How Asylum Seekers Cross the Border

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Some people seeking asylum in the United States wait in Mexico for the rare chance to cross the border at an official point of entry.

Others are caught by Border Patrol officers after finding their own way into the country.

Large groups, including of families and unaccompanied minors, intentionally surrender themselves to Border Patrol every night.

How Asylum Seekers Cross the Border

The southern border is seeing a historic spike in migrant crossings. A New York Times photographer documented three ways that people cross the border into the United States.

By Kirsten Luce and Eileen Sullivan

HIDALGO, Texas — Since President Biden took office, migration at the southern border of the United States has increased to levels not seen in decades. Crossings in the past two months have eclipsed the high numbers of last summer, and officials expect the trend to continue, even though, with pandemic restrictions still in place, there is almost no access to asylum.

The vast majority of migrants cross into the United States at spots between official ports of entry, walking over the border or wading, swimming or floating across the Rio Grande, almost always under the watch of cartel-approved guides hired in Mexico. At times, some have been invited by Customs and Border Protection officials to walk across pedestrian bridges from Mexico — by far the safest and most orderly route.

Waiting to be Handpicked

A migrant camp known as Senda De Vida in the Mexican city of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen, Texas, has been full for months. The pastor who runs it opened a second space last month for migrants who were sleeping in a makeshift encampment in a nearby public park.

A man returning to the tent area of Senda De Vida after saying goodbye to friends headed to cross the border.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Residents of the camp volunteered to move a temporary building and help set up a new location to accomodate more people.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

In early May, a mother and daughter from Honduras were at the camp when they learned that they were among a group chosen to cross into the United States. A year earlier, they said, they fled Honduras after the daughter, 15, had been kidnapped and raped by a local gang. Once a bubbly, chatty teenager, she barely speaks now and flinches whenever anyone comes near, her mother said.

When the pair arrived in Nuevo Laredo, a northern Mexican city where drug cartels have been fighting for turf, they and other people who had been on their bus were kidnapped and sexually assaulted for days, they said. On the 15th day, the mother and daughter escaped and crossed the Rio Grande into the United States on a boat that held about 30 people. But border officials, pointing to Title 42, the public health rule that has restricted immigration since the beginning of the pandemic, sent them back to Mexico.

Soon, they registered with the shelter in Reynosa, which keeps a database of all the migrants who come through it.

Clockwise from top left: Carlos Orlando Corvera of El Salvador; Robertine Remy and her daughter, Marie Berlanda, from Haiti; Lory Lebreton and two of her children, also from Haiti; and Alison Reyes Rivera of Honduras were living at Senda De Vida last month.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

A makeshift barbershop at the camp.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Finding a place to charge a phone is essential to migrants who need to keep in contact with family members in the United States and at home.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

In late April, the pastor who runs the shelter, Hector Silva, was asked to meet with U.S. government officials to discuss a process for sending some migrants who qualify for humanitarian exceptions to the public health rule across the pedestrian bridge linking Reynosa with the United States. The government allows such exceptions for migrants deemed particularly vulnerable, with decisions being made on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Silva said Customs and Border Protection had been reaching out two or three times a day to ask for small groups of people who fall into certain categories. On May 1, for instance, Mr. Silva was asked to look for single mothers.

Read More About U.S. Immigration

  • At the Border: With 8,200 crossings daily, shelters and other way stations to house and feed migrants have become central to the government’s response plan.
  • Asylum Seekers: After a pandemic-era pause, the Biden administration will soon allow a small number of migrants at the border to ask for asylum.
  • A Shift in California: Farmers in the Golden State are turning to workers on seasonal visas and relying less on illegal immigration, while mechanizing what they can.
  • Documented Youths: Children of temporary visa holders risk losing their legal status in the United States when they turn 21. Some are joining calls for an immigration overhaul.

This also happens at other locations along the border, often the result of direct communication between local C.B.P. officials, lawyers and nonprofit groups that assist asylum seekers, according to asylum lawyers and officials with the Department of Homeland Security. In other situations, asylum lawyers work directly with C.B.P. officials to identify migrants who meet humanitarian exceptions.

Hector Silva, the pastor who runs the camp, preparing to take asylum seekers to the border.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
A bus took the migrants directly to the international bridge in Reynosa. The mother and daughter from Honduras were among this group.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The mother and daughter from Senda De Vida, along with other migrants deemed eligible to cross that day, were tested for the coronavirus, then directed to a school bus, which would take them to the pedestrian bridge. On the bridge, the daughter, wearing a face mask and a T-shirt that read “Good Vibes Only,” flashed smiling eyes as she stared into the United States.

