New policy will force migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico — for years

In the administration’s latest effort to clamp down on immigration from Central America, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced Thursday that, effective immediately, asylum-seekers presenting themselves at the southern border will be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings, a process that often takes several years.

The announcement came just days after two Honduran teenagers who’d traveled to the U.S. border as part of the migrant caravan were killed in Tijuana while awaiting processing, and the new policy was met with immediate criticism from immigration and human rights advocates who cited the killings as evidence of the danger asylum seekers, especially children, face in Mexico.

“In long run, we are in support of countries in the region sharing responsibility to care for asylum seekers, [but] the problem here is that Mexico is a very long way away from being able to fulfill obligations under international law or even domestic law to adequately provide asylum,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, which provides pro-bono legal representation to unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings.

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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran stands with her mother after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a Border Patrol processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Young argued that Mexican border towns in particular attract “heavy criminal elements,” like smugglers or human traffickers “waiting to prey on vulnerable people, particularly children who are alone.”

“We saw that evidenced loud and clear through the [murder] of those two children,” she said.

At present, migrants who arrive seeking asylum at a recognized port of entry may have to wait in Mexico several weeks, or longer, before their initial processing by immigration officials, but if they are deemed to have a credible claim they often are paroled into the United States until they are called for a hearing. Now they will be sent back across the border to wait.

At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Nielsen implied the new policy would not apply to minors who arrive unaccompanied to seek asylum. In response to a question, she said border officials will continue to adhere to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which mandates that unaccompanied immigrant children from noncontiguous countries (i.e. anywhere other than Mexico or Canada) must be allowed into the country and transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being apprehended at the border.

But it’s not clear that law is being followed even now. Immigration advocates and legal service providers have reported that, at least in Tijuana, Mexican officials have been blocking unaccompanied children from accessing the official U.S. ports of entry to request asylum and preventing them from getting their names on the lengthy list of migrants waiting to do the same.

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Reunited family fights for asylum
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Reunited family fights for asylum
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, spends the afternoon at the mall with mother Maria Marroquin Perdomo and father Edward Montes Lopez in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo waits for toenail polish to dry after getting a pedicure at a mall in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 16, 2018. Marroquin Perdomo said her toes were in bad shape following the arduous journey from Honduras to the Mexico-U.S. border and her time spent in detention. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, and his parents Edward Montes Lopez and Maria Marroquin Perdomo return to the apartment Montes Lopez shares with other family members in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 16, 2018. The apartment was overcrowded when Montes Marroquin and Marroquin Perdomo arrived, so Montes Lopez began talking of finding an apartment for the three of them. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo gets a pedicure at a mall in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 16, 2018. Marroquin Perdomo said her toes were in bad shape following the arduous journey from Honduras to the Mexico-U.S. border and her time spent in detention. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, sits with his father Edward Montes Lopez and mother Maria Marroquin Perdomo while video-chatting with family back in Honduras on their first night together in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai look for their gate before flying to New Orleans, Louisiana, at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, U.S., July 15, 2018. It was the first time either had ever been on an airplane. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, meets his father, Edward Montes Lopez, for the first time at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 15, 2018. Montes Lopez hadn't seen his son since he was an infant. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, helps his mother Maria Marroquin Perdomo set up her new cell phone while at a mall in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, arrives at La Posada Providencia shelter shortly after being reunified with his mother in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, runs toward his father, Edward Montes Lopez, as he meets him for the first time at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., July 15, 2018. Montes Lopez hadn't seen his son since he was an infant. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai travel to New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., from Harlingen, Texas, U.S., July 15, 2018. It was the first time either had ever been on an airplane. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and 11-year-old son Abisai sit at their gate before flying to New Orleans, Louisiana, at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, U.S., July 15, 2018. It was the first time either had ever been on an airplane. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, plays after arriving at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. The boy was reunified with his mother hours earlier. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Abisai Montes Marroquin, 11, looks at messages and drawings made for him by his mother and the fellow mothers she befriended while the women were detained at the Port Isabel detention center, before bed at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. The boy was reunified with his mother hours earlier. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
After being reunified with her 11-year-old son, Maria Marroquin Perdomo cries during a phone call with the boy's father in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai arrive at La Posada Providencia shelter with the help of immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai stop at a gas station for a snack after departing the Casa Padre facility, where the two were reunified, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. Marroquin Perdomo's attorney drove the pair from the gas station to La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., to spend their first night together. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai drive away from the Casa Padre facility in the backseat of her attorney's truck minutes after mother and son were reunified, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. Abisai was held at Casa Padre while his mother was detained at the Port Isabel detention facility. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Maria Marroquin Perdomo reacts to the news that her detained son had been cleared for release, at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. Marroquin Perdomo headed to the facility holding him minutes later with her attorney for their reunification. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo passes the time before a hopeful reunification with her detained son while staying at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo is driven by a local volunteer from the Port Isabel detention center near Los Fresnos, Texas, U.S., to La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., July 13, 2018. She is clutching release paperwork including information regarding the location of her detained son. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo and her 11-year-old son Abisai drive away from the Casa Padre facility in the backseat of her attorney's truck minutes after mother and son were reunified in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., July 14, 2018. Abisai was held at Casa Padre while his mother was detained at the Port Isabel detention facility. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
Maria Marroquin Perdomo gets settled with the help of Sister Margaret Mertens at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, U.S., shortly after her release from the Port Isabel detention center, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott 
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During a recent trip to Tijuana with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Young said that KIND staff reported a “horrific” and “chaotic” situation at migrant shelters and campsites near the border. The staffers, she said, “interviewed a number of unaccompanied children who, they felt, have truly viable asylum claims,” but have been blocked by Mexican authorities from getting in line to make them.

