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Trump Administration Starts Returning Asylum Seekers To Tijuana

January 30, 2019 1:56 p.m.

GUEST: Jean Guerrero, border reporter, KPBS News

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Related Story: Trump Administration Starts Returning Asylum Seekers To Tijuana


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

It's official the Trump administration's so-called return to Mexico policy is underway at the U.S. Mexico border. The pilot program called migrant protection protocols was first announced back in December to deter waves of asylum seeking families from Central America from coming to the U.S.. One man was sent back to Mexico yesterday. He told a group of reporters outside the Sanya cedar port of entry he was from Honduras before being rushed off in a van to a local shelter in Tijuana. The implementation of the program coincided with a visit from Homeland Security secretary Kiersten Nielsen K PBS reporter Jeanne Guerrero has been covering these developments and joins me with more.

Jeanne welcome. Hey Jake great to be here. Until now asylum seekers were allowed to wait in the U.S. while their case would work its way through the U.S. court system. Under this new policy who will be returned to Mexico.

This new policy applies only to Central Americans so no Mexicans. The Department of Homeland Security has also said that it doesn't apply to unaccompanied minors. No one who is deemed to have a credible fear of returning to Mexico will be included in the policy. And it's also important to note that right now it very much is is a pilot program. So they're starting with about 20 people a day. They're going to be taking 20 names from a tattered notebook with a makeshift asylum wait list at the Sandy studio port of entry and they're going to be bringing these people through.

Under this pilot program where they'll be returning them to Tijuana within 24 hours but of several dozen more will be processed under the normal the normal system. Now will families be returned to Mexico. So that is something that is still unclear. The Department of Homeland Security says family units are a part of the migrant protection protocols and the Mexican government however says that it won't be accepting any minors. And I spoke to a Mexican official. Who spoke on condition of anonymity who's familiar with the negotiations and she says that the Mexican government is really pushing to not have families be a part of this.

Now DHS said they plan to start the policy here at San Ysidro before extending it to two other ports of entry is that still the plan.

That's correct. The focus is going to be the San Diego sector ports of entry almost exclusively at the San Ysidro port of entry. Yesterday the homeland security secretary Christine Nielsen toured the facility as you noted. She said that this program was necessary to address what she called Chaotic migration flows and to help people who are fleeing persecution while also at the same time fighting false asylum claims. But the reason that they're focusing here at the CDC to port of entry is because it's the busiest border crossing in the United States. And it's also located just north of tea Juana which it's the border city that has one of the best migrant shelter capacities in Mexico.

And how will the policy play out logistically who is DHS coordinating with in Mexico and who will make the asylum seekers make it to their court hearings here in the U.S. that still has not been worked out.

The only pro bono legal service provider in Tijuana is a group called I lived through Largo and I spoke with their attorneys yesterday and they say they absolutely do not have the capacity to help the number of people that the U.S. plans to return every day. The local NGO is in San Diego are being asked by the U.S. and Mexican authorities to step up and to help provide legal services to the individuals who are returned to de Juana but many of these nonprofits tell me that they don't have a capacity for staff to cross the border.

They talk about the international phone calls that these migrants would have to make and don't have the capacity to make. There's a 1 800 number set up for immigrants to check their court status and 1 800 numbers don't work in Tijuana. So a lot of these groups are saying that this this project really undermines due process rights and exposes asylum seekers to harm because at the same time as you're seeing all these deficiencies in the plan you also see record homicides in Tijuana.

And this man who was taken back over to Mexico. What do we know about him. Where's he headed what's next.

So that remains a mystery there appears to be a shelter in Tijuana that is accepting these migrants who are being returned under the new policy. But I have still not been able to figure out where this is and the nonprofits that were asked to help with this in San Diego also haven't figured out where the location of this shelter is. So because of the fact that there are still so many questions about how the rights of these asylum seekers are going to be safeguarded you do see groups talking about lawsuits for example the ACLU is considering a lawsuit to stop this this project from from continuing.

And you know as you know Tijuana is still dealing with the aftermath.

Of last. The last migrant caravan and another group of migrants is on the way. I mean although we don't exactly know if they're coming to Tijuana why is Mexico going along with this new policy.

The Mexican official who I spoke to on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to speak with the press about this. She tells me that it's it's an effort to remain consistent with the new Mexican president's message of welcoming migrants.

So they're accepting Central Americans on the southern border and they feel that it would be inconsistent to reject them on the northern border border with the U.S. the implementation of the so-called return to Mexico policy comes as the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a shelter for migrant families that have just been released from detention. How does the policy pertain to the debate over the shelter. I mean you some might be wondering if migrants are returned to Mexico. Is there still even a need for shelter.

That's right. So I mean it really is going to depend on whether or not families are included in this program which is the is yet to be seen because if families are returned to Mexico then as you say it may not be necessary to have this this this shelter after all but at the same time because this project is starting with such a small number of people and dozens are going to continue to be processed under the normal system there will still be a need for at least some migrant shelter capacity in San Diego.

I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Jean Guerrero Jean. Thanks for joining us. Thank you.