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Opposing Efforts to Shut the Door on Asylum Seekers

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Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Advocate


We’ve raised our voices with you to denounce the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies before. But now the administration is just plain shutting the door to asylum seekers at our border and throughout the region. To oppose this, we’ve been alerting Congress to the impact of these cruel policies, bringing migrant rights advocates from Central America and Mexico to tell their stories, and working with you to say no, that’s not who we are as a country.

But to do this we need to understand what’s going on. Here are a few of the ways the White House has been slamming the door shut.

A Wall of Policies at the Border

Remain in Mexico

Since January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented a “Remain in Mexico” (MPP) policy under which asylum seekers arriving at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border are sent back to Mexico to wait for the duration of their U.S. immigration proceedings. So far over 50,000  asylum seekers including pregnant women, children, LGBTQ+, disabled, individuals have been returned back to Mexico as a result of this policy, including to places such as Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and Ciudad Juarez–cities for which the U.S. State Department has issued the highest travel warnings for U.S. citizens. Asylum seekers are returned to Mexico with a simple slip of paper with their court hearing date on it and are left to figure out what to do in Mexico while they wait months for their hearings–some have dates for well into 2020.

The results have been devastating. Asylum seekers face extortion, family separation, sexual and gender-based violence, kidnapping, and torture from Mexican law enforcement or organized crime, and even death. Few to none have access to legal counsel or know where to turn for support and shelter. Many have been forced to cross the border in dangerous conditions–a Salvadoran father and his daughter who were waiting under MPP died as they were trying to cross the Rio Grande this past June. There have been over 340 public reports of these types of human rights violations being committed against asylum seekers as a result of MPP.

Immigration judges are now hearing the claims of asylum seekers via videoconferencing in secret tent courts along the border, where organizations and the press have been barred from observing,  unlike other immigration courts. What’s more, asylum seekers have to arrive to the tent courts at pre-dawn hours, making their journey to get there even more dangerous. Thousands will ultimately end up being deported without ever having their day in court. A lawsuit was brought against the policy and the most recent hearing was held on October 1, 2019 by a federal district court but no decision has yet been made. Until the courts make their decision, the policy will continue to be implemented and thousands will continue suffering in Mexico.

We cannot turn our backs on these families, women, men and children and must ask Congress to make sure no funding is used to implement or expand the Migrant Persecution Protocols. We must also call on our members of Congress to go and visit the Mexican side of the border to see the inhumane treatment of those seeking refuge for themselves and then challenge the implementation of the tent courts and Remain in Mexico as a whole.

Metering

The actual numbers of asylum seekers waiting on the Mexican side of the border is even higher than 50,000 because of another policy the Trump Administration has used to keep migrants out: metering. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been illegally placing individuals on waitlists and arbitrarily taking only a certain number of people to be processed every day. This has meant that thousands more are waiting on the Mexican side of the border for their number to be called. On some days fewer than  a handful asylum seekers are called to be processed. Between metering and the Remain in Mexico policy, desperation has grown among migrants along the border who already come fleeing violence and trauma. Far beyond a physical border wall, with Remain in Mexico and metering the Trump Administration has set up a wall of policies that make it impossible for those seeking refuge in the United States to make their case heard in the first place.

Reducing Who Is Eligible for Asylum

For those who do make it to their court hearing, the Trump Administration has also taken a number of steps to limit who is eligible to receive protection.  

Reversing Decades of Legal Precedents

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided over a year ago that victims of domestic and gang violence are no longer eligible for asylum. The Matter of A-B ruling has made it much harder for women and youth from Central America and also other countries, whose chances were already slim, to receive asylum. What’s more, earlier this year current Attorney General Barr issued a ruling in Matter of L-E-A stating that persecution based on an individual’s membership in a family group no longer qualifies the applicant for asylum. This is extremely concerning given what we know about the ways in which gangs and other criminal actors threaten entire families for extortion or in order to control territory.

Asylum Transit Ban

In September 2019 the White House issued a new “interim final rule,” effective immediately, banning all individuals who have traveled through another country first to reach the United States from applying for asylum. While it’s still unclear how immigration judges or asylum officers are going to implement the asylum transit ban rule, one thing is clear: it’s one more way the White House is trying  to block asylum seekers from applying for protections at our border. This ban basically means that any migrant except for Mexicans would not be eligible for asylum in the United States because all migrants pass through another country first to get to our border. This ban also goes against the basic principle that individuals can seek asylum where they feel safe and that they shouldn’t be forced to request protections in a specific country. The reality is that many migrants do often end up requesting asylum in Mexico but because of Mexico’s weak refugee system or lack of safety, they don’t often end up staying there. Other asylum seekers also may want to seek asylum in the United States because of family networks.

There will be lawsuits contesting the legality of this rule but until then, we must make sure that we ask our members of Congress to stand strong and speak out against the asylum transit ban.

Extending the Border Further South

If all that wasn’t enough, the Trump Administration is now pressuring countries in the region to stop migrants from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. It has arm-twisted  Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into signing “safe third country agreements,” even threatening to cut foreign assistance if they don’t deter migration. So far DHS has signed agreements with each of the three governments that include sending migrants who arrive to the U.S.-Mexico border to be processed any one of these countries, even if it is not their home country to begin with. The media leaks of these secretive agreements show that the U.S. will provide support to step up migration enforcement between Central American border and will establish temporary guestworker programs between the United States and at least Guatemala and Honduras. 

To think that Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador could process asylum seekers from other countries or keep them safe when thousands of their own citizens are fleeing violence, lack of access to justice and suffer the impact of government corruption is just fantasy. And sending migrants back to danger or trapping them in the region will only fuel the refugee crisis further.

We will keep opposing these agreements and all of the ways that the Trump Administration is shutting the door to asylum seekers at our border and throughout the region and hope you will join us. It’s a long fight ahead but we must raise our voices to highlight the inhumane impact on refugees from Central America and Mexico. Turning vulnerable families and children away is not who we are as a country.