In Yuma, south-west Arizona, just a short distance from a gap in the 30-foot-high border barrier between the US and Mexico, Fernando “Fernie” Quiroz collects piles of shoes, shoelaces and clothing from the dirt road and carries them to a large red dumpster already overflowing with personal belongings.
Every day, hundreds of people arrive at gaps in this stretch of border wall to request political asylum from uniformed federal border agents who stand waiting under a rudimentary metal shade structure in the Sonoran desert heat.
Most of those arriving to seek asylum are from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Romania, or other eastern European countries.
Official ports of entry dotted along the almost 2,000-mile-long border stretching from the California coast to the Gulf coast of south Texas remain closed to asylum seekers under the government’s enduring title 42 public health statute established by Donald Trump’s administration at the beginning of thepandemic.
So instead migrants arrive at ad-hoc places like these gaps in the wall, alongside the dried-up bed of the Colorado River, to exercise their right to request asylum.
In some circumstances, including dangerous conditions in their country of origin, and the distance and difficulty in returning the people there, asylum seekers are exempted from the summary expulsion under title 42 that has upended so many desperate journeys.
But to get to the next step in the asylum process, agents in Yuma, according to Customs and Border Protection, require they leave everything behind, except for what they can fit into a small plastic Department of Homeland Security-issued bag.
Border residents in Arizona and Texas have observed an increasing number of personal belongings left along the US side of the border wall in the last two years.
Usually people leave clothing and sundries, but items such as passports, birth certificates, police reports, and other confidential documents that could be crucial in proving asylum cases have been found abandoned, too.
On one trip to the dumpster, Quiroz, director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition migrant assistance group, came across a navy blue Haitian passport and Cuban passports just lying in the dirt, and he said he can’t begin to fathom why.