US suspends border crossing appointments for asylum seekers after extortion reports

The United States government has stopped accepting appointments by app to admit applicants for asylum at a Texas border crossing that connects to a notoriously dangerous Mexican city, after activists warned US authorities that migrants were being targeted for extortion there.

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) He did not provide any explanation for his decision to suspend service to book new appointments through the CBP One app for the Laredo, Texas border crossing.

Several asylum seekers told The Associated Press that Mexican officials in the city of Nuevo Laredo, which borders Laredo, Texas, They had threatened to arrest them and make them miss their appointments unless they gave them money. Laredo humanitarian groups said they recently notified CBP of the problems and that some groups were controlling access to the international crossing on the Mexican side.

Migrant advocates said the situation in Nuevo Laredo, which has been plagued by clashes between drug cartels, among other problems, calls into question the US government’s argument that Mexico is a safe place for people fleeing of violence in Central America and other parts of the world.

Rafael Álvarez, 29, who fled Venezuela, said that after arriving in Nuevo Laredo in early June, Mexican immigration authorities at the city’s airport took away his travel documents, including a printout of an email confirming his appointment through the CBP app. One, and they demanded that he pay 1,000 Mexican pesos, about 57 dollars. He was detained with other migrants.

“They told us behind the scenes… ‘In this role you are going to put money. You’re going to pass it on to us’. And they would put it in a drawer and then give you the paper,” Álvarez recounted what the officials told him and other migrants.

The officials, he said, threatened to keep them in custody so they would miss their appointment. Alvarez, whose appointment was scheduled for the next day, said he refused to pay and was eventually released, but five Russians who were detained with him paid a total of 5,000 pesos, about 290 dollars. They had initially been asked to pay twice that amount, but told the officials they didn’t have that much money, he said.

Álvarez said that other friends Venezuelans who traveled to Nuevo Laredo at the end of May they also had to give money to get their documents back.

Thousands of asylum seekers are stranded in Mexican border cities, waiting until they can make an appointment to apply for asylum in the United States after being unable to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic because of a rule called Title 42, which was withdrawn last month. .

Although the US government opened new channels for immigration, the fate of many people is left largely in the hands of CBP enforcement One that is used to schedule an appointment at a port of entry.

The US government said it would continue to open 1,250 daily appointments by reallocating slots from Laredo to the other seven crossings along the US-Mexico border. He pledged to honor the citations issued for the Laredo crossing before the June 3 change. The government schedules appointments two weeks in advance.

CBP gives priority to people who have an appointment scheduled through the app, although in-person admission without an appointment can also be attempted. Anyone with a serious illness or are under immediate threat of kidnapping or death you can also apply for asylum in person, without an appointment.

Laredo was one of the least crowded crossings for asylum appointments, recording just a fraction of the appointments compared to the San Diego and Brownsville crossings.

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There have been widespread complaints from migrants about being forced to pay bribes to Mexico’s immigration sector, where corruption runs deep.

A few weeks ago, the Mexican newspaper El Universal published a video it obtained that was taken Through the window of a bus, in which a federal agent appeared immigration officer accepting migrant bills and putting them in his pocket while checking passports in the state of Jalisco. The migration agency reported that it had suspended two of its agents and stated that it does not tolerate the violation of the rights of migrants.

The newspaper also obtained government documents through an access to information request that showed the agency had opened 119 investigations against its agents between 2017 and 2023 for inappropriate conduct.

Rebecca Solloa, of Catholic Charities in Laredo, said her organization, among others, had met with CBP officials in person and via video call to notify them that migrants have told them that groups in Nuevo Laredo controls the bridge and extorts migrants, but did not know who they were.

He noted that CBP “obviously received some type of intelligence, or descriptions, or information from the arriving migrants about what has happened to them.”

“I’m glad they did it,” she said, adding that the government’s actions could be because “this is happening too much on this border.”

for now it is not clear if the problem was specific to Nuevo Laredo And if so, why is it?

Narsher Núñez, 29, traveled to Nuevo Laredo in early June with her 6-month-old son, husband and adult nephew after booking an appointment in Mexico City through the app. She said that she and her family were extorted at the airport.

The Venezuelan woman said that Mexican officials took her documents and they demanded that he pay 1,500 pesos, equivalent to 86 dollars, to get them back. They were detained for hours with a group of Chinese migrants, he said. Her husband said that an agent told them that if he had a good heart, he would send them to Guatemala, but if they caught him in a bad mood, he would send them to Venezuela.

They finally paid and were released, he said. The next day, Núñez and his family attended their appointment and were admitted to the United States.

“All the immigrants who caught us there took money from us to be able to return our documents and leave the airport,” said Núñez, who is currently staying with his family in a shelter in Laredo.

The Department of Homeland Security said in an email sent to the AP that the CBP One app has been instrumental in creating a more efficient and orderly system at the border.”while keeping the dealers out unscrupulous people who take advantage of vulnerable migrants”.

Neither the US nor the Mexican government have responded to AP questions about reports of migrants using the app who have been victims of extortion.

The app was criticized for technical glitches when it was launched on January 12. The US government has made improvements in recent weeks, but demand has far outstripped supply, causing many migrants to continue to consider crossing the border illegally or giving up.

The US government has said that anyone who does not use legal channels will be deported to their country of origin and will not be able to apply for asylum in the United States for five years.

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