said, “I continue to maintain that there sure is a lot of hand wringing over immigrants from Central America, but no discussion of addressing root causes of why it is occurring.”