Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of 2 in a Border Report examining the challenges faced by asylum seekers and the people who represent them in court.
EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — It was late on a Christmas Eve when El Paso nonprofits responded to the latest crisis. Immigration authorities had dropped off more than 200 people at a Greyhound bus station, most without money to buy a ticket or even knowing where to go. People huddled against each other on sidewalks; a lucky few got to sit inside idling buses.
Local organizations like Annunciation House scrambled to find shelter for the Central Americans released from overcrowded detention centers. Without advanced notice from immigration agencies, they had to turn to social media to find volunteers on a holiday.
That happened in late 2018, but the state of crisis continued over the next 12 months for individuals and organizations pledged to assist refugees and asylum seekers who show up at the U.S. border.
“We saw a huge response from the entire city led by the faith-based community that wants to make this world a better place, that wants to welcome the stranger, that wants to welcome migrants and their families,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Then suddenly that changes and we are not allowed to welcome people any more in El Paso, Texas.”
Faced with overcrowded detention centers and huge caravans of new migrants making their way from Central America to Mexico, the Trump administration implemented new procedures for asylum seekers, which advocates say basically shut the door on them.
Judges were instructed to clear the immigration docket rapidly and their job performance rating was heavily tied to that directive; attorneys and advisers could no longer give “know your rights” presentations to asylum seekers nor talk to them prior to hearings, advocates say.
“I think the most difficult thing was the number of people who went to court without an attorney. It was astonishing how many people had to go through the process by themselves,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso.
She recalls mothers with young children wait at immigration court for hours, unassisted and confused, often just having concluded a thousand-mile journey with many perils through Mexico. The stories they had to tell were heartbreaking, but they often never had the chance to tell them to the court, she said.
“The children have described to us violence and things they have been exposed to that are terrible,” Lopez said. “They see people killed. They see dead bodies in their communities. Young adults and teenage clients (tell) stories of how gangs tried to recruit a family member … then that family member refused and got killed. Or, how, ‘my dad just never came home one day.’ Those type of stories are rampant,” she said.
But the most shocking rule change of 2019 was a policy to have asylum seekers wait for their court hearings in Mexico, the advocates said. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” cut off direct contact between migrants and the U.S. advocates who help them fill out forms, gather evidence and be prepared to answer questions in immigration court.
“Our grants didn’t allow us to go into Juarez, Mexico, because we are restricted to serving people in Texas and New Mexico,” Lopez said.
The policy also stranded Central American, Cuban and other migrant parents and children on Mexican border cities whose crime rates are among the highest in the world. Juarez, across the border from El Paso, tallied some 1,500 murders in 2019 and is being disputed by three major Mexican drug cartels.
“We have seen the reality of (MPP) on the ground. The word protection is a complete falsehood. People who are in MPP are subjected to robbery assault, homelessmenss and even sexual assault,” Rivas said.
Some Las Americas staff members have volunteered to meet with clients in Mexico and have seen first-hand how migrants fall prey to criminals.
“One particular individual was still actively kidnapped when she came to meet with us in Mexico; her kidnappers actually took her” to and from the meeting, Rivas said.
Since the spring, nearly 20,000 asylum seekers have been sent from El Paso to Juarez to await court appointments as far as a year away, advocates say.
‘Express’ deportations, and flights to Guatemala
When he visited El Paso this fall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan credited MPP and Mexican enforcement at its border with Guatemala for drastically diminishing the migrant surge. The number of migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border backs him up. The number of Border Patrol apprehensions plus those asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry fell 70 percent from May to November.
“This program has been deemed a success by DHS. … If the point was to deny people access to counsel and if the point was to put migrants in dangerous situations, then, yes, it has been successful,” Rivas said.
MPP reduced the flow of migration, but the next set of administrative changes began to speed up the deportation of asylum seekers already in the system. Las Americas recently filed a legal brief in support of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking a halt to the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) and Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR).
The suit alleges asylum seekers have 10 days to present their claim, which is insufficient time to fill forms, gather police reports and other evidence from their home countries and get legal advice in the United States.
And to close off 2019, the Department of Homeland Security began implementing a new “safe third-country” initiative, which forces individuals to file for asylum in the first country not their own where they set foot in. The first flights from El Paso to Guatemala began in mid-November, and earlier this month activists held a protest at El Paso International Airport urging city officials not to allow the flights from the municipally-owned facility.
Airport officials say federal grants require to let federal agencies use the airport.
“2019 was a very tumultous year when policies being were brought that were a direct assault on asylum and in turn a direct attack on migrants,” Rivas said, adding that the United States has a responsibility to abide by its own laws as well as international commitments toward refugees and asylum seekers.
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