Customs and Border Protection officers have not always followed policies intended to protect Central American asylum seekers who are likely to be harmed in Mexico from returning there under the “Remain in Mexico” program, according to documents obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The program, known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols, sends certain migrants who ask for asylum at the southern border back to Mexico while they wait for their immigration court cases to be called.
If migrants tell officials that they are afraid of going back to Mexico, the Border Patrol is supposed to send them for follow-up interviews with asylum officers who work under a separate agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to an agency memo. Those officials are specially trained to weigh a person’s story about fear of returning against specific legal standards and definitions.
Customs and Border Patrol documents detailing questions asked of individual asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico as part of the migrant protection program show that some of those who expressed fear of being in Mexico were returned to Tijuana without talking to USCIS asylum officers.
Others returned under the program said that they had not been able to express their fear to Border Patrol officials during processing because of the way officials conducted their intake interviews.
The majority of those who spoke with the Union-Tribune after they had been returned under the program said they were afraid to be in Mexico, but few had been referred for the additional screening to determine whether they should be part of the program.
Juan Carlos, a Salvadoran man who came to the port of entry with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom is 10 months old, said that when he told the Border Patrol official that he and his family were afraid to return to Mexico, the official asked how long they’d been there already. Juan Carlos responded three months.
“He said, ‘Well, they haven’t done anything to you yet,’” Juan Carlos recalled in Spanish.
He was not given the opportunity to talk to an asylum officer about his fears.
“We’re human beings,” Juan Carlos said. “No one wants to die, not an American, not a Salvadoran, not a Nicaraguan. We’re looking for protection, for help.”
Karen, a 28-year-old woman from Honduras who came with her three children, similarly told Border Patrol that she was afraid of being in Mexico. She had fled her country because of domestic violence and said she was afraid that the man who had abused her would find her in Mexico. He’d already been able to find her when she tried to change cities within her country, and she’d heard that he again knew her whereabouts.
While there has been recent debate about whether claims of fear based on domestic violence should count for asylum, some survivors have been able to win their asylum cases and stay in the U.S.
As she told her story to the Border Patrol officer, documents show, Karen explained that she had been afraid to be in Mexico.
Instead of referring her for an interview with an asylum officer, the Border Patrol officer asked, “Did anybody harm you or your children in Mexico?”
Karen responded, “No.”
“Did anybody threaten to harm you or your children in Mexico?” the officer continued.
“No,” Karen said again.
Karen was returned to Mexico without being interviewed by an asylum officer. She said she cried when she found out she was going back to Tijuana.
Department of Homeland Security officials said that a question at the end of the Border Patrol interviews asking if the asylum seeker has anything else he or she would like to say should serve as an opportunity for people to discuss any safety concerns they might have.
Being interviewed by USCIS asylum officers is no guarantee that someone who expresses fear of being returned to Mexico will be kept out of the program. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols standard, the official has to determine that it is “more likely than not” that the migrant will be persecuted or tortured in Mexico in order to prevent his or her return.
Gelin, a 29-year-old woman from Honduras who came with her 13-year-old son, was evaluated by an asylum officer after explaining to border patrol that she had been robbed in Mexico two weeks before asking for asylum. She, too, was returned.
Asked about such cases, Border Patrol and Homeland Security officials maintained those migrants are referred to asylum officers for further evaluation.
“Everyone’s trained to take very seriously our commitments under international treaties,” said a senior DHS official speaking on background. “We will never send someone back to a country where it’s more likely than not that they will be harmed or tortured.”
Customs and Border Patrol said that it could not comment on specific cases but said that it “processes each case individually and with integrity.”
Last week, U.S. officials announced that the Migrant Protections Protocols program is also now operational at the port of entry between Calexico and Mexicali. According to the officials, 240 migrants had been returned through the program through March 12.
Court hearings also began last week for those enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols program. So far, eight returnees have told judges that they are afraid to go back to Mexico.
Those who said they were afraid to go back were held in custody at the port of entry overnight before their interviews were conducted, according to Ian Philabaum from Innovation Law Lab, an organization that has been working with several asylum seekers in a class-action lawsuit over the legality of the Remain in Mexico program. Philabaum had not yet heard whether any of them had received decisions about where they would be released.
Volunteer attorneys working with Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization in Tijuana, have stood in the El Chaparral plaza every morning for months trying to prepare asylum seekers before they’re taken in to the San Ysidro Port of Entry for processing.
The organization recently filed a complaint with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights after Mexican immigration officials blocked access to asylum seekers preparing to enter the port. According to Al Otro Lado, officials threatened volunteers with deportation if they didn’t comply.
“The targeted harassment of volunteers providing humanitarian aid and legal orientation to migrants to asylum seekers trapped in Tijuana is a coordinated effort between the U.S. and Mexican governments to trample the human rights of refugees,” said Nicole Ramos, an attorney with Al Otro Lado. “Unfortunately most of the names of the migrants murdered in Mexico as a result of these policies and shameful practices will never be known.”
Two attorneys with the group recently had their passports flagged and were blocked from entering Mexico, and Ramos appeared on a list of advocates, attorneys and journalists maintained by the U.S. to investigate people who had interacted with the migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana in November.
A federal judge in Northern California will hear arguments on Friday on a motion for a preliminary block on the Remain in Mexico program brought by several returnees and advocacy groups.