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On Anniversary Of 'Remain in Mexico,' Immigrant Advocates Call For Its End

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Immigration lawyers from organizations including Jewish Family Service and the American Civil Liberties Union called for the immediate end of the program, which has sent over 60,000 Central American asylum-seekers back to Mexico.

Speaker 1: 00:00 In the first year of the migrant protection protocols program. 60,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico while their claims wind through the immigration system. A group gathered in downtown San Diego yesterday to Mark the one year anniversary of the program. KPBS reporter max Rivlin Adler spoke to those at the event in downtown San Diego yesterday and joins us now to discuss the policy. Max, welcome. Hi. Tell me a bit about yesterday's event. Who was there and what was the general message?

Speaker 2: 00:30 Yesterday's event featured immigrant advocates, lawyers who work in immigration court system as well as an asylum seeker who had been placed in the remain in Mexico program themselves and their general message of course was to end the program as soon as possible. They highlighted all of the issues that they have found with the problem that stand in the way of people from actually pursuing their asylum claims. This includes not having access to a lawyer while they're staying in Mexico. Dangerous conditions in Tijuana and along other border towns along the Southern border, as well as the basic counterfeit court dates that have been given to them by department of Homeland security employees. These are basically flagrant violations of due process in the eyes of the advocates and one that is standing in the way of what had been an asylum system that wasn't all that forgiving to begin with.

Speaker 1: 01:21 And can you give us some background on the remain in Mexico policy? How did, how did it come about?

Speaker 2: 01:27 So the remained in Mexico policy was first kind of announced by former department of Homeland security secretary Kirsten Nielsen. And the idea was to cut down on what the Trump administration had turned to catch and release. This is the fact that if somebody comes across the border with a family due to a series of federal court rulings, they can't be held for longer than 72 hours or a few days in custody by ice or by customs and border protection. So individuals, while their asylum claims are winding through the courts, which could take years, were residing in the U S and starting their lives. Getting jobs. Some of them were finding work permits, things like that. This had really stuck with the Trump administration, which had parroted again and again that people weren't showing up to their court dates. Uh, they were actually in, in large numbers, but they instituted the remain in Mexico policy to disincentivize people from crossing over the border in large numbers. At first, people really didn't believe that Mexico would go along with this because you're essentially sending back thousands of migrants to these border towns which are not in the best of shape to begin with and are relatively strapped for resources. What ended up happening is Mexico did agree to this at first in a limited capacity saying we're just going to take back, um, single adults. Then it became families and now it is not only families who speak Spanish but just announced yesterday, it's been expanded to Brazilians who speak Portuguese and not Spanish.

Speaker 1: 02:56 How is it determined whether or not an asylum will be sent

Speaker 2: 03:00 to Mexico to await asylum under the program? They are screened at the port of entry by customs and border protection officials as well as asylum officers. For the most part, what asylum seekers have been reporting is that this has been done haphazardly. Um, they're asked if they fear returning to Mexico, they might say yes, they might say no, they're given semi fraudulent court dates because the main thing is that Mexico will not accept, uh, an asylum seeker back into Mexico without seeing that they have a piece of paper with a court date back in the U S so quite often border patrol or anyone they interact with at the port of entry, we'll give them a court date, but that might not match up with what's happening at the immigration court, which is run by the department of justice. So the first interaction that asylum seekers have are incredibly haphazard and it's not clear how this is being applied to each specific family or what rules are being given to these officers. How has this policy impacted asylum seekers? So the asylum seekers themselves have often spoken about being placed in a direct danger when there were turned back to Mexico. They even have kidnappers waiting in these border towns when they're being returned by ice or CBP. Um, this is one woman whose name was Gabriela, who she had just been removed from the remain in Mexico program. After waiting over six months in Tijuana.

Speaker 3: 04:35 [inaudible]

Speaker 4: 04:36 my son asked me, mom, what comes next? We had no family in P Warner. We had no one that could go pick us up.

Speaker 2: 04:43 People are unfamiliar with this program. They don't know Tia Kwana. They're from central America. Um, they are facing incredible amounts of danger. This woman, Gabriela, Oh, the husband of a woman she was staying with was murdered while she was there. Um, there was a Salvador and man in Tijuana a few weeks ago who was murdered, who had been returned to Mexico while awaiting his court date. Um, there have been over 800 documented, um, assault kidnappings, uh, violent acts against asylum seekers, well in these border towns. So it is deeply unsafe for them according to their reports. What do the immigration judges and asylum officers say about the policy? So both the association of retired immigration judge and the asylum officers union have said that they are in opposition to this program because it directly contradicts their mission as asylum officers and immigration judges to make sure that if somebody has a valid asylum claim or a strong fear of being harmed, that they don't then go ahead and put them directly in harm harm's way. Here's Nicole Ramos, she's a lawyer with the ELO throw lotto organization, which provides legal assistance to asylum seekers in Tijuana. If the migrant protection protocols

Speaker 5: 05:58 was designed to ensure asylum seekers arrived to their court proceedings, we would not have us customs and border protection officers turning away asylum seekers