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What asylum-seekers meet when they try to cross legally

U.S. officials have maintained that potential asylum-seekers entering at legal border crossings will not be prosecuted and will be processed in turn. But the process isn't always that easy. In a cross-border report from Juarez and El Paso, Amna Nawaz follows a grandmother and granddaughter who are fleeing cartel violence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, on America's southern border, the city where the family separation policy was first launched, El Paso, Texas, is still receiving migrants fleeing violence from Central America and Mexico. Many of them seek legal asylum upon entry.

    U.S. officials have maintained that potential asylum-seekers entering at legal border crossing will not be prosecuted and will be processed in turn.

    But, as Amna Nawaz has found, in this cross-border report from Juarez and El Paso, the process isn't always that easy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The years that brought Angelica and Sofi, her 3-old-granddaughter, to this moment, on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte Bridge to the United States, are almost too painful for her to recount.

    When we first met them Tuesday night, they had already been in this migrant shelter in Juarez for a month. Her family, Angelica says, was targeted by Mexican cartels, already killing her husband son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren.

    Getting out of Mexico, she says, is a matter of life or death.

  • Angelica (through translator):

    I'm worried for her. My granddaughter's lived through many very ugly things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Children are separated from their parents or guardians. Are you worried about that?

  • Angelica (through translator):

    Yes, it makes me afraid that they will separate me from my granddaughter. And I pray that they won't separate me from her.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Her plan is to try and legally cross the U.S. border Wednesday morning, escorted by Ruben Garcia, who runs a migrant shelter across the border in El Paso. Angelica will carry this sign, announcing to U.S. Border Protection that she is scared for her life, and wants to seek asylum in America.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    Here are the flags and there is the boundary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Garcia has been helping and housing migrants fleeing violence for 40 years. Lately, he says, even potential asylum seekers crossing legally have been criminalized.

    Wednesday, and a crowd gathers on the Mexican side of the bridge.

  • It is 7:

    18 in the morning right now. Angelica and her granddaughter just got here. There's a lot of press. You can see the who advocates who are trying to get her across the border think that the more attention is paid to her, the more likely she's going to be able to cross.

    Another family, a mother with her three kids, will also attempt to cross, seeking asylum with the group. All the waiting, and all the attention, has Angelica more worried than ever.

    I just want to know how, Angelica, who are you feeling right now?

  • Angelica (through translator):

    Fearful.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are you afraid of?

  • Angelica (through translator):

    How the U.S. government will respond when I ask for asylum.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just after 7:30 a.m., the group begins to walk. This journey of a few hundred yards can take a matter of minutes. But Angelica and Sofi are stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, at the international boundary, before they can set foot on U.S. soil, and make an asylum claim.

    A standoff ensues.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    When people who have already suffered tremendously are sent back into an environment where they are genuinely afraid to be found, I can't see how that would be considered humane.

  • Man:

    If capacity wasn't the issue, I guarantee you I would be allowing people to come forward right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stopped before even reaching the border.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    This is the first time in 40 years that I have seen this. I have never seen this before. It hadn't been done before. And the reason they do is because they do not want any of these people, any of these refugees to put even their toe on U.S. territory.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Angelica and Sofi wait, under a hot sun, to learn their fate, while a CBP official patiently answers questions.

    Where is the capacity issue? Is it at the port of entry about 100 yards that way?

  • Ray Provencio:

    It's a domino effect, ma'am. There's lots of places within the United States where after we process them for their claim that are other family residential centers.

    We are following right now the existing protocol. And that existing protocol is, I am not going to allow an unsafe and inhumane situation in our detention areas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With each minute, the temperature rises. So do Angelica's fears she won't be allowed to enter. But after more than an hour, a CBP official announces the families will be allowed to cross.

    It's just after 9:00 a.m. when Angelica and Sofi walk across the border, and into the U.S. port of entry. CBP officials allow the media to document their journey right up until this point.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    I have a suspicion that, had we not been with them, that they would have been turned back. And that's what has to change, because the law says they have a right.

    And in this particular case, these two particular families have got some concrete basis for their claim for asylum. And they have suffered some very real violence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Amna joins me now from El Paso.

    So, Amna, this is a harrowing story. How typical is it?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, look, there's a lot that's unique about Angelica's story, right? The vast majority of people who cross the border don't have an advocate escort. They don't have as much media attention as she and Sofi did today.

    But at the heart of her story, Judy, there are some common themes that are common across a vast majority of people we have heard who are also crossing the border making similar claims, largely fleeing violence in their home countries in Central America.

    We know those three countries from which the vast majority of people come, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. So, there are definitely some common themes there.

    The thing, of course, that people worry about is what happens when the cameras aren't there. Right? There are a number of reports of people who are making legal crossings, who are presenting themselves, saying that they want to claim asylum, and then similar to what Angelica went through, being turned away, being prevented from entering the port of entry and making that claim.

    So, that's right now what immigrants and human rights experts and advocates say is their chief concern. What happens when people aren't looking, for the vast majority of folks seeking refuge here?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it was interesting to note, Amna, that she knew that there was a policy at that point to separate — keep families separated, to separate children from other family members, but she was coming anyway.

    This was a policy meant, among other things, to be a deterrent, but in this case it wasn't that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

    You know, Angelica, as we spoke to her in Juarez across the border, was well aware at time the family separation policy was in place. She was aware as she was setting out from the Mexican side of the bridge this morning that policy was still very much in place.

    She considered her options. But, for her, Judy, she says there wasn't really an option. And this is something we have heard for people who advocate for the vast majority of people fleeing violence in their home countries, where, by the way, the forces that are compelling them to flee have not changed.

    And that consideration is this. When your home — as written in the poem by Warsan Shire, she says, I want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark. Home is the barrel of a gun.

    When your home holds for you what seems to be certain death, and the only option you have is then facing uncertainty and potentially crossing into a foreign land to see what happens, for the possibility of saving your life or your family's life, people we have talked to say, that's not really a choice at all.

    So it wasn't a deterrent in this case, and it remains to be seen if other deterrents would work similarly with these populations — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that certainly came true in her faith.

    Amna, and, just quickly, in getting to know her, how was she by the end of the day?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Judy, we should point out at this time she is still in government custody. That's not unusual for these cases.

    By the way, even people seeking asylum and making legal crossings are often in government custody for a couple of days, two or three days. So we will follow up on her story, of course, but right now she's being interviewed. They're assessing her claim.

    And even though she's made it across the border, look, there is a lot of uncertainty ahead for her and for a lot of people in her similar situation. We don't know if the paperwork she has is enough to prove guardianship of Sofi.

    So, we don't know if they will be separated or not. We don't know if she has enough behind her asylum claim to allow her to stay and for her claim to be adjudicated through the immigration courts.

    So even though one hurdle has now been crossed for them, there's still a great amount of uncertainty ahead — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some really important reporting for us to see.

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

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