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Asylum Seekers Are Allowed Into U.S. For Their Day In Immigration Court

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The long, perilous wait for hundreds of asylum-seekers stuck in Mexican towns on the U.S. border may soon be over. The Biden administration has begun allowing some of them into the U.S. to make their cases for asylum, reversing policies put in place by former President Trump. But now, as NPR's John Burnett reports, even more migrants are surging to the border.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Sandra Zuniga and her son, Elder, are some of the lucky ones. They were among the migrants stuck at a camp in Matamoros, Mexico, amid the rats, snakes, mosquitoes and mud. On Sunday, Zuniga and her son walked across the international bridge, received a notice to appear in U.S. immigration court and settled into a cozy condo in Brownsville, Texas. It's rented by a volunteer who befriended her.

SANDRA ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) Glory Be to God, day I arrived, I spent the whole day crying. To end up in such a beautiful place with my own bedroom and bathroom, we passed a great test in the camp. Some people even doubted the existence of God, but we overcame.

BURNETT: Zuniga says she fled Honduras with her son to get away from an abusive husband and violent extortionists in her neighborhood. They stayed in the camp for a year. Trump had suspended most asylum applications because of the pandemic. Biden has restarted the process. And Zuniga is among the early beneficiaries of the policy change. She taught kindergarten at a free school inside the camp, and she recalled when her students realized that their ordeal was finally over.

ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) there was a little boy who told me goodbye, crying. He always asked me, teacher, when can we leave here? He gave me a big hug and said through his tears, at last, teacher, we are crossing over.

BURNETT: There are some 25,000 migrants scattered up and down the border between Matamoros and Tijuana. Many have been waiting well over a year to press their asylum cases in the U.S. Happy experiences like Sandras have created high expectations and anxiety among the others left behind. U.S. immigration agents are admitting some asylum-seekers who've been stuck in border towns under a Trump-era program known as "Remain in Mexico," but they're doing so slowly. So far, they've not yet gotten to 400 Cubans enrolled in that program who've been waiting in Reynosa, just across the river from Hidalgo, Texas. They're crowded into apartments and doing odd jobs around town.

YADY MILAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: "Our uncertainty is enormous because no one in Reynosa has crossed yet," says Yady Milan, a 34-year-old Cuban chemist who's trying to get to Miami. "I understand the camp in Matamoros was in precarious condition, but it's not fair that they don't acknowledge us here in Reynosa."

For the new administration, though, the larger problem may be the growing numbers of new migrants fleeing crime and poverty in Central America who've rushed to the U.S. border seeking entry. The Border Patrol is now arresting more than 1,200 unauthorized migrants a day in the Rio Grande Valley, the nation's illegal crossing hotspot. That's a sharp jump over recent months.

Pastor Hector Silva runs a migrant shelter in Reynosa. He's been watching immigration cycles here since he opened his doors 26 years ago.

HECTOR SILVA: (Through interpreter) The numbers are growing. The border is getting more and more jammed up with people who were either fooled into coming here or misunderstood the new American government.

BURNETT: His new guests are people like Dilicia Mejia, who believed the new White House was flinging open the gates. She and her 16-year-old daughter, Jorlene, fled Honduras last year to Monterrey, Mexico, where she's been cleaning houses. A couple weeks ago, with Biden in charge, they hopped a bus to Reynosa, where they're waiting for an opportunity to cross.

DILICIA MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "This is the faith we have before God," she says, kissing her fingers and raising them heavenward. "We know that Joe Biden is a good person who has made a good government."

So many migrants are now crossing into the U.S. that Washington has had to open two family shelters and reopen a facility for unaccompanied children in Texas. What's more, NPR has learned the government is converting some migrant detention centers into processing centers to get asylum-seekers out of Spartan Border Patrol holding cells so they can be quickly released into the country. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently called the border a stressful challenge, stopping short of branding it a crisis. He insists they have not reopened the border for all asylum-seekers because of the ongoing pandemic and that now is not the time to come.

John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.