Two weeks later, no sign of ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy in action at San Ysidro Port of Entry

People line up to cross into the U.S. in July to begin the process of applying for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near Tijuana.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

More than two weeks after the Trump administration announced a new policy that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their turns in U.S. immigration court, there is no sign yet at the San Ysidro Port of Entry that it has been implemented.

The Department of Homeland Security said on Dec. 20 that the change was “effective immediately,” but advocacy groups along the border continue to receive large numbers of migrant families who have been released from immigration custody into the U.S. Asylum seekers continue to move through San Ysidro, the busiest port on the southwest border for asylum claims, according to a recent study.

Katie Waldman, DHS spokeswoman, said that the new policy will be implemented.

“We are in the process of beginning implementation,” Waldman said. “We want to ensure an orderly, safe, and efficient process.”

Under the policy, asylum seekers who come either to ports of entry or cross the border illegally would go through preliminary processing before heading back across the border to Mexico with documents showing their next court hearing dates in the U.S. Hundreds of mostly Central American migrants fleeing violence or poverty in their home countries have gathered at the border and are waiting in Tijuana to apply for asylum in the U.S.


Mexico announced that it had decided to temporarily allow asylum seekers waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings to reenter the country and that it would provide humanitarian visas to allow asylum seekers to work while they wait. However, some top Mexican officials quickly said that was not possible. The head of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration said that Mexico would have to change its laws in order to comply with such a policy.

Since then, it has been unclear what will happen if and when the U.S. begins to implement the policy.

“It is not an agreement, but a unilateral measure by the U.S. government and, as such, the decision is entirely a domestic issue,” said a spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington when asked about the delayed implementation. “As is its sovereign right, the government of Mexico will take appropriate measures in accordance with our legal framework.”

She said Mexican officials would be asking the U.S. for more information about what it plans to do.

Besides the confusion in Mexico, the proposed change also brought a slew of logistical questions from immigration attorneys, advocates and others who work closely with the U.S. immigration system.

How would the migrants get from the border to immigration court? Would immigration courts along the border be responsible for hearing all of the new asylum cases? How would attorneys meet with their clients before their hearings, or how would migrants even find attorneys to take their cases?

Answers to these questions are still unknown.

For Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, the delayed rollout is not entirely surprising.

“It’s on pattern with almost everything they’ve tried to do with immigration in the past two years,” Meade said. “They front-load policies that sound very harsh and decisive but also sound like they’re simple when in fact implementation is complicated and much more constrained by the law.”

Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California who supports lower levels of immigration, said he was not surprised by all the confusion or the fact that the new policy had not been implemented.

“I didn’t have any expectations, bottom line,” Nunez said. “It’s so frustrating that any attempt to do anything rational is thwarted either in Congress or the courts or both.”

Nunez said he believes that asylum seekers should be required to ask for protection in the first country they enter that is not their own.

Many expect immigrant advocates to challenge the “Remain in Mexico” policy in court if and when it is implemented.

For Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, the lack of implementation is a good thing. He worries about migrants’ safety if they’re forced to wait months or even years in Mexico and gave as an example the two Honduran teens who were recently killed in Tijuana.

“It’s somewhat of a relief that Mexico hasn’t fully bought into the idea that they should be the waiting country for migrants who are having their asylum claims processed in the U.S.,” Rios said.

Asylum seekers in Tijuana — which has long had a backlog of people waiting to come into the U.S. for processing — were initially stunned by the Trump administration’s announcement. As time has passed without any sign of change, those huddled around a tent in a corner of the Chaparral Plaza have continued to step forward eagerly when their names are called to apply for asylum.

Migrants organizing the list of people waiting said they hadn’t seen or heard about anyone being brought back to Mexico to wait.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.