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U.S. border officials are illegally turning away asylum seekers, critics say

19 Jan

By Joshua Partlow

Several weeks ago, a former Guatemalan police officer walked up to U.S. private ­security guards at the border crossing here and asked for asylum in the United States.

“I am fleeing my country,” the policeman later recalled telling the guards, explaining that he had survived two attempts on his life. “I am being persecuted in a matter of life and death.”

The policeman said he was told he needed to see Mexican immigration authorities, who would put him on a waiting list to make his case to U.S. officials. But Mexican authorities refused to add him to the list, the policeman said, and he has been stuck in northern Mexico.

The Guatemalan is one of hundreds or perhaps thousands of foreigners who have been blocked in recent months from reaching U.S. asylum officials along the border, according to accounts from migrants and immigration lawyers and advocates.

The details of their cases vary. At the U.S. border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, numerous asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico have been referred to Mexican authorities for an appointment with U.S. officials — but Mexican authorities often turn them down, according to migrants and immigration lawyers. In other places, migrants have been told by U.S. border agents that the daily quota for asylum cases has been reached or that a visa is required for asylum seekers, a statement that runs contrary to law, immigration advocates say.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Michael Friel, said that there has been “no policy change” affecting asylum procedures, which are based on international law aimed at protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted people. And “we don’t tolerate any kind of abuse” by U.S. border officials, he said.

But the proliferation of problems has raised alarm among advocates for migrants.

“This is happening on a daily basis,” said Kathryn Shepherd, a lawyer with the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, who says she has testimony from dozens of asylum seekers denied access to U.S. asylum officials at border crossings in San Diego; Nogales, Ariz.; and Texas cities including Laredo, El Paso and McAllen.

The council and five other organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Friday protesting the “systemic denial of entry to asylum seekers.” The U.S. border agency — Customs and Border Protection, or CBP — is part of the department.

The surge in complaints comes as migrant advocates fear a broad crackdown on the border, one of President-elect Donald Trump’s main campaign promises.

The United States has long adhered to international laws and conventions allowing people to seek asylum on grounds that they are being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or other factors. If a Border Patrol agent encounters a U.S.-bound migrant without ­legal papers and the person “expresses fear of being returned to their home country, our officers are required to process them for an interview with an asylum officer,” said Friel.

The number of asylum applicants has been soaring. Some 83,000 such requests were filed at U.S. airports, border crossings and other entry points in 2015, more than double the number in 2011, according to a November report from the Department of Homeland Security.

On a rainy morning three days before Christmas, a 34-year-old Honduran woman walked up to the Laredo border crossing with her 6-year-old daughter. The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Xiomara, to protect her safety, said in an interview that she had fled an abusive husband who beat her and her children with belts and machetes. At the border, a U.S. official told her she needed a visa to cross, the Honduran recalled.

“I told him that I don’t have a visa but I want asylum and he told me no, get out of here, and go back to your country,” Xiomara said, according to a written declaration she made to her lawyer under penalty of perjury. When she tried to plead her case, a female U.S. border guard “told me they didn’t want illegals in her country and to come back if I had a visa,” Xiomara said.

Two days later, she said, she swam across the Rio Grande and was picked up by U.S. Border Patrol officers. On Jan. 3, she received a “positive” finding in her interview with an asylum officer, suggesting she has a good probability of winning her asylum case.

Diego Iniguez-Lopez, a law graduate based in Dilley, Tex., who works with detained migrants, said he started hearing about cases of rebuffed migrants after the U.S. presidential election.

Friel, the CBP spokesman, said there is “zero [evidence] to corroborate any kind of change in tone or guidance or policy” since Trump’s victory.

In Tijuana, one of the border’s busiest crossings, lawyers, migrants and human rights advocates describe a bureaucratic change that appears to have gone awry. Over the past year, at least 16,000 Haitians descended on the city, many of whom had fled to Brazil after the disastrous 2010 earthquake and then rushed north once the Brazilian recession started to bite.

With migrant shelters filled and Haitians sleeping on the street outside the port of entry, U.S. and Mexican authorities organized a new ticketing system to bring order to the chaos, according to Mexican officials. Under it, U.S. officials would refer Haitian migrants to Mexican authorities to receive a number on a waiting list, then process a limited number per day, currently about 20 to 50 people, officials said.

The problem is that U.S. border authorities have been referring not just Haitians but other Latin American asylum seekers to the Mexican authorities, according to migrants, lawyers and staff at migrant shelters. And the Mexican authorities refuse to issue numbers to those people because the system is designed to handle only Haitians, said the head of Mexico’s immigration office in Tijuana, Rodulfo Figueroa.

Some migrants eventually reach a U.S. asylum officer with the help of lawyers; others venture elsewhere along the dangerous border or return home, said migrant advocates and shelter staff.

“We’ve basically arrived at a place where applying for asylum is not available to most people,” said Ian Philabaum of the Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit organization that works with immigration lawyers.

Philabaum visited several migrant shelters in Tijuana in early November. He met 35 people, the majority Mexicans, who were “denied or deterred the ability to request asylum,” according to a memo he wrote after his investigation.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. border agency in San Diego, Angelica De Cima, declined to provide information about the new ticketing system, beyond saying that the United States “has collaborated with the Mexican authorities to improve the processing and humanitarian assistance of those individuals with no legal status to enter the U.S. This is being done to temporarily house the individuals in a more comfortable location and out of the elements.”

‘Not going back’

In early December, more than 20 migrant shelters and immigration organizations in northern Mexico sent a letter to senior Mexican officials saying it was illegal for Mexico to act as the gatekeeper for U.S. migration authorities.

“Mexican authorities do not have the ability or training to participate in the process and, when they do so, commit serious errors and violations of migrants’ human rights,” the letter said.

A 50-year-old Guatemalan woman who said two of her sons were killed by gangs tried on two occasions in November to apply for U.S. asylum at the Tijuana-San Diego crossing. But she was told by Mexican authorities that she would have to return to southern Mexico, where she had entered the country, to obtain legal papers allowing her to transit through Mexico, according to a copy of her personal statement given to The Washington Post by a shelter where she was interviewed. She traveled east to Nogales, but U.S. officials there also referred her to Mexican authorities, who told her she did not have the right to request asylum, according to her statement.

Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy with the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative, which helps migrants recently deported from the United States, said U.S. Border Patrol officials in recent months have periodically rejected asylum seekers, claiming they do not have the capacity to process them.

The Guatemalan policeman, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Wilson, because of fear for his safety, said he has been blocked at least four times in ­Tijuana from speaking with U.S. border officials. On one trip, which was videotaped, the private U.S. security guard told him he needed to go to Mexican immigration authorities. But they told him he could not be put on the waiting list to approach U.S. officials, he said.

In the past two years, he said, he has suffered two assaults — he was shot at, and hit by a truck while on his motorcycle with his 10-year-old nephew. He suffered a broken skull and his nephew was killed in the truck assault, he said. Wilson attributed both attacks to a person in the government who he said has threatened him. He declined to name the person or provide details of the threats.

“This is too much for me,” he said. “But I’m not going back to Guatemala for any reason.”