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Asylum seekers with strong cases for protection have been sent back to danger, human rights report says

Asylum seekers wait in Tijuana by the port of entry while a woman holding a megaphone calls names from a notebook.
Before the pandemic, hundreds of asylum seekers would gather every morning to hear numbers called from a wait list to ask the United States for protection. Now the U.S. has stopped processing asylum claims from the wait lists.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Stranded in Tijuana, a group of asylum seekers from Cameroon, Uganda and Ethiopia banded together in a shared hotel room. There, they would wait out Trump administration policies that had blocked their ability to request protection in the United States amid the pandemic.

The group has been harassed, threatened and extorted by Mexican officials since their arrival in the border city, an Ethiopian man told human rights researchers.

“The conditions are very horrible,” the man said of the hotel. “We have to buy everything like bed sheets and everything that we need. They give us these rotten mattresses. There are a lot [of] bugs and animals.”

Then, in November, a new hotel owner kicked the group out onto the streets, saying that he doesn’t like Africans, the asylum seeker said.

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The group is among many thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Tijuana and along the U.S.-Mexico border who are struggling to survive as their temporary housing options whither and orders blocking their entry to the United States stretch out indefinitely.

Their plight is just one of the examples laid out in a report published by Human Rights First in December that looked at the ways asylum seekers have been increasingly harmed by U.S. immigration policies in 2020, especially those put into place following the arrival of the pandemic.

ICE inspectors cited deficiencies in the areas of medical care, admission and release, staff-detainee communication and telephone access.

“This is both a humanitarian disgrace and a legal travesty,” the report says of a series of Trump administration orders.

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The group of asylum seekers from African countries, like many others along the U.S.-Mexico border, had been waiting before the pandemic for their numbers to be called on wait lists that have become the de facto process for migrants to request asylum at ports of entry. The policy, known as “metering,” restricted how many asylum seekers ports of entry would process on a given day.

When the pandemic hit, ports of entry stopped processing asylum seekers altogether.

Then the Trump administration issued an order through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep asylum seekers who cross into the United States illegally — the only other option when ports of entry are closed — from even taking the beginning steps in the long process of requesting protection in the U.S. asylum system.

Under the order, border officials turn back many asylum seekers to the country they were most recently in — generally Mexico. Officials also detain asylum seekers and then put them on planes back to the countries that they fled.

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Sending asylum seekers back to their home countries without screening them to see if they qualify for asylum goes against a key part of international agreements about the treatment of refugees.

Several Nicaraguan asylum seekers who fled their country after being jailed and tortured for protesting the regime of Daniel Ortega were put on planes back to Nicaragua without any screening process to see if they should be protected, the report says. Once back in Nicaragua, they were taken into custody and interrogated and are still being surveilled by Ortega’s network.

Mexican asylum seekers have been expelled to Mexico, the report says, including a young man who was sent back through the Nogales Port of Entry around midnight in freezing temperatures, and a woman whose 2-day-old baby had been born inside the United States.

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Less than 1% of those expelled received any screening related to their fears of returning home in the first three months of the pandemic, the report found.

The expulsions include at least 8,800 unaccompanied children, the report says, and possibly as many as 14,000.

In October and November, Border Patrol conducted 119,500 expulsions, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Officials have said many of these expulsions are of people who cross multiple times.

The Trump administration has said that the expulsion policy is meant to stop COVID-19 from spreading inside the United States, and to keep from detaining migrants together in holding cells.

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“The administration’s preventative measure protected DHS frontline employees, individuals in our custody, and the American public — thereby preventing a potential disaster along the border,” said Chad Wolf in a recent speech. He has served as acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security despite a judge ruling that he was illegally put in the position.

But asylum seekers who are expelled to their home countries are detained — and generally tested for the coronavirus — before being put on planes, according to the human rights report. That, Human Rights First argues, runs counter to the administration’s justification for the policy.

Public health experts from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and George Washington University have called on the expulsion program to stop, arguing that there are safe ways to quickly process asylum seekers and allow them to shelter-in-place with their loved ones in the United States.

Human Rights First found that the blocks on asylum requests at ports of entry and expulsions of people caught crossing illegally have led more migrants to try to get through in more remote parts of the border where they’re less likely to be noticed — and more likely to die.

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Ibrain Wencislao Pérez Suárez, a 30-year-old political activist from Cuba who fled persecution, disappeared crossing in the Texas desert in July, the report notes. His family is still trying to find out what happened to him.

A Nicaraguan asylum seeker was hospitalized for nine days for severe dehydration that caused kidney damage after he tried to cross through the desert. Border officials later expelled him to Nogales while he was still wearing his hospital gown, the report says.

Expelled asylum seekers and those stranded by metering are not the only ones left in danger in Mexico.

Migrants forced to wait south of the border for the duration of their U.S. immigration cases under the “Remain in Mexico” program — known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP for short — are being harmed even more because of the pandemic, the report says. That’s because violence against migrants in Mexico is escalating, migrant shelters are shutting down and court hearings for cases under the program have been indefinitely halted by the federal government.

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Human Rights First has tracked more than 1,300 reported instances of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping or other violent attacks on asylum seekers waiting in the program since it began two years ago.

Cartels in the border region of the state of Chihuahua, where many migrants are sent back, have focused efforts to kidnap and extort asylum seekers whom the United States has returned, according to a Mexican prosecutor there. And many asylum seekers report being targeted by Mexican police themselves.

A Nicaraguan man returned to Tijuana under MPP was been beaten and robbed by Mexican police and is still facing harassment from officers, immigration attorney Margaret Cargioli with Immigrant Defenders Law Center told researchers.

A Cuban woman who was waiting in the Remain in Mexico program in Ciudad Juárez was kidnapped, beaten and raped by Mexican police in June, an attorney representing her told Human Rights First. Once she was free, she immediately crossed into the United States, visibly injured, to ask for help, the report says, and U.S. border officials sent her back to Mexico again.

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There are about 23,000 pending cases in the Remain in Mexico program, the report says, and about 70% of them have been waiting for more than a year as of January.

Roughly 3,500 new MPP cases were opened during the pandemic, the report found, meaning that those asylum seekers were placed in the program rather than expelled under the pandemic policy. The majority are from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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