NOGALES, SONORA.- Seated on a metal folding chair in the front row among dozens of asylum-seekers awaiting COVID tests in Arizona, Gloria Estela Vallora reaped the benefits of her Colombian passport.
She and eight family members, ranging in age from 4 to 63, flew to Cancun for two nights in the Mexican beach resort town, caught another flight to Mexico’s border with the U.S., walked 20 minutes to U.S. agents and spent a night in custody. Within hours, they would be with a friend in Utah.
For Colombians and other nationalities that don’t need a visa, flying to Mexico can be a ticket to seeking asylum in the United States. Once arriving at a Mexican border city, they can walk across the border in broad daylight and surrender to U.S. agents. In doing so, they avoid the dangers of traversing Mexico and other countries over land and circumvent sweeping U.S. asylum restrictions.
The U.S. has expelled migrants more than 1.5 million times under a public health order in effect since March 2020 to address the coronavirus, but it hasn’t been applied across the board.
Mexico accepts back its own migrants and those from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under the order, known as Title 42. Other nationalities are eligible for expulsion, but the U.S. frequently won’t fly them out due to the expense and strained diplomatic relations with their home countries, notably Cuba and Venezuela. Instead, they are often quickly released in the U.S. to pursue asylum.
The biggest beneficiaries are people from Colombia and other nations who can enter Mexico visa-free, allowing them to fly to the U.S. border and walk across.
“At my weight, it’s not as easy to get around as it used to be,” said a smiling Vallora, 59, who fled violence in the city of Bucaramanga. She spoke in a warehouse outside Yuma where a health-care provider tests released migrants for COVID-19 before driving them to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport in chartered buses.
Under U.S. pressure, Mexico is requiring visas from more nationalities, delaying or potentially eliminating the option of flying to the border. Their only alternative may be traveling illegally over land.
Last year, Mexico began requiring visas for Brazilians and Ecuadoreans and, on Jan. 21, did the same for Venezuelans. Mexico’s Interior Department said the latest move responded to a tenfold increase in Venezuelans traveling “in an irregular manner to a third country,” a clear reference to the United States.