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National

Change In Asylum Policy Allows Some Migrants To Wait In U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

* As part of President Biden's effort to unwind the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico program, some asylum seekers with pending cases are now being allowed into the U.S. to wait out their immigration court proceedings. A small group crossed from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso Friday, as Mallory Falk from member station KERA reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: After a long wait in Mexico - for some, nearly two years - the asylum seekers walked across an international bridge and into El Paso. Children in bright puffy jackets held their parents' hands. As they were ushered onto a bus, a group of lawyers and advocates cheered.

(CHEERING)

LINDA RIVAS: It just feels historic.

FALK: Linda Rivas is a local immigration attorney who's been working with asylum seekers in Mexico.

RIVAS: I feel like it's a historic day for the United States to slowly return to a value system of accepting asylum seekers.

FALK: They're also being admitted at entry points in San Ysidro, Calif., and Brownsville, Texas. Here in El Paso, they'll head to a hospitality site run by the nonprofit Annunciation House. It's in an old warehouse with bright murals on the walls. The team there is ramping back up to receive asylum seekers after Remain in Mexico kept most on the other side of the border. Before the first group arrived, volunteer Mary Bull showed off the space.

MARY BULL: We have the cots set up here. This is where they'll be sleeping. It's pretty basic, but for the day or two that they're here, it ends up sufficing.

FALK: Director Ruben Garcia says people will arrive here gradually, starting with about 25 people each weekday.

RUBEN GARCIA: We're going to assist them to make calls to family that they have in different parts of the country. Those family members will purchase bus tickets or plane tickets, and then they will be on their way.

FALK: Annunciation House has done this work before, but there's a new complication - finding ways to create a warm welcome during a pandemic.

MARISA LIMON GARZA: Can we still get groups of volunteers together to make meals, but instead of serving them buffet-style, can they serve an individual boxed meal?

FALK: Marisa Limon Garza directs the Hope Border Institute, part of a coalition of nonprofits and local government that's helping support these asylum seekers.

LIMON GARZA: Is there a way for people to create care packages that people can take when they travel and include a note or some kind of written expression of love and support?

FALK: As these first groups make their way into the U.S., many more are still waiting in Mexico for their turn. There's a multistep process for the estimated 25,000 asylum seekers who may now qualify to enter the U.S. First, they have to register.

MIKEL: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: The day the registration site went live, a Cuban asylum seeker named Mikel was glued to his cellphone. He's been living in a migrant shelter in Juarez since fleeing political persecution. We're only using his first name because he's still in immigration proceedings.

MIKEL: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: He says he couldn't get all the way through at first. The site was overloaded. But he finally managed to register. There are still more steps - receiving a call to verify his information, then a date to enter the U.S. And he has to test negative for COVID-19 in Mexico. Then finally, he hopes, his turn will come to cross.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.