LAREDO, Texas (AP) — The Biden administration has stopped making appointments on mobile apps to admit asylum seekers at a Texas border crossing that connects to a notoriously dangerous Mexican town after lawyers warned US authorities that migrants there were being targeted for extortion.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection gave no explanation for its decision to no longer schedule new appointments through the CBP One app for crossing into Laredo, Texas.
Several asylum seekers told The Associated Press that Mexican officials in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas, threatened to detain them and make them miss their work appointments. asylum provided unless they pay for it. Humanitarian groups in Laredo say they had recently notified CBP of the problems and that some groups were controlling access to the international crossing on the Mexican side.
Migrant advocates say the situation in Nuevo Laredo, which is plagued by cartel fighting and other issues, casts doubt on the administration’s argument that Mexico is a safe place for the numbers record number of people fleeing violence in Central America and elsewhere.
Rafael Alvarez, 29, who fled Venezuela, said after he landed in Nuevo Laredo in early June, Mexican immigration authorities at the airport seized his travel documents, including a printout of the email confirming his CBP One appointment, and asking him to pay 1,000 Mexican. pesos, about $57. He was detained with other migrants.
“They were secretly telling us, ‘You’re going to put the money in this envelope and pass it to us,'” Alvarez said, recalling what officials told him and other migrants.
Officials, he said, threatened to hold them back to have their appointments cancelled. Alvarez, whose appointment was 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, or about $290. They were initially asked to shell out more than double that amount, but told officials they didn’t have that much, he said.
Alvarez said other Venezuelan friends who flew to Nuevo Laredo in late May also paid to have their documents returned.
Thousands of asylum seekers are stuck in Mexican border towns, waiting to get an appointment to seek refuge in the United States after being stranded during the COVID-19 pandemic by a public health restriction called Title 42 which was lifted last month.
Although the government has opened up new immigration avenues, the fate of many people is largely left to the CBP One app that is used to book an appointment at a port of entry.
The government said it would continue to open 1,250 appointments a day by reallocating slots for Laredo to seven other crossings along the US-Mexico border. He pledged to honor online appointments issued for the Laredo crossing ahead of the June 3 change. The government plans appointments in two weeks.
CBP prioritizes people with an application appointment, although people can try to gain admission by going in person without one. Anyone suffering from a serious illness or immediately threatened with kidnapping or death may also apply to be admitted in person.
Laredo was among the least busy crossing points for asylum appointments, seeing only a fraction of appointments compared to San Diego and Brownsville.
Many migrants have complained of being forced to pay bribes to Mexico’s immigration sector, where corruption runs deep, and sometimes working directly with smugglers.
Earlier this month, Mexican newspaper El Universal published video taken through a bus window, showing a federal agent taking migrants’ bills and stuffing them in his pocket as he checked passports in the bus. state of Jalisco, on the Pacific coast. The agency said it had suspended two of its agents there and did not tolerate any violation of migrants’ rights.
The newspaper also obtained government documents through a Freedom of Information request showing the agency opened 119 investigations against officers between 2017 and 2023 for misconduct.
Rebecca Solloa of Catholic Charities in Laredo said her organization and others met with CBP officials in person and on Zoom to warn them that migrants had told them that groups in Nuevo Laredo were controlling the bridge and extorting migrants there. -down, but she didn’t know who they were.
She said CBP “obviously received some kind of information, or descriptions, or information from the migrants (about) what happened to them.”
“I’m pretty glad they did,” she said, adding that the government actions may have happened because “it’s happening way too much here on this border.”
It was unclear if the problem was isolated to Nuevo Laredo and if so, why.
Narsher Nuñez, 29, flew to Nuevo Laredo in early June with her 6-month-old son, husband and adult nephew after securing an appointment in Mexico City through the app. She said she and her family were extorted at the airport.
The Venezuelan said Mexican officials took their documents and demanded they pay 1,500 pesos, or $86, to get them back. They were held for hours with a group of Chinese migrants, she said. Her husband said an official told them, “If I have a good heart, I will send you to Guatemala. But if you catch me in a bad mood, I’ll send you to Venezuela.
Eventually they paid and were released, she said. The next day, Nuñez and his family went to their appointment and were admitted to the United States.
“All the immigrants who were captured there, they took money from us,” said Nuñez, who currently lives with his family in a shelter in Laredo.
The Department of Homeland Security said in an email to the AP that CBP One has been instrumental in creating a more efficient and orderly system at the border “while removing unscrupulous smugglers who take advantage of vulnerable migrants”.
Neither the U.S. nor Mexican governments responded to questions from the AP about reports of extortion from migrants using the app.
The app was criticized for tech issues when it launched on January 12. The government has made improvements in recent weeks, but demand has far outstripped supply, prompting many to consider crossing the border illegally or give up.
The administration said anyone who did not use legal channels would be deported to their home country and risk being barred from seeking asylum in the United States for five years.
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.