“My heart is pounding,” the mother said as she waited for officers from Customs and Border Protection to arrive at the spot on the bridge where two types of pavement touch, separating Mexico and the United States. The mother and daughter met up with relatives in Austin later that day.

Ana Maria Alvarado and her son, Kevin Alexander Avila, right, waiting to cross the border with an exemption from Title 42.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Trying to Dodge Border Patrol

Early on a recent morning, five migrants sat in a parking lot in Hidalgo, most of them handcuffed to another migrant by one wrist. They gave border agents whatever form of identification they were carrying and put their belongings — including shoelaces, belts, watches and smartphones — into plastic bags. Three were from Mexico, two from Honduras. Two of the Mexicans were married, coming to the United States for a better life; they had left four children under 12 with family back home.

For all but one of them, it was not their first time getting caught after crossing the border. Some had relatives in Texas and Minnesota.

A group of migrants who had tried to evade Border Patrol were apprehended before dawn.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
A husband and wife from Mexico had come to the United States for a better life, leaving four children in the care of family members back home.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Nearby, Agent Jesse Moreno searched for a group of migrants who were trying to evade the Border Patrol, and he apprehended several men at a self-storage business in Hidalgo, Texas. The men had just crossed the river; their jeans were soaked up to the knees.

Agent Jesse Moreno looking for a group of men.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Another agent yelled, “Kneel! Kneel!” after finding other migrants from the group hiding under a truck in the parking lot of an adjacent strip mall. One man said it was his fourth time crossing the border.

Border Patrol said the men would be processed at a local station, where agents would record their personal information and run background checks on them, and then they would most likely be sent back to Mexico through the Hidalgo port of entry.

Border Patrol agents found other members of the group hiding under a truck in a strip mall parking lot. The men were handcuffed together and told to put their personal items in plastic bags.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

There are also many migrants who manage to sneak across the border and evade detection. Border Patrol agents refer to them as “got-aways.” The Biden administration has estimated that some 389,000 undocumented migrants avoided apprehension between October 2020 and September 2021. Republicans critical of Mr. Biden’s immigration policies say that is most likely a significant undercount.

Border Patrol agents in Roma, Texas, looking out over a section of the Rio Grande where migrants wade across from Mexico every night.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times


Many people who have been crossing the southern border in recent years promptly turn themselves in. Agents call them “give-ups”; many constitute families.

One of the busiest crossing points in the Rio Grande Valley is in Roma, Texas, a historic town of about 11,000, with parts that sit atop sandstone bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande. Before dark one evening last month, a group of Border Patrol agents took in the breathtaking view, including a section of the river where groups of migrants often swim across to the United States in the early hours of the morning.

Roma has become one of the biggest crossing points in Texas.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Children who had crossed the border alone and surrended to Border Patrol wait to be processed by the agency.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Later that week, a group of migrants emerged from the river on the Texas side and onto private property, following a winding, sandy path toward the Texas National Guard troops and Border Patrol agents who wait for such arrivals.

Wet from the river, the migrants presented carefully stashed documents to Border Patrol agents, who had set up a makeshift office with a desk and chairs on the unpaved road that connects the river with the town.

Dozens lined up to wait for their turn to speak to an agent. No one tried to sneak away; everyone remained quiet.

Under moonlight, parents and children waited hours to be processed by Border Patrol.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

A young girl had to go to the bathroom, and her mother escorted her to an inconspicuous spot behind a Border Patrol truck while the girl’s father watched anxiously for them to return.

A Honduran mother fed her baby boy a bottle and smiled and stroked his hair.

A young boy from Guatemala shook his head, trying to get something out of his ear.

Parents made faces at their children to elicit smiles, as the wait stretched into the early hours of the morning.

Most migrants presented an array of documents: driver’s licenses, passports, school ID cards, birth certificates and vaccination records.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Fourteen-year-old twins from Guatemala made the journey to Roma without adult family members.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Typically, federal border officials separate the migrants into categories to help speed up the hours of processing ahead. Children who arrive without a parent or guardian go to one area; others are grouped by nationality. Adult migrants from Mexico and Central America can be swiftly expelled under the pandemic public health rule.

Some migrants — from Cuba and Nicaragua, for example — are usually processed into the country to await removal proceedings that most likely will not take place for months or years.

Once the agents have processed everyone, the migrants are bused to a Customs and Border Protection facility where they wait in more lines and answer more questions. Some may stay there for several days before officials decide whether or not they can remain, at least for now, in the country.

Unaccompanied minors waited in line to board a bus to the Border Patrol facility where the process would continue.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

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