METETÍ, Panama—Alex Oswaldo Yáñez Tarqui and his wife were on track to reach the United States border before May 11, when the controversial Title 42 pandemic-era border policy came to an end, setting the stage for an unpredictable future in which the Biden administration has promised to increase deportations and narrow the pathways to claiming asylum.
The couple had left Ecuador after Tarqui, 31, was threatened by mobsters who demanded monthly payments from the restaurant he owns in Quito—a common danger for business owners in the capital city. “My life is in danger,” he said. “If I don’t pay, I’ll die.”
Tarqui and his wife crossed the Darién Gap, the treacherous jungle crossing between Colombia and Panama that serves as the primary route linking Central and South America, in March.
Along the way, they were robbed of about $1,500—everything they had. They had chosen to take a five-day path through the jungle that required fewer payments to the local gangs who control entrances to the routes.
Somewhere in the jungle, he said, the couple drank unfiltered water from a river, after which two parasites entered his wife’s brain and stomach. Four days after they left the jungle, she fell into a coma and was taken by Red Cross volunteers to a Panama City hospital.
She’ll be released soon after recovering, Tarqui said, but when they continue their journey, they’ll face an entirely new situation upon reaching the U.S. border. Title 42, which gives the power to remove migrants and ban entry to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, was a highly restrictive tool during the pandemic years—but it’s being replaced with fresh regulations that are potentially far more punishing than what came before it. New rules introduced this week by the Biden administration make it harder to seek asylum, creating potential chaos not only at the U.S. border but also along migration routes throughout Central and South America.
Under new regulations published last week, migrants will not be allowed to apply for asylum if they pass through a third country, such as Mexico or Panama, without first seeking asylum in that country.
The rule will not apply to unaccompanied children, nor will it restrict those who apply for asylum via the mobile CBP One application, which grants applicants scheduled appointments at offices along the southern U.S. border. But immigrant rights groups fear the measures will disqualify many migrants who would otherwise qualify for asylum, and the American Civil Liberties Union is already preparing to sue.
Title 42 prevented migrants from claiming asylum at the border in almost all cases. However, it did not punish those who tried to cross the border multiple times. Now, migrants who cross irregularly could face criminal charges and bans of up to five years, making it tougher for those who try their luck at crossing the border and seeking asylum once they safely enter the country.
The Biden administration says it’s introducing new measures to assist migrants, part of its long-stated emphasis on addressing the root causes of migration. It’s currently setting up two processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala, where eligible migrants can apply to legally enter the U.S. before reaching the border, and has plans to set up many more.
But that infrastructure is far from being ready, and the coming days and weeks have the “potential to be very difficult,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a briefing last week. “Our plan will deliver results, but it will take time for those results to be fully realized.”
The effects of the policy change have been acutely felt for weeks in Metetí, one of the first towns most migrants reach after crossing the Darién Gap, as migrants received word there could be more chances to seek asylum in the U.S. after Title 42 ended.
Up to 400,000 migrants could cross the Darién this year, according to the United Nations agencies for refugees and migration, up from last year’s estimated record number of nearly 250,000. Many are planning to rush to the U.S. border right away rather than waiting for clarity on the new regulations.
But there will be fewer chances for the thousands of migrants with legitimate claims for asylum, as the new rules will break long-standing precedent that anyone who reaches the U.S. border should be granted an asylum hearing.
The U.S. government’s CBP One app, which it touts as the easiest path toward scheduling an appointment, has helped many migrants at the border, but it’s also been criticized for months for its security and reliability issues.
“It’s not working. It’s not loading,” said Abdulrahman Sulaiman Olaide, from Nigeria’s Osun state, as he tried to open the app on his Android phone, only for it to repeatedly freeze.
Olaide, 31, left behind a job in Brazil to cross the Darién and head to the United States, where his relatives live. He wants to seek asylum at the border, but without being able to use the app, he could be out of luck.
Many of the migrants gathering in Metetí’s two main camps are also without money, belongings, and even their documents after being robbed by criminal gangs in the jungle.
Camilo Macana, a former Colombian military officer, said he left for the United States after being threatened by members of splinter groups from the former FARC guerrilla army, only to be robbed by Colombian bandits in the Darién Gap.
“I can’t leave [the camp] because I don’t have my passport, and I don’t have money to pay for a bus,” said Macana, 54, who said he was also robbed of his clothes. “How can I get a passport if I can’t leave?”
In April, the Biden administration said it would work with Colombian and Panamanian forces to halt migration through the Darién’s primary routes in a jointly announced two-month operation to crack down on smugglers. The governments said they would also open new pathways for migrants but did not provide details.
Homer Alejandro Barrios Chacon, an activist and journalist working in opposition to the regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, moved to Colombia six years ago. He decided to leave after last year’s election of President Gustavo Petro, who restored diplomatic ties with Venezuela shortly after taking office.
After Chacon, 37, and his wife were robbed in the Darién, they decided to stay in Panama and apply for asylum. He would rather try his luck going to the United States, where “the Venezuelan government will never touch me,” he said, but he wants to go to “any country where my life is secure.”
U.S. officials admit that the new measures won’t stop the movement of people and goods through the Darién, and the expected migration surge could further exacerbate an ongoing spike in robberies, violent crime, and sexual assault in the region after criminal gangs seized upon migrants who had received word that Title 42 would end.
That leaves migrants like Tarqui and Chacon, who traveled the same treacherous route through the Darién without the aid of expensive payments to smugglers, at continued risk.
“It’s the long route, the hard route, the dangerous route,” Chacon said of the path he chose. “It’s the poor route.”
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