TIJUANA, Mexico—U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents along the U.S.-Mexico border are preventing people from entering the country to seek asylum in the United States, according to lawyers and advocates who represent migrants fleeing their home countries.
Nicole Ramos, a pro bono lawyer in Tijuana, told Univision that CBP agents at San Diego’s San Ysidro Port of Entry and other border crossings send asylum seekers of all nationalities back to Mexico without assessing their claims.
“I have accompanied asylum seekers to the Port of Entry, and given Customs and Border Protection everything they need for an asylum case,” she says. “Then the officer turns the asylum seeker away.”
A Southern California CBP press officer recognized that agents are “required to process people to an asylum officer if they express fear,” but did not confirm or deny the allegation. He added that his agency has a “very limited role” in the lengthy asylum process.
In the past five years more Mexicans sought asylum in the United States than any other nationality, with between 8,000 and 10,000 applications each year since 2011. That’s a more than 400 percent increase when compared to the preceding five-year period. But nearly 90 percent of claims were denied, according to official data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The spike in the number of Mexicans seeking asylum in the U.S. coincides with the War on Drugs, which has driven up homicide rates, along with kidnappings and forced disappearances across the country.
Asylum can be granted to people who’ve been persecuted for five different reasons: religion, race, nationality, political opinion or a “particular social group.”
Central American and Mexican asylum seekers usually fall in the latter category, dubbed “PSG.” Most Mexican asylum seekers express fear of cartels as their principal reason to flee. Mexican cartels and Central American gangs, known as “ maras,” tend to target people for extortion, kidnapping and murder based on certain characteristics: single mothers, business owners, relationship to a rival gang. These social groups can be the grounds for an asylum claim.
Passed in 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act established that “any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States…irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum in accordance with this section or, where applicable.”
In practice, this means that if someone expresses fear of being in their home country when they are detained or questioned by CBP, those fears must be assessed, regardless of the person’s immigration status. CBP then hands the case to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer to carry out what is known as a “Credible Fear Interview” (CFI). The CFI determines whether the person has the grounds for an asylum claim, allowing them to stay in the U.S. and pursue their claim.
Ramos has represented over 50 people seeking asylum in the U.S., who find themselves stuck in Tijuana.
While most are from Mexico, she has also represented migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Colombian, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. The denial rate in 2016 across all nationalities was 57 percent.
She says CBP agents use a variety of intimidation and deterrence tactics to prevent asylum seekers from presenting their cases.
“Even though I go with the asylum seeker to the border, CBP always says a supervisor [is required]. And every time the supervisors come out, they are extremely aggressive and unprofessional,” she says.
Ramos, a U.S. citizen, says border agents once threatened to ask Mexican immigration officials to “deal with” her.
Although it’s not legally required, Ramos has begun preparing asylum documents to bring with her clients to the border, as she has found that the only way to convince CBP agents to let them through.
Since January, advocates report that CBP agents have heightened their deterrence tactics against asylum seekers. They worry that will continue under President Trump.
On the ground in Tijuana, advocates are scrambling to protect asylum seekers who don’t even have the chance to set foot in the U.S.
In photos: Mexico confronts a critical situation on the border
Mary Galván, a coordinator at Tijuana’s Madre Assunta Institute, a Catholic shelter for women and child migrants, says that’s troubling in a city where services for migrants and deportees are already stretched thin.
“In 2013, CBP was still letting Mexicans through to seek asylum,” she says. “But over time it changed. Now just about everyone is rejected. They hold them for about two or three hours, and then deport them. There’s no processing of their asylum claims.”
Since it opened in 1994, the Institute has primarily served Mexican families making the trek to the U.S., or who have been deported. However, since 2013, they have seen an increase in Mexican and Central American families arriving on the border fleeing violence. Most of the Mexicans come from the states of Michoacán and Guerrero.
Between 2013 and 2016, nine out of 10 Mexican women surveyed at Madre Assunta in Tijuana said they came to seek asylum in the U.S., according to a July 2016 report from the American Friends Service Committee and the Pro Migrant Defense Committee. More than 73 percent were from Michoacán or Guerrero. Seventy-three percent stated their reason for fleeing was violence, with kidnapping, extortions, and domestic violence the most common causes.
“There was a woman from Michoacán who had evidence to prove that she had been tortured by members of a drug cartel,” says AFSC’s Karen Romero, one of the authors of the report. “But when she went to the border, they didn’t even interview her. She was deported within a half hour.”
