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San Diego Ports Of Entry Pause Entry Of New Asylum Seekers

Olivia Caceres plays with her son Andree at a Mexican migrant shelter, Nov. 4...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Olivia Caceres plays with her son Andree at a Mexican migrant shelter, Nov. 4, 2017.

Asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. through Tijuana are out of luck for now, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reached capacity at its San Diego ports of entry, an agency spokesman told KPBS in an email on Wednesday.

"At this time, CBP has reached capacity at our facilities at San Diego area ports of entry. We cannot bring additional people into our ports of entry to be processed until individuals already at the port of entry are transferred ... CBP remains committed to meeting the care, feeding, medical, and safety needs of those persons in our custody, and is actively working with our partners to resolve this back-up."

Deborah Anker, a clinical professor of law and founder of the Harvard Law School's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, said the move is a violation of Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

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"There's no question that this violates the statute, it violates our treaty obligations," she said. "You can't turn people away at the border. That's very fundamental ... It's not a gray area."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jorge Soberanes said that "no one is being turned away from ports of entry; however, there is a backup for those awaiting processing."

In other words, people who attempt to enter the U.S. through San Diego area ports of entry without U.S. documents are being told they should return at a later date.

Among the people who has been temporarily turned away is Olivia Caceres, a 29-year-old asylum seeker from El Salvador who tried to cross through the San Ysidro Port of Entry with her four-year-old son, Andree, on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, according to her lawyer Erika Pinheiro.

"Olivia was really anxious to go," Pinheiro said.

Earlier this month, KPBS ran a story about Caceres' partner, Jose Demar Fuentes, who turned himself into U.S. immigration authorities in November with their one-year-old son, Mateo. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed Fuentes in a private detention facility in Otay Mesa, while sending the boy more than 1,500 miles away to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in Texas.

RELATED: Father Seeking Asylum In U.S. Struggles To Reunite With 1-Year-Old Taken By Immigration Official

The couple is experiencing two distinct but increasingly common challenges for asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border: the separation of families by immigration officials, as well as the alleged turning away of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Caceres' lawyer, Pinheiro, said Caceres tried to cross twice this week because she was desperate to find out what was happening with her youngest son and to be reunited with him. She was turned away by Customs and Border Protection officers on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, Pinheiro said.

“They said they’d worked out a system with Grupo Beta, which is the humanitarian arm of Mexican immigration services, to take people away from the port of entry, to take them to shelters and then pick them up and bring them back when there’s space," she said.

But the involvement of Mexican immigration authorities is complicated. While they are working with U.S. customs to control the flow of asylum seekers, they are also detaining and deporting Central Americans who are in Mexico without status — in other words, most asylum seekers who attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico.

"Foreign nationals who have no status in Mexico are being detained and are taken to an immigration facility," said Rodulfo Figueroa, who heads Mexico's national migration institute in Baja California. "Once we evaluate their situation, we decide whether to return them to their country of origin or to release them so that they can seek status in Mexico."

Caceres' lawyer, Pinheiro, said she saw Mexican immigration officials monitoring the lines of asylum seekers at the ports of entry and taking away large groups of people. She said it was unclear whether they were being taken to migrant shelters or to detention facilities.

Pinheiro and Caceres went to Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights to request help regarding the issue of asylum seekers being detained by Mexican immigration officials. Then she took Caceres to a Mexican migrant shelter that is working with Grupo Beta, and will attempt to cross again at a later date.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said San Diego area ports of entry have reached capacity and "cannot bring additional people" into the installations "until individuals already at the port of entry are transferred."

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