Border officials are aiming to more than quadruple the number of asylum seekers sent back over the southern border each day, a major expansion of a top government effort to address the swelling number of Central Americans arriving in the country, a Trump administration official said Saturday.
It was the latest attempt to ease an immigration system that officials say is at the breaking point. Hundreds of officers who usually screen cargo and vehicles at ports of entry were reassigned to help manage migrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked for volunteers from non-immigration agencies within her department, sent a letter to Congress late this past week requesting resources and broader authority to deport families faster, and met with Central American and Mexican officials.
The efforts are being made while President Donald Trump is doubling down on threats to shutter the U.S.-Mexico border entirely, a move that would have serious economic repercussions for both the U.S. and Mexico but wouldn’t stop migrants from crossing between ports. His administration also announced it was cutting aid to the Central American countries that are home to most of the migrants.
Right now, about 60 asylum seekers a day are returned to Mexico at the San Ysidro, Calexico and El Paso ports to wait out their cases, the official said. They are allowed to return to the U.S. for court dates. The plan was announced Jan. 29, partially to deter false claimants from coming across the border. With a backlog of more than 700,000 immigration cases, asylum seekers can wait years for their cases to progress, and officials say some people game the system in order to live in the U.S.
300 per day
Officials hope to have as many as 300 people returned per day by the end of the week, focusing particularly on those who come in between ports of entry, said the official, who had knowledge of the plans but was unauthorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
But the process so far has gone slowly, and such a sizable increase may be difficult to achieve. The plan has already been marred by confusion, scheduling glitches and an inability by some attorneys to reach their clients. In San Ysidro alone, Mexico had been prepared to accept up to 120 asylum seekers per week, but for the first six weeks only 40 people per week were returned.
Plus, U.S. officials must check to see whether asylum seekers have any felony convictions and notify Mexico at least 12 hours before they are returned. Those who cross illegally must have come as single adults, though the administration is in talks with the Mexican government to include families. Children are not returned.
Homeland Security officials have been grappling with a growing number of Central American children and families coming over the border. Arrests soared in February to a 12-year-high and more than half of those stopped arrived as families, many of them asylum seekers who generally turn themselves in instead of trying to elude capture. Guatemala and Honduras have replaced Mexico as the top countries, a remarkable shift from only a few years ago. Migrants from Central America cannot be easily deported, unlike people crossing from Mexico.
Mexico pledges help
Mexico has been treading lightly on the subject. After Trump lashed out, saying Mexico and the Central American nations were “doing nothing” about illegal immigration, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his country would do everything it could to help to maintain a “very respectful relationship” with the U.S. government and Trump.
Meanwhile, Nielsen sent a letter to the heads of other agencies within her 240,000-person department, asking for volunteers to help with border duties. And she wrote to Congress asking for more temporary facilities to process people, more detention space, and the ability to detain families indefinitely and to deport unaccompanied minors from Central America. While children from Mexico can be returned over the border, laws prohibit deportation to other countries.
Democratic congressional leaders expressed deep concern, saying the administration wanted to revive “horrific” and “immoral” plans, noting its failed hard-line border policies have created “senseless heartbreak and horror.”
“Democrats reject any effort to let the administration deport little children, and we reject all anti-immigrant and anti-family attacks from this president,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. (VOA)
For thousands of desperate asylum-seekers, there are many ways to wait — and wait, and wait — at the threshold of the United States. Parents and children sleep in tents next to bridges leading into Texas for weeks on end, desperately hoping their names and numbers are called so they can be let in.
Some immigrants complain of shakedowns and kidnappings by gangs and corrupt officials. Others pay bribes to get to the front of the line; the rest, determined to enter the country legally, wait patiently, even if it takes months. This is what has happened since the Trump administration placed asylum in a chokehold.
The Associated Press visited eight cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and found 13,000 immigrants on waiting lists to get into the country — exposed to haphazard and often-dubious arrangements that vary sharply.
The lines began to swell in the last year when the administration limited the number of asylum cases it accepts each day at the main border crossings, leaving it to Mexican agencies, volunteers, nonprofit organizations and immigrants themselves to manage the lines.
In some cities, days pass without anyone being processed, the AP found. In San Diego, up to 80 are handled each day, but the line in Tijuana, across the border, is the longest anywhere — about 4,800 people.
Each day at each crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials alert Mexican counterparts how many people they will take — a system the government calls metering. Then the keeper of the list lets immigrants know who can go into the U.S. for asylum interviews.
A federal lawsuit says the administration is violating U.S. and international law by refusing to take asylum-seekers when they show up at a crossing. U.S. authorities argue that processing capacity dictates how many people it can handle.