In Tijuana, the difficulty of applying for asylum multiplied during 2016, when thousands of Haitians arrived in the city. In 2010, the United States had enacted a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians in the wake of the earthquake, which allowed them to enter the U.S. under humanitarian grounds. But many Haitians went to Brazil or Chile, and relatively few took advantage of the TPS.
But last year, thousands of Haitians left Brazil due to its economic crisis and headed north to Tijuana. CBP established a system with the Mexican immigration authorities, known as Grupo Beta, to process the Haitians arriving in Tijuana. Those who entered at Mexico’s southern border received a temporary Mexican visa, and were given a date to cross into the U.S.
With this system in place, CBP began tell asylum applicants of all nationalities that they had to make an appointment through Grupo Beta to seek asylum in the U.S. This unprecedented collaboration between Mexican and U.S. immigration authorities essentially blocked non-Haitians from seeking asylum, because the appointments were only given to Haitians with temporary Mexican visas.
In September, the Department of Homeland Security repealed the TPS, leaving thousands of Haitians in the balance. Many continued to show up for their appointments with CBP, and were placed in immigration detention upon entering the U.S. Now many Haitians are making a home in Tijuana, instead of crossing to the U.S. where they face detention and deportation to Haiti.
“CBP has coordinated and continues to work with the Mexican authorities in regards to border security and humanitarian causes to improve the processing and humanitarian assistance of those individuals with no legal status to enter the U.S.,” according to the CBP officer. That collaboration ensures that migrants find temporary housing “in a more comfortable location and out of the elements” in Mexico, he says.
Downtown Tijuana is not prepared for migrants or refugees. With the influx of Haitians on the border, churches and civil societies have opened many new shelters, but their beds—or tents—are full. In Tijuana, Mexican authorities only provide shelter for unaccompanied minors.
“When I show up with asylum seekers on the border, CBP asks me if I know ‘the new system’. What system?” says Ramos. “No one should have to go through Mexican immigration authorities to apply for asylum in the U.S.”
On January 13, eight organizations, including the ACLU and the American Immigration Council, filed a complaint against the CBP with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reflecting testimonies from Tijuana, Reynosa, Nogales and Ciudad Juárez.
The complaint requests an internal investigation and contends that: “Agents of the U.S. government not only failed to allow noncitizens to present their claims for asylum, but in some instances, physically abused the noncitizens.”
It recounts the experiences of Central Americans and Mexicans who tried to seek asylum on the border. One Mexican woman explained how she escorted her father to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Her father, a community police member, had been attacked by cartel members and used a wheelchair after undergoing reconstructive surgery.
The woman describes how a CBP officer blocked her father from the Port of Entry: “The officer then said, ‘Go back, if you don’t go back we’re going to have to escort you out.’ My father then said, in Spanish, ‘They’re going to kill or torture me, I can’t go back.’ My father took off his cap and showed the officer his head injuries. The officer replied, ‘I’m sorry sir, we’re not accepting any political asylum applicants anymore.’”
The CBP declined to comment on the complaint.
Trump’s February 21 immigration orders end “catch and release,” the policy of releasing people detained at the border, or in U.S. territory, to await their court proceedings. Under Obama, asylum seekers arriving on the border were released and ordered to show up in court. The recent immigration memos contend that this policy contributes to an asylum process “ rife with fraud and abuse” because asylum seekers end up staying in the country without authorization.
The order calls for more detention centers to be built near the U.S. border, most likely on the model of family immigration detention centers such as Dilley and Karnes, both in South Texas.
One of the woman staying at Madre Assunta, a Honduran who requested Univision not use her name, arrived in Tijuana recently with her three children and one grandchild. Two years ago, they fled San Pedro Sula, after her daughter’s husband was murdered by a gang member. They all received humanitarian protection in Mexico and were living in Chiapas, until her son-in-law’s murderer showed up in town.
“I don’t have the American dream,” she says. “I have a dream to help my family, just like any mother.”
In Tijuana, she hoped they could turn themselves in for asylum in the U.S. But she was turned away at the border with little money.
“If we didn’t leave, the gangs would have found us in Chiapas. It’s like having your hands and your feet tied,” she says. “We migrated for necessity, but the option [to enter the U.S.] is closed.”