Clothes, shoes, passports: migrants forced to throw their belongings at the US-Mexico wall | US-Mexico border

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In Yuma, in southwestern Arizona, a short distance from a breach in the 30-foot-high border fence between the United States and Mexico, Fernando “Fernie” Quiroz retrieves piles of shoes, shoelaces and clothes on the dirt road and transports them to a large red dumpster already overflowing with personal effects.

Every day, hundreds of people arrive at breaches in this stretch of border wall to seek political asylum from uniformed federal border agents waiting under a crude metal shade structure in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.

Most of those arriving to seek asylum come from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Romania or other Eastern European countries.

Official entry points dotted along the nearly 2,000-mile border that stretches from the California coast to the Gulf Coast of southern Texas remain closed to asylum seekers under the public health statute of the title 42 of the government established by the administration of Donald Trump at the start of the pandemic.

Instead, migrants arrive at ad hoc places like these breaches in the wall along the dry bed of the Colorado River to exercise their right to seek asylum.

In certain circumstances, including dangerous conditions in their home country, distance and the difficulty of returning people there, asylum seekers are exempt from the Title 42 summary deportation that has upended so many desperate journeys.

But to move on to the next stage of the asylum process, Yuma officials, according to Customs and Border Protection, demand that they leave everything behind except what they can put in a small plastic bag issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Border residents in Arizona and Texas have seen an increasing number of belongings left along the US side of the border wall over the past two years.

A Honduran passport and birth certificate found in the desert on the US side of the border fence with Mexico. Photography: handout

Usually people leave behind clothes and miscellaneous items, but items such as passports, birth certificates, police reports and other confidential documents that could be crucial in proving asylum claims have also been found. abandoned.

On a trip to the dumpster, Quiroz, director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition’s migrant aid group, came across a navy blue Haitian passport and Cuban passports lying around in the dirt, and he said he couldn’t understand why.

“Our entry points have been set up for people coming from other countries, and that’s where they should go,” he said, to participate in an orderly and fair judicial process.

“But they have no right to do that. So they come here,” he added, pointing to the harsh desert and the intimidating barrier with its tall metal stakes.

He found prayer beads, diaper bags, purses, plane ticket stubs and used face masks. Now the phenomenon is emerging as a popular backdrop for right-wingers keen on incendiary immigration talk, and with Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott. under pressure to declare “an invasion” – especially with the midterm elections looming.

Some senior US Border Patrol officials intervene. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council union, promoted a theory of white supremacy on Fox News last month, claiming that Democrats were going to lift Title 42 “to change the demographics of the electorate”.

And USBP noted that it was Earth Day on April 22 by post pictures personal belongings of asylum seekers on Instagram with the message that they were “garbage and rubbish left by illegal immigration”.

In Texas, Brian Hastings, head of border patrol for the Rio Grande Valley area — another busy corridor for arriving migrants — tweeted “It’s piling up” last summer and tagged people property images “bulky waste”.

But Quiroz said, “It’s not that they are [asylum seekers] leaving a mess. When Border Patrol shows up, they tell them to drop everything and get in line.

Some coalition volunteers have started cleaning up the Yuma border section. The county placed two large dumpsters nearby. They also persuaded border patrols to provide shade structures and water to arriving asylum seekers.

But he claimed: ‘Some politicians are disappointed because we cleaned it up. It’s not the visual they want to see for the story they want to tell.

In parts of Texas, so many belongings are left behind that Border Patrol uses heavy machinery to “pile them up on the side of the road,” said Scott Nicol, a McAllen-based environmental activist and artist, near the easternmost point. of the US-Mexico border.

He also found personal and confidential documents during his walks along the border.

“What really stuck with me were the x-rays I found. They were for a six-year-old boy and showed a steel rod in his spine. It was obviously for an asylum claim. Why would anyone part with it, he said.

He says he even found birth certificates “torn into a hundred pieces and thrown in the brush.”

The Guardian sent images of passports, birth certificates and other documents found at the border wall to Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency overseeing border agents, and asked for comment on whether officers told asylum seekers to leave their documents behind, and in some cases tore them up.

CBP declined to answer questions.

In an email, a CBP spokesperson replied that it “could not speculate on an individual’s motivation for discarding copies of their personal vital statistics documents.”

Asked about personal items left behind, CBP wrote in an email that Border Patrol had a “policy prohibiting certain items considered hazardous to health, including wet or moldy clothing, from entering facilities. of CBP”.

The spokesperson added: “Items not considered contraband or a health hazard are stored and returned to the migrant upon release or will accompany them if transferred to another agency’s custody.”

But more and more people are arriving at migrant shelters in the United States with only the clothes on their backs and without any identification.

Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational migrant advocacy organization that operates a shelter in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border south of Tucson, Arizona, said a theory she heard is that smugglers advise migrants to throw away their identification documents when they pass each other.

But in the thousands of migrant admissions interviews the organization has conducted, Williams said, they have never heard of anyone who left their papers behind because a smuggler told them. to do.

“The families we see carrying items related to their asylum claims are very clear that these are important documents, and very concerned about them, if they get lost,” she said. declared.

However, after the Trump administration began its stay-in-Mexico policy for many people crossing the border without permission, some migrants told them that agents tore up their Mexican immigration visas and other documents.

“Officers were saying they were fake documents when they were actually real, and they really needed them,” she said.

Blake Gentry, director of the indigenous languages ​​office at Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter in Tucson, estimated that about a third of people arrive at the shelter without papers or belongings.

He suspects some officers are forcing migrants to dump their belongings in some sort of rogue practice.

“If it’s happening on the US side of the wall, it’s most likely Border Patrol,” he said.

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