“It’s not turning people away, it’s asking them to wait,” then-Customs and Border Protection Commissioner and current acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in October.
But some feel they cannot. They try to enter illegally, sometimes with tragic consequences. A Honduran family, arriving at Piedras Negras, Mexico, decided the line was too long. Crossing the Rio Grande, they were swept away; a father and three children, including a baby, are believed to have died. Here is a snapshot of the wait list systems along the border:
Ciudad Juarez: Black ink, wristbands, and thousands in line
The sprawling industrial city began its waiting list in October when many Cuban asylum-seekers began sleeping on the narrow sidewalk of a busy international bridge. Mexican authorities decided they had to go.
asylum-seekers were then registered and had numbers written on their arms in black ink to show their number in line. That was abandoned in favor of plastic wristbands, which were scrapped because so many people were selling or counterfeiting them. Now it’s a digital-based system. There are currently about 4,000 names on the list.
Reynosa: ‘River owners’ run the show
The challenges faced by asylum-seekers waiting in Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, are compounded by rampant violence. Gunfights between cartels and police occur daily, and the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel there. Few Americans are willing to visit the shelter that controls the list or the other churches and hotels where asylum-seekers wait.
Jennifer Harbury, a longtime human rights advocate in Texas, spoke recently to a large group of asylum-seekers at the Senda de Vida shelter and met with people who had been kidnapped by cartels. “The owners of the river, you know who they are,” Harbury said. Several nodded.
Piedras Negras, Mexico: The WhatsApp List
When asylum-seekers arrive at a migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, they are given a phone number to text on the messaging service WhatsApp. They’re supposed to send the names and photos of everyone in their group. Then they’re told to wait.
Managing the list is a local restaurateur named Hector Menchaca, who also serves as the local government’s liaison to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. About 360 people are on the list, with another 200 people waiting to join it because the government has closed it to new entrants for the time being, Menchaca said.
The list includes people from Central America, Mexico, Brazil, and countries an ocean away like Cameroon. They aren’t told how close to the top they are, only that they might wait for two or three months. But many people say they can’t wait — among them the four who are believed to have drowned in the Rio Grande last week.
Nogales: A family affair
A woman whose family manages shelters in Nogales keeps the list of new arrivals in Nogales. Before she was involved, Brenda Nieblas says hundreds of migrants would wait at the border crossing and many would try to rush in when U.S. authorities called people for processing.
When they first arrive, some of the migrants are sent to a Red Cross first aid station. They are then connected with Nieblas, who puts them on the list, assigns them to a shelter in Nogales and notifies them when their time comes.
Tijuana and Mexicali: A notebook, and waiting for the phone call
Tijuana is most experienced with a numbering system, having established one in 2016 when Haitians had to wait in Mexico for a chance at refuge in the United States. Its waiting list stands at about 4,800.
Grupos Beta, a unit of Mexico’s immigration agency that provides food, transportation and aid to migrants, keeps guard at night over tattered notebooks and hands them over to volunteers during the day to register new arrivals. On a recent Saturday, there were nearly 100 people in line to get a spot in the notebook — almost exclusively Cameroonians who arrived the previous day.
In nearby Mexicali, Grupos Beta employees in bright orange shirts call out those whose numbers are up. Mexicali — a city of about 1 million across from Calexico, California — has about 800 names on its list.
San Luis: ‘There really is no schedule’
Darwin Mora manages two giant white boards with hundreds of numbers in black marker, each one representing a family or single adult. When CBP tells Mexican authorities how many people it wants, it falls to Mora to have them ready. Each family that crosses or cancels is marked with an X.
Mora says U.S. officials can call any day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. During those hours, he never strays far from the boards under a green canopy, which are divided in neat columns and rows. In the lower left corner of each box is a number to represent the number of people in the family. “There really is no schedule,” he said. There are about 900 people on the list, assuming three people per family. Recent arrivals are expected to wait at least five months.
Matamoros: A long wait and ‘no space’ for families
At the foot of the bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, more than 20 sheets of paper have been taped to a large board with the typewritten names of more than 800 people. The migrants waiting in Matamoros check the board daily to see whose names have been crossed off with a black marker.
Some of the names have a line next to them with the word “rio,” Spanish for river — denoting that they were believed to have crossed the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. without authorization. There are frequent allegations that Mexican government officials or security agents demand bribes to let people join the list or move up the list.
The people who wait in the tents by the bridge have formed their own enclosed community. One man climbed into the Rio Grande to bathe. The country he was waiting to enter was a short swim away, but he stayed close to the bank on the Mexican side. And then he went back toward his tent. To wait. (VOA)