- Erika Pinheiroimmigration attorney and the policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado.
The U.S. has hit a record number of apprehensions at the border shared with Mexico, arresting over 1 million asylum seekers in the past six months alone. We speak with immigration attorney Erika Pinheiro about the Biden administration’s unequal treatment of different nationalities, as refugees from countries like Haiti, Cuba and Cameroon face harsh restrictions on asylum, but Ukrainian refugees seem to be receiving special treatment and even exemption from Title 42. “Asylum is supposed to be a universal standard protecting individuals fleeing persecution from any country, but in practice it’s always been a political tool wielded by the United States to favor those fleeing regimes that the United States opposes,” says Pinheiro.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We turn now to the U.S.-Mexico border, where Border Patrol officers have arrested over a million asylum seekers in the past six months — a record number in at least 20 years, that comes as many are fleeing economic and political crises, horrific violence, the impacts of the climate emergency, in Haiti, in Cuba, in Central and South America and Africa.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, thousands of Ukrainian refugees have also trekked to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of safety. U.S. border officials have processed nearly 10,000 Ukrainians in the past two months, most at ports of entry. Hundreds of Ukrainians camped out in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, earlier this month, hoping to be allowed into the United States.
VALENTINA SHYMANEVSKA: I couldn’t — I couldn’t cry in Ukraine. I didn’t cry in Ukraine at all. I thank you even for my tears. I thank you for this place, for this food and for our dream to give him a little bit calmer life until the victory. When the victory comes, we will go the same day, the same day, to Ukraine.
DAVID MIRAMONTES: [translated] Little by little, the camp started being formed, because this is going to go on for a long time. As long as the war continues and as long as there is no direct connection from Europe to the United States for the Ukrainians, they will continue to arrive here in Tijuana. They will have to depend on the charity and generosity of the people of Tijuana.
AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the camp at the border, Ukrainian refugees are also staying at a shelter in Tijuana.
YEVHEN SHYSHKIN: [translated] I’m really surprised about how people have been helping us here. The conditions in the shelter are perfect. The most impressive thing is how Mexican and American people are trying to help us and how everybody wants to offer us assistance somehow.
AMY GOODMAN: Immigrant justice advocates have welcomed efforts to process Ukrainian refugees at the border but are condemning the U.S. government’s hypocrisy as it brutalizes and criminalizes Black, Indigenous and other asylum seekers who don’t come from white European nations. Many have waited months, even years, to be a processed for asylum at a U.S. port of entry, forced to wait in Mexico often in very dangerous conditions. This is a Honduran asylum seeker at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico.
AUGUSTO MARTINEZ: They got a war. We got worse than war in Central America. And they have a war from February to this time. We’ve got a war there with these gangs, you know what I mean, about 15, 20 years behind. And we have that war, same. Same bullet kill those people, same bullet kill us also. You know, I mean, why they’re treating Hispanic asylum people this way? You know what I mean? They can take all the Ukrainian people into the United States, but they don’t take the Hispanic people.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney based in Tijuana, Mexico, and the policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit helping asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She herself was targeted by the Trump administration, monitored and surveilled.
Erika, if you can talk about this double standard, what it looks like where you are in Tijuana? We’re not talking about Ukrainians who are flying into the United States, where they can find a lot of bureaucracy. So, they, too, are coming through the southern border, but they’re allowed in.
ERIKA PINHEIRO: Yes. Hi. Yeah, we’ve seen thousands of Ukrainians coming through Tijuana. Their trips to Mexico are mostly financed by families and church groups in the United States who help them fly from Europe to Mexico City or Cancún, and then onward to Tijuana. Volunteer groups are standing by at the airport. They are coordinating with CBP to give Ukrainians a number on a list. And CBP, Customs and Border Protection, are processing up to a thousand Ukrainians per day, at a port of entry where border officials claimed they did not have capacity to even process 30 other asylum seekers per day for the past few years.
The Tijuana government has also provided an enormous amount of resources to Ukrainian migrants, even giving them a municipal-funded shelter, where they have food, shelter, bedding, all kinds of services available to them, months after they evicted violently a camp of Black and Indigenous asylum seekers who had camped at the border for more than a year waiting for their chance to seek asylum, many of whom have now ended up homeless on the streets of Tijuana.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Erika, these reports are astounding. I’ve heard reports that there was a special line set up at the border crossing in Tijuana just for Ukrainians, sort of like a TSA line, a special priority line. Is that true?
ERIKA PINHEIRO: That is accurate. So, part of the port of entry was closed down when Title 42, the COVID-related border restrictions, were put into place in March of 2020. Customs and Border Protection has since reopened this section of the port of entry, and it is solely dedicated to humanitarian processing of Ukrainians. As I mentioned, up to a thousand are being transported there each day by church groups and are being processed in a very orderly fashion by CBP. So this shows us that border officials do have the capacity to humanely process thousands of asylum seekers, if they have the political will to do so.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact on others who are waiting, for instance, Hondurans and Guatemalans? There appear to be more Ukrainians being processed for asylum in a few weeks than in an entire year of Salvadorans and Hondurans who have been admitted for asylum into the United States, despite decades of having some of the highest homicide rates in the world in El Salvador and in Honduras. What’s the impact on those who are waiting and watching this?
ERIKA PINHEIRO: Well, I can say for myself and also on behalf of many of the migrants with whom we work, everyone wants to support the Ukrainians. Of course the war that they’re fleeing is horrific. The way that they are being treated at the border is the way that everyone should be treated.
So, migrants who have been waiting for years now in deplorable conditions, many of whom have suffered rape, attempted kidnappings, assaults while waiting in these dangerous Mexican border cities, are, of course, hurt and angry at seeing Ukrainians being processed at this clip, while they are left waiting.
