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‘Remain in Mexico’ policy may be prompting more illegal border crossings

‘Remain in Mexico’ policy may be prompting more illegal border crossings
Minutes before droping down on the U.S. side of the border barrier Thursday, a Honduran migrant raises his arm at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Three months into the Department of Homeland Security’s program that requires asylum-seeking migrants wait in Mexico until their U.S. immigration hearings, observers said Friday that the policy may actually be encouraging illegal border crossings.

This past week, migrants rushed the border at least four times at Playas de Tijuana, many of them saying they were motivated by not wanting to wait in Mexico.

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A Customs and Border Protection official said migrants who cross the border illegally are not being returned to Mexico while they seek asylum. Instead, they are taken into custody, where they eventually get to wait in the United States, sometimes up to three or four years until their asylum hearings before an American immigration judge.

“Why would I spend three years here in Tijuana when I could be in the United States?” asked Jeydi Fuentes López Montes, a 29-year-old mother from Honduras traveling with a 1-year-old child. “I know there is work here in Tijuana, but isn’t the work better over there?”

Fuentes said she went to Tijuana planning to wait in line to ask for asylum, but she said that when she learned the list to get an initial appointment with U.S. officials could take several months, she decided to try to find another way into the U.S.

Legal experts say a judge is not allowed to deny a person’s asylum request based solely on whether he or she entered the country legally or illegally.

Samuel Rodríguez Gúzman, from El Salvador, arrived in Tijuana last week. He said he went to the beach Thursday after hearing about more people successfully entering the U.S. illegally, and seeing on the news people getting through the border infrastructure at Playas.

“I’m trying whatever way I can to immigrate to the United States,” Rodríguez said. “I had problems with the gangs in my country and my father did, too. They want to kill us. When we get there to the United States, they have to respect our human rights to ask for asylum, right?”

Migrants enter the U.S. through a gap in the border fence at Tijuana's Friendship Park.

Alan Bersin, the former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said there is no coordinated system between the Mexican government and the U.S. to accept large numbers of migrants returned to Tijuana.

So far, fewer than 300 people have been returned to Mexico under the program.

“It’s an incompetent program,” said Bersin, adding that people who cross illegally should be returned to Mexico in the same numbers as those who wait for months in line for their turn to cross legally.

“This policy has a chance of succeeding as a deterrent,” he said. “But [Mexican President Andrés Manuel] López-Obrador is trying to avoid a fight with Trump so he says yes to everything but does nothing.”

This week and last, migrants have been climbing through holes in border fencing at Playas or climbing over the 15-foot-high fence.

On March 13, some people slipped through a hole in the border fencing near the beach. One of the men, who was seen in a video running down the beach carrying a small child while a border agent chased him, provided updates via WhatsApp to several people in his group and some witnesses. He said he was not apprehended and made it to Los Angeles.

A group of about 60 people who crossed on March 14 included men, women and children, most of whom said they were from Honduras. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ralph DeSio said 52 people from that group were arrested.

Border officials also arrested 23 people from Honduras and one from Guatemala on Tuesday after they scaled the fence near the beach.

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Then Thursday, activity at the border intensified as border agents and migrants clashed.

Two migrants and several witnesses said agents shot pepper spray across the fence and into their eyes. During the incident, one man climbed the fence and dropped into the U.S. before he was detained by border agents.

DeSio said Customs and Border Protection is averaging 167 arrests a day in the San Diego County area of responsibility, which stretches east to past Jacumba.

“Every arrest in San Diego Sector is investigated. Every breach in San Diego County is a concern whether it’s near Imperial Beach or in Jacumba,” DeSio said in a written statement. “Compromises in our fence are common due to our aging infrastructure. Efforts are made to repair breaches or compromises in a timely manner.”

On Friday, another hole big enough for people to climb through was visible at the base of the border fence at Playas, and migrants said they planned to return Saturday to try to climb through again.

“Really, we’re tired of fighting because we just want to cross and ask for asylum…. We’re not rude. We are allowed to come here and ask for asylum,” said José Reinera, a Honduran migrant who climbed up on top of the fence at Las Playas on Thursday.

Reinera said he turned back and climbed back down on the Mexican side of the border when he realized his wife and children would not be able to make the climb.

Wendy Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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