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The Trump administration’s new policy of returning asylum-seekers to Mexico while they await court hearings has renewed questions about safety and legal representation. In the meantime, discussions over border security are breaking down in Washington D.C.
Roughly two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security began sending asylum-seekers who came through the San Ysidro Port of Entry back to Mexico, where they will await their legal proceedings.
Dubbed Migration Protection Protocols, the policy will eventually be expanded to whole families and to individuals who request asylum after crossing between ports of entry. There are also plans to expand it to other parts of the border, like El Paso.
But there are still many questions in San Diego and Tijuana about how it will all play out.
The Mexican government doesn’t appear to have plans or additional funds set aside to deal with the potential influx of returned migrants. Local government officials told PRI that they are concerned about their ability to provide for the asylum-seekers because city shelters are at capacity. They also noted the sparse coordination on the whole thing between U.S. and Mexican immigration authorities.
“We came to live in the United States, not Mexico,” one asylum-seeker who was turned back told PRI. “They are playing with our lives.”
There have also been longstanding concerns about migrants’ safety in Tijuana, one of the world’s deadliest cities. Tijuana experienced a record number of reported homicides — more than 2,500 — in 2018. In December, two Honduran teens were brutally executed.
Federal officials in the United States last week advised Customs and Border Protection personnel that if migrants slated for return say they are afraid to be in Mexico, they could qualify for an exemption to the new policy. Unaccompanied minors are also supposed to be exempt, though there have also long been reports that Mexican authorities make it difficult for unaccompanied minors to get through a port of entry.
On the San Diego side, immigration attorneys are trying to figure out how they might be able to provide counsel for asylum-seekers forced to wait in Mexico. It’s also unclear how this will work in San Diego’s immigration courts.
A DHS memo suggests that the agency is trying to streamline the hearings for those waiting in Mexico. The partial government shutdown forced San Diego’s immigration courts to send out notices last week to reschedule hearings.
“For the asylum access, getting access to due process, to the rights they’re supposed to have, under U.S. and international law will be compromised,” said Carmen Chavez, the executive director of Casa Cornelia, which provides pro-bono legal services to asylum-seekers. “There still isn’t an infrastructure ingratitude for attorney to provide counsel for U.S. law in Mexico.”
As of now, asylum-seekers are given a list of pro-bono attorneys in the United States with U.S. numbers before they are turned back to Mexico. According to the PRI report, the entire packet is in English, with a sole page in Spanish stating the date and time of their first hearing and explaining migrants’ right to seek their own counsel.
Casa Cornelia has yet to receive any calls from someone who has been returned to Tijuana, Chavez said. There have been dozens of people returned already.
Chavez worries that people will try to go about the asylum process on their own or abandon their claim because the barriers to accessing counsel are so great. Many asylum seekers already have to represent themselves in court and there’s a big gap in outcomes between those who have attorneys and those who don’t.
And even among those who’ve retained legal representation, Chavez said, finding a confidential space where attorneys can meet with their clients is difficult. There are also general concerns over the ability of U.S. attorneys to give counsel in Mexico, where they may not be authorized to practice law.
“We’d like to work with U.S. immigration officials to try and find space either south of the border or at a port of entry, where we can effectively provide counsel,” Chavez said, but as of now, there’s nothing.
Then things got even more complicated last week. Two attorneys from Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit legal aid organization with offices in Tijuana and Southern California that has been advising asylum-seekers in Tijuana and suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection over the Migration Protection Protocols, were denied entry to Mexico.
Nora Phillips, the legal and litigation director for Al Otro Lado, said she was detained after flying to Guadalajara for a planned vacation with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles Times reports.
“I think this is retaliation,” Phillips said at a press conference, according to the Times. “I think this is because we sued the U.S. government. I think it’s that we’re pointing out gross, flagrant human rights violations being committed by the U.S. government, and they don’t like that.”
There have also been troubling reports of other advocates and activists who have worked with migrants in Tijuana being questioned or pulled into secondary inspection at the border. Several journalists, particularly photo journalists who have been covering the recent migrant caravan, have also had issues. At least two had their passports flagged and were detained upon trying to enter Mexico.