By Daniel Trotta
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Lupita, a 36-year-old Mexican woman from the state of Michoacan, has spent three months in a shelter, waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. She wears some of the evidence for her case: bullet wounds about her arms, shoulder and abdomen.
Since March 2020, when broad COVID-era restrictions went into effect at the southwest border, Mexicans like Lupita were largely barred from seeking U.S. refuge and instead were quickly expelled back to Mexico.
On Friday, that changed when the administration of President Joe Biden ended Title 42, a COVID-inspired provision that allowed the U.S. government to turn away asylum-seekers for public health reasons.
Immigration attorneys at the Tijuana shelter, across the border from San Diego, California, were advising migrants they should sign up for an appointment to approach a port of entry on a new government app known as CBP One if they wanted to have a chance at winning asylum.
At the same time Title 42 expired, the Biden administration implemented a new regulation that presumes most migrants will be ineligible for asylum if they failed to use legal pathways for U.S. entry like CBP One.
Lupita, now attempting to get an appointment through CBP One, said she fled her home after her husband was killed by cartel gunfire last year, during which she said she was wounded. Pointing her elbows toward the ceiling, she revealed the suture scars where she was patched up. The outline of a colostomy bag - which she said was the result of a gut shot - is visible through her clothes.
Lupita, who asked not to publish her last name or be photographed for fear of reprisals, said prosecutors told her the attack was a case of mistaken identity, but she fears that being a witness to her husband's murder endangers her and her children. Reuters was not able to independently confirm her account.
"This is mostly for my children," Lupita said. "I can't go back home."
Mexicans have made up about a third of all the migrants caught by U.S. Border Patrol in recent years but in 2021 and 2022 they were expelled under Title 42 more than 90% of the time.
PLACE OF SAFETY
Also at the shelter, where children played on bicycles and scooters around tents pitched on the floor, were families from Honduras, Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua in addition to Mexico. It was at capacity with nearly 60 people on Friday.
Many migrant families are fleeing political violence or domestic abuse at home, trauma that is often made worse during the overland journey through Central America and Mexico, where they are preyed on by all manner of security forces and criminal groups, said Judith Cabrera de la Rocha, co-director of the Tijuana shelter.
"They arrive here malnourished, dehydrated, including pregnant women, and with severe consequences for their mental health. And that's in addition to the reason why they left was traumatizing," Cabrera said.
"I like to think of this as a place to get healthy," she said of the shelter. "We provide a place that's a little safer."
The new regulation also bars most migrants from asylum if they passed through other countries without first seeking protection elsewhere, which would apply to most people who are not from Mexico but who traveled through there to get to the border.
Immigration advocates have filed a legal challenge against the new asylum bars, claiming they violate U.S. and international laws and that they resemble restrictions imposed by Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, that were blocked in court.
Tens of thousands of migrants rushed to the border last week trying to enter the country before the new asylum rules took effect. In the scramble to the border Mexico's national migration agency said one 29-year-old Cuban migrant died trying to swim cross the Rio Grande river into Texas early Friday.
The spike in recent arrivals strained U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. The Justice Department asked a federal judge in Florida to temporarily halt an order he issued on Friday that prevents border agents from releasing migrants from custody without first giving them formal notices to appear in immigration court. The government says the practice is needed to prevent overcrowding in U.S. detention centers.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Tijuana and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Diane Craft)