Sitting on a light blue mat on the Mexican side of the Dennis DeConcini pedestrian port of entry on Wednesday, a young woman tried to entertain her baby, talking sweetly and gently lifting her into the air.
The pair had arrived in Nogales, Sonora, early that morning and were waiting to be called by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers so they could ask for asylum in the United States.
“(The officers) only told us to wait here, but they didn’t say anything else,” said 17-year-old Katherine Julissa Sanchez Gonzales, who fled with her 7-month-old baby from her abusive husband in Guatemala.
Starting in May, the port was regularly filled with 10 to 15 families like Sanchez’s who camped day and night, waiting days or weeks for their turn to request asylum after fleeing domestic and gang violence in Mexico and Central America. But Wednesday, only Sanchez, her daughter and one other family were at the port.
The decline in asylum seekers lined up at the port began a few weeks ago, said Joanna Williams, education and advocacy director at the Kino Border Initiative, an Ambos Nogales-based humanitarian organization that has been assisting asylum seekers.
The change is due to fewer people asking for asylum, which is “allowing the officers to catch up with case processing,” a CBP spokesperson wrote in an email. While Williams said she doesn’t think there has been a decline in the number of asylum seekers, she said she noticed a “drastic decrease” in wait times.
“Late June to early July, their wait time was about 14 days, and now it’s just a matter of usually a few hours,” Williams said.
“The average was about three families that were being processed a day,” she said. “Then when they started speeding up the process, they were processing 10-15 families a day over a few days’ span.”
Although Williams said KBI can’t keep track of how many people arrive in Nogales, Sonora to ask for asylum in the U.S., she doesn’t think the number has decreased.
“There’s still a steady number of people. Conditions in Central America and Mexico haven’t changed, so people continue to fear for their lives and they continue to seek asylum in the U.S.,” she said.
But the CBP spokesperson said that’s not the case.
“CBP officers in Nogales are experiencing a decline in the number of people seeking asylum. In addition, CBP has heard from a non-governmental group in Sonora, Mexico, that they too have seen less individuals seeking services at their shelter,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
“Wait times are determined by the number of people being processed, the complexity of each application for entry, available resources, medical needs, translation requirements, availability of holding space, overall port volume, and other ongoing enforcement actions,” the spokesperson said when asked what explained the previous weeks-long wait times.
Williams said KBI was troubled by CBP’s comment and believes asylum requests deserve a greater sense of urgency.
“CBP has a legal obligation to process asylum seekers who are arriving at the port. They’re in danger and that’s why they want to seek asylum,” she said.
She said KBI is “grateful for how CBP accelerated processing,” but they “disagree with that approach to asylum seekers because it’s de-prioritizing people who are in life-and-death situations.”