‘End Of Asylum’: Using The Pandemic To Turn Away Migrants, Children Seeking Refuge

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A man crosses the Paso del Norte border bridge towards El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on July 1. Since March, U.S. immigration officials have turned away tens of thousands of migrants, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children.

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Asylum-Seekers Reaching U.S. Border Are Being Flown To Guatemala

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‘Closed the borders to asylum seekers’

The proposed rules would restrict who falls into various categories — asylum protects people who face persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group — and make it easier for immigration judges to reject asylum requests out of hand.

The White House has complained for years that these migrants are trying to escape from poverty-stricken countries in Central America, and are using fake or exaggerated claims to game an overly generous U.S. asylum system.

President Trump has repeatedly called asylum a «scam.» At an event with Border Patrol agents in El Centro, Calif. last year, he said: «Our system is full. We’re not taking them anymore, okay? Can’t do it.»

U.S. asylum law traces its roots to WWII. But administration officials argue that asylum seekers arriving at the southern border are fundamentally different from the refugees fleeing persecution during and after the war. And the administration has worked for years to chip away at asylum protections.

Now it has effectively closed the borders to asylum seekers.

Just as the pandemic was taking off in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order that closed the border to migrants and other travelers without valid travel documents, citing «the danger to the public health» posed by holding such travelers in crowded detention facilities near the border.

Asylum seekers not getting ‘credible fear’ interviews

The same day, the Department of Homeland Security closed the border to all «non-essential» travelers — including migrants coming to seek asylum.

Immigration lawyers say what’s happening to those migrants at the border is unprecedented.

«They have been basically pushed away from the United States with no process whatsoever,» said Tania Guerrero, an immigration lawyer with Catholic Legal Immigration Network who is based in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

«The first question to always answer is what happened to me?» Guerrero said. «They have no idea what happened. Everyone explains it to be extremely fast and that they’re not able to express their fears.»

That’s a big deal because it means they don’t have an opportunity to seek asylum. In the past, migrants were able to make their case to asylum officers. If they were found to have a «credible fear» of persecution in their home countries,they would have been allowed to make their case in U.S. immigration court.

Now immigrant advocates say many asylum seekers are not getting these credible fear interviews, the first step in the process.

A spokesman with Customs and Border Protection told NPR that’s handled on a case-by-case basis but declined to explain how they determine who gets to the interview stage while the border is closed because of the pandemic.

The Salvadoran woman who arrived at the border in late March said she never got a chance to ask for asylum or an interview.

She said she left El Salvador with her daughter to escape an abusive ex-partner, the girl’s father, who had threatened to kill her. That was in late February.

When the woman and her daughter reached Texas, she said Border Patrol agents quickly returned them to the international bridge between El Paso and Juárez. She said officials didn’t explain anything to her, they just told her to leave.

«So, I started to cry and left the bridge,» she said. «Some Mexican officials asked what was going on … I told them I didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t know what to do.»

The woman and her daughter wound up at a shelter run by the Mexican government where other asylum seekers have been waiting for their U.S. court dates under another administration program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain In Mexico.

Another asylum seeker from Guatemala wound up at the same shelter in Juárez along with her two young daughters. She also asked us not to use her name out of concern for her safety.

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A woman from Guatemala and her two daughters were apprehended upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and immediately expelled back to Mexico in the early hours of April 2, at the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Juárez.

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Border Patrol agent Rafael Garza says an order from the CDC that closed the border to migrants and other travelers without valid travel documents, citing «the danger to the public health,» is working. «It is a good tool that the U.S. government is using to mitigate the spread» of coronavirus, he said in an interview with Texas Public Radio.

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Border Patrol agent Rafael Garza says an order from the CDC that closed the border to migrants and other travelers without valid travel documents, citing «the danger to the public health,» is working. «It is a good tool that the U.S. government is using to mitigate the spread» of coronavirus, he said in an interview with Texas Public Radio.

Reynaldo Leaños, Jr./Texas Public Radio

Still, the administration is standing behind the policy. The CDC has extended its public health order. And the Border Patrol says the policy is working in this pandemic.

«It is a good tool that the U.S. government is using to mitigate the spread,» said agent Rafael Garza in an interview with Texas Public Radio.

He downplayed the concerns of public health experts. «Whether it’s six experts or six border patrol agents, I mean, who you gonna trust?» Garza asked.

Since that interview, confirmed cases of coronavirus have skyrocketed in Texas — especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

Now the Trump administration is trying to make permanent changes to the asylum system.

Last month, the Justice and Homeland Security departments proposed a rule that would disqualify migrants from asylum if officials determine they could spread an infectious disease. In a letter dated today, public health experts said the rule would scapegoat asylum seekers by labeling them as national security threats.

‘Rules would end asylum as we know it’

In June, the departments announced other sweeping regulations that would make deep changes to the way asylum claims are reviewed. That’s prompted widespread concern — even among government officials who are the first to interview asylum seekers to determine if their claims are credible.

«These rules would end asylum as we know it,» said Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924 in the Washington, D.C., area, and a special representative for the union that includes hundreds of asylum officers nationwide.

U.S. law requires a careful case-by-case assessment of each asylum claim, Knowles says. If an asylum seeker is determined to have a well-founded fear of persecution, they can’t be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be in jeopardy.

«These rules would stand all of that on its head,» Knowles said. «The impact would be dire, dire consequences for hundreds of thousands of people who are seeking the protection of the U.S.»

A Justice Department press release said the 161-page rule would allow authorities to «more effectively separate baseless claims from meritorious ones,» and would clarify when an application is «frivolous.»

Once the final rules are announced, immigrant advocates say they plan to sue to block them, as they have challenged many of the Trump’s administration’s previous efforts to limit asylum.

For now, those lawyers are also focused on trying to fight rapid expulsions at the southern border. They’re especially concerned about unaccompanied children who are being turned away.

‘Administration has built a shadow immigration system’

In normal times, children who cross the border alone would get special consideration under the law. They’re supposed to be handed over quickly to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates a system of shelters where the children stay until they’re placed with relatives or a sponsor.

But immigrant advocates say that’s not happening. Instead, immigration officials have been putting up the children in hotels near the border, until they can put them on a plane back to their home countries.

The administration has built a «shadow immigration system,» said the ACLU’s Lee Gelernt, «that bypasses all of the protections Congress has painstakingly enacted for asylum seekers and children over the past 40 years.»

The ACLU and immigrant advocates in Texas have tried to challenge this practice in court, but have found themselves instead in a cat-and-mouse game with the administration. Every time they file a lawsuit on behalf of an unaccompanied child, the advocates say the administration hands the child over to HHS, making the legal challenge moot.

«This is completely unlawful, completely unprecedented,» Gelernt said. «And that’s why we believe the administration is unwilling to have it tested in court.»

Texas Public Radio reporter Reynaldo Leaños, Jr. contributed to this story.

  • U.S. asylum policy
  • asylum
  • Immigration

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