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World & Nation

Central American migrant who sought U.S. asylum slain in Tijuana

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A van with migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. in April 2019 at El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A 35-year-old man from El Salvador returned to Mexico under a controversial Trump administration program was brutally killed in Tijuana while waiting for an outcome to his U.S. asylum case, according to his family’s attorney.

During a seven-month period, the man and his family repeatedly told U.S. officials — including a San Diego immigration court judge, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and border agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection — that they were not safe in Tijuana, the lawyer said.

Customs and Border Protection returned the man and his family to Tijuana anyway, records show. In November, he was killed in Zona Norte, one of Tijuana’s more dangerous regions near the border.

“I don’t know how there’s an argument that Mexico is a safe country,” said Richard Sterger, the family’s immigration attorney. “My clients begged not to be sent back there.”

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The family fled El Salvador and presented themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in May asking to be allowed into the United States to assert their legal right to seek asylum, Sterger said.

The family was placed into the Migrant Protection Protocols program, also known as MPP or “Remain in Mexico.” The man’s wife and their two children are not being identified because they fear for their lives after reporting and speaking about his slaying.

Sterger said he could not discuss details of their asylum claim, such as why they fled El Salvador, because it is part of their ongoing immigration case.

Between May and September, the family members waited in Tijuana for their first court appearance, he said.

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During their Sept. 11 immigration court hearing, they pleaded with a San Diego immigration judge to not be sent back to Mexico because they feared for their safety. At the time, the family did not have legal representation, Sterger said.

“I told the judge that I was afraid for my children because we were in a horrible, horrible place, and we didn’t feel safe here,” the widow told the Spanish-language news station Telemundo 20.

The judge referred the case to ICE, a process called “red sheeting,” and the family was interviewed about its fears of returning to Tijuana without a legal representative, the attorney said.

A spokeswoman for ICE said a “red sheet” is placed at the top of a person’s immigration court case file to alert Customs and Border Protection officials that an interview needs to be done about whether or not a family can continue safely waiting in Mexico.

She said she could not comment specifically on the man’s case because of privacy and identification policies.

Under international law, countries are forbidden to return asylum seekers to any nation where they are likely to face danger of persecution because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The legal principle is known as “non-refoulement.”

Migrant rights advocates have been warning the public that the U.S. government is violating the “non-refoulement” principle with the MPP program, which is facing numerous challenges and lawsuits in federal court.

Sterger said his clients’ case is a perfect example.

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After telling U.S. officials they were afraid to be in Tijuana, the members of the family were sent back anyway without explanation.

A Baja California death certificate says the husband and father died Nov. 20 of stab wounds to his neck. It also says he had cuts and stab wounds all over his torso that a Baja California investigator confirmed could indicate torture.

Started under the Trump administration, MPP requires that migrants trying to legally enter the United States remain in Mexico during the immigration court process.

That process usually takes several months, sometimes up to a year, and involves multiple court hearings, which requires migrants to present themselves at El Chaparral border crossing near the San Ysidro Port of Entry to travel to immigration court in San Diego.

Officials with the Baja California prosecutors’ office said that during the process of repeatedly presenting themselves at the border, U.S. asylum seekers can easily be spotted and targeted by criminal groups as potential victims.

In Tijuana, the threat of violence for migrants is so severe that Baja California state police have been going around to various migrant shelters giving presentations on how to avoid becoming a victim since the MPP program began.

Under the program, rolled out in January in Tijuana and then expanded across the U.S.-Mexico border, tens of thousands of U.S. asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico.

Immigration advocacy groups, attorneys and human rights organizations have been urgently warning the U.S. government that border cities are not safe places for asylum seekers to be forced to wait while their cases are processed.

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The nonprofit group Human Rights First identified 636 publicly reported cases of “rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico by the Trump administration.”

Of that, at least 138 cases involved children being kidnapped or nearly kidnapped in Mexico, according to a report by the group.

“The MPP fear screening process is a sham with interviews that have become increasingly cursory and adversarial resulting in the return of vulnerable and victimized asylum seekers to new dangers,” the report highlighted.

Sterger agreed.

“We are literally putting people’s lives at risk,” he said. “When we look back at this, historically, we are not going to be proud.”

The attorney said that after the father and husband of the family was brutally slain, the mother ran to the border with her children, both younger than 10. She told border officers what happened and begged to be let into the United States.

They were released Wednesday in the U.S. and have left the San Diego region, Sterger said.

The mother described finding out her husband had been killed to Telemundo 20, which originally reported the story.

“I risked my life looking for him from one place to another and nobody told me anything until the authorities arrived Friday to give me the bad news that they had killed him,” she said.

The Union-Tribune reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comments on the family’s case and with questions about the safety of individuals returned to Mexico under the MPP program.

So far, the agencies have not responded.

In November, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, along with the Jewish Family Service of San Diego and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center announced a lawsuit against the federal government over migrants’ access to legal representation during the “non-refoulement” process.

They said people who express a fear of being returned to Mexico are routinely being denied access to their attorneys during the high-stakes interviews while they are in Customs and Border Protection custody.

“The Trump administration is waging an all-out assault on immigrants and refugees, and this was from his campaign to his inauguration and every single day in his administration,” said Norma Chavez-Peterson, the executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

At the time, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said he could not respond to the allegations because of the pending litigation.

“However, consistent with the law, aliens have not been permitted counsel during their inspection at the ports of entry or at Border Patrol stations,” said agency spokesman Ralph DeSio.


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