But it’s worse than that, actually. Since Ukrainians and even Russians have been coming to Tijuana, in particular, whereas other asylum seekers could approach the border and ask for protection previously — you know, of course, they would be turned away — but now Mexican law enforcement officials are posted at the border with an immigration van. If a Honduran even tries to approach border officials, they will be arrested and detained in a Mexican immigration prison for even attempting to seek safety in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Erika, Axios reported on Tuesday that President Biden’s inner circle has been discussing delaying the repeal of Title 42 border restrictions now set to end May 23rd. Again, these are the Trump-era pandemic restrictions that prevent people from coming into the United States on public health safety grounds. And these have been suspended for Ukrainians. But if you can talk about the number of Democrats and Republicans who have been demanding that Biden reimpose, extend Title 42, and what that means, as well as this double standard of Ukrainians not being subject to it as others are?
ERIKA PINHEIRO: So, part of the problem here is really the way that the media has been talking about the repeal of Title 42. I have seen numerous stories in which the migrants, who have been waiting patiently at the border for the ports of entry to reopen, have been characterized as a “surge” or a “wave.” I’ve seen language referring to the repeal of Title 42 as a “crisis.”
Now, DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, estimates that approximately 25,000 asylum seekers are waiting at the border for Title 42 to be repealed. Now, again, keep in mind, in the past few weeks, U.S. border officials have processed over 10,000 Ukrainians. So, again, they have the ability, the capacity to process the number of asylum seekers who are waiting at the border easily, in an orderly and humane fashion, when the political will is there. Of course, the only difference here is that those waiting are largely Black and Indigenous and other asylum seekers who are not white Europeans.
So, you know, I really believe that we need to start speaking about the migrants who are waiting in a different way. I think that’s a huge part of the problem. But it’s really — seeing that kind of rhetoric in the media and seeing that repeated by members of Congress, who, frankly, should know better, is extremely disappointing, and it’s really dehumanizing for folks who have been waiting patiently at the border for it to reopen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Erika, there appears to be not only, clearly, a racial context to this border policy, but also a political or foreign policy context. As I understand it, there’s been a significant increase over the past year in the number of Cubans crossing into the United States along the Mexican border and getting asylum. We saw, for instance, back in the Central American war period, that Nicaraguans who were fleeing from the Sandinista rule got much more a higher percentage of asylum grants from the United States than did Salvadorans and Guatemalans. What’s your sense of the political — that, basically, the United States favors granting asylum to refugees from those countries with which it has political — for which it politically supports?
ERIKA PINHEIRO: That’s always been the case with asylum. Asylum is supposed to be a universal standard protecting individuals fleeing persecution from any country, but in practice it’s always been a political tool wielded by the United States to favor those fleeing regimes that the United States opposes.
Now, it’s actually really interesting with the Ukrainians. The United States does not grant asylum for general conditions in a country. So, generally, I could not get asylum as a Ukrainian just because my country is at war. So, all of these — most of these asylum seekers, the 10,000 who have been processed from Ukraine, actually probably wouldn’t qualify for asylum under U.S. law, whereas many of those who are turned away, including Russians who are fleeing the same conflict — I’ve spoken with dozens of Russians here in Tijuana who protested the war against Ukraine, have been brutally repressed by the Putin regime, fled the same issue, and are — have been turned away from ports of entry and are waiting here in Tijuana. Now, they would actually qualify for asylum under U.S. law but are being turned away under the Title 42 policy.
So, I think there’s two things happening here. One is, certain nationalities are being allowed to even access humanitarian protections in the United States, while others are being turned away. And then, once in the United States, whether or not they gain asylum is really a political question rather than a legal one.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was born in Cuba, is a Cuban refugee in the United States. I wanted to ask you about the fact that you have Ukrainians given shelter in indoor facilities, while Haitians, Central Americans and others have had to sleep on the streets or makeshift camps outside ports of entry, and, finally, to ask you, yourself, Erika, the kind of work that you’re doing — the Trump administration — right? — was sued; the ACLU sued on your behalf because you were targeted by the Trump administration as they monitored and surveilled your immigration advocacy work — if there’s a difference under the Biden administration.
ERIKA PINHEIRO: I have seen signs that — very clear signs that the surveillance of my work continues under the Biden administration. Of course, it’s not to the same extent that it was under the Trump administration, during which I was detained in Mexico, removed from Mexico at the behest of the U.S. government. I am now in a very different position, where we are in more of a stakeholder relationship with the Biden administration.
But just with respect to the situation right now, I can tell you that had I done or even if I today would do for a Central American migrant what Ukrainian Americans or others helping the Ukrainians are doing for the Ukrainians, I would be in federal prison. And I will give you an example. These trips, like I mentioned, are being financed by U.S. citizens. In many cases, U.S. citizens have put Ukrainian refugees in their cars and driven them up to border officials. I absolutely believe that we should do everything we can to help people fleeing unspeakable violence, including the Ukrainians. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. But again, had I done the same thing or would I do the same thing for a Haitian migrant, if I put them in my car and just drove up to the border, I would be put in prison for smuggling. So, even that double standard, where those helping white migrants are given unfettered access to the ports of entry, are given — you know, are processed at a clip of a thousand a day, where those of us trying to organize on behalf of Black and Brown migrants are persecuted for the same activities, it’s really just — it’s hurtful, honestly, and it’s really astounding to see it play out like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Erika Pinheiro, I want to thank you for being with us, immigration attorney, policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit helping immigrants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, speaking to us from Tijuana.
Next up, in one week, Texas plans to execute Melissa Lucio. She’d be the first Latina to be put to death in Texas. We speak to the Innocence Project lawyer who’s fighting to save her life. Stay with us.