WASHINGTON -- Asylum seekers waiting to get into the U.S. sleep in small tents set up by the border, depending on volunteers and churches to bring them food and clothing. Some scrape together 25 cents to pay a toll to get on an international bridge where they can use a bathroom.
They've fled violence-ridden homelands, often arriving at the U.S. border deep in debt, paying $7,000 or more to smugglers. Under President Donald Trump's latest immigration proposal, they could face another demand on their meager resources: a fee to process their asylum applications. It's not known how much the fee might be, but any amount would likely be a burden.
"If we came from our country, it's because we didn't have the opportunity to work. We don't have money," said Suanny Gomez, a 24-year-old woman from Honduras who waited in a tent with her 5-year-old son, William.
The proposed application fee and other changes are the latest in a series of proposals from an administration struggling to cope with a surge of migrant families arriving at the southern border. The migrants have overwhelmed federal resources and complicated Trump's efforts to claim victory at the border as he runs for re-election next year.
The fee proposal was part of a memo Trump signed Monday directing his attorney general and acting homeland security secretary to take additional measures to overhaul the asylum system, which he insists is plagued by "rampant abuse." It said the application fee would not exceed the cost of processing applications, but officials did not immediately provide an estimate for what that might be.
Trump is giving Homeland Security Department officials 90 days to come up with new regulations to ensure that applications are adjudicated within 180 days of filing, except under exceptional circumstances. He called on officials to immediately revoke work authorizations when people are denied asylum and ordered removed from the country. He also wants to bar anyone who has entered or tried to enter the country illegally from receiving a provisional work permit.
Immigration advocates said the fees could push applicants further into poverty.
"Asylum seekers are fleeing persecution, and have left their families, communities, homes, jobs and possessions behind in order to save their lives," said Archi Pyati, policy chief at Tahirih Justice Center.
Democratic House Majority leader Steny Hoyer said Trump was undermining American ideals.
"This latest move will do nothing to address the humanitarian crisis on our border of the Trump Administration's own making," he said in a statement.
On Tuesday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan described that crisis, telling a House subcommittee the department was running out of money and out of resources for dealing with the mass of people coming to the border. He said the White House would send a supplemental request for funding, along with some legislative suggestions.
McAleenan, formerly the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said the system had cracked under the sheer volume of people coming to the U.S. In a single day, April 16, nearly 5,000 people crossed the border. Agents and officers don't have the resources to hold, process or properly care for them.
"Simply put, the system is full and we are well beyond our capacity," he said. "The status quo is not acceptable."
McAleenan has been in charge for about two weeks, following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen, who left amid a staff shake-up orchestrated by the White House.
Most Central Americans seeking asylum say they are fleeing violence and poverty, and many request admission to the U.S. under federal and international law. About 20 percent of those who claim asylum in the U.S. are granted it, but the rates vary by country of origin.
Also, not everyone who crossed the border claims asylum; during the 2018 fiscal year, 161,005 people claimed asylum, though migrants have a year to make a claim. There were more than 521,090 border apprehensions during fiscal year 2018.
The administration has tried to crack down on asylum seekers. Attorney General William Barr said this year that asylum seekers who have passed their initial screenings are no longer entitled to be released while their cases play out.
In Matamoros, Mexico, about a thousand people were waiting to cross the border to seek asylum. A man washed himself in the Rio Grande, the river that forms the international boundary, because there are no bathing facilities nearby.
Leonardo Arzuaga, 28, of Cuba, arrived in Mexico on April 1 and, with support from American friends, is staying at a low-priced hotel. He waits until he can cross the border and claim asylum. Thousands of Cubans seek to enter the United States, saying they are fleeing political persecution.
"I think it's a bit unjust," Arzuaga said of the recent proposals. "Because many people do not have the means to arrive, work, produce. For me it's something that isn't logical."
"Because one practically gets here with nothing."
Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Washington and Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California, contributed to this story.