Young said she was “highly suspicious” of the Mexican government’s motives for interfering with unaccompanied minors’ ability to request asylum, pointing out that children and teenagers are only protected by laws like the Trafficking Victims Act once they reach the border and present themselves to U.S. officials. “There’s probably some kind of agreement between Mexican and U.S. authorities to keep kids on the Mexican side to prevent TVPRA from kicking in,” she suggested.

Nielsen faced questions about the use of so-called metering or queue management systems at ports of entry, which she said are necessary owing to limited capacity to process applicants at border crossings, including at Tijuana and between Juarez and El Paso. She gave no indication she was planning to change the system. But a DHS spokesperson told Yahoo News that the new policy of making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico is expected cut down on waiting periods.

DHS officials also stated that the new rules would not apply to Mexican citizens attempting to seek asylum, as both U.S. and international law prevents the immediate return of asylum seekers to their home countries if they express a fear of persecution. But that policy also seems to be implemented haphazardly. Yahoo News recently reported that metering procedures in Juarez have forced Mexican citizens requesting asylum to wait in Mexico before being allowed to request asylum in the U.S.

Under existing U.S. policy, migrants who establish a “credible fear” of persecution or torture if returned to their home countries are generally released to a sponsor in the U.S., often monitored with an ankle bracelet, while they wait to make their claim before an immigration judge. Because of a massive backlog of cases, this process often takes several years.

President Trump has long fumed about what he calls “catch and release” policies, and for several weeks, U.S. officials have been attempting to negotiate a deal with the Mexican government to keep migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. on the southern side of the border while their cases are pending. Under the measures announced Thursday, DHS officials said that migrants who request asylum at U.S. ports of entry will now be given a notice to appear in immigration court and sent back to Mexico until their hearings.

While the Mexican Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday that it had agreed to grant humanitarian visas to asylum seekers forced to wait in their country while seeking protections in the U.S., DHS officials made clear to reporters that the decision was made unilaterally, not in agreement with the Mexican government.

Speaking on background, one DHS official said, “We are pleased that once we formally made our decision, [Mexican authorities indicated] they will take on their side of border all appropriate measures to deal with our decision.”

However, not everyone finds Mexico’s cooperation reassuring.

“Make no mistake — Mexico is not a safe country for all people seeking protection,” Amnesty International executive director Margaret Huang said in a statement. “Many people seeking asylum in the United States face discrimination, exploitation, sexual assault, murder, or the possibility of being disappeared while traveling through Mexico or while forced to wait for extraordinarily long times in Mexican border towns. Women, children, and LGBTI people could face heightened and unacceptable risks.”

Asked to respond to such safety concerns, a DHS spokesperson told Yahoo News, “The Mexicans have been responded that they will offer humanitarian protections. Many U.S. cities where they end up relocating have higher crime than Mexico.”

DHS officials indicated that, although the policy is effective immediately, the implementation would be rolled out in stages. They said specific details will be released in the next few days.

While describing the policy as a “humanitarian measure,” one DHS official told reporters that it was expected to “lead to huge cost savings” for the U.S., which will no longer have to track large numbers of migrants for years. But “first and foremost,” the official said, “we anticipate this will lead to a drop of illegal migration and false asylum claims.”

Young, however, predicted that requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the U.S. would lead to little more than a “logistical nightmare.”

“Fundamentally, the violence happening in Central America is what’s driving people out. That’s not stopping, she said, noting that there’s “nothing in this new policy to stop that violence.”

“People are going to keep coming,” she continued. “If they are being faced with these kinds of law enforcement initiatives, ultimately what we will do is drive them further underground. The only ones who profit at end of day are smugglers and traffickers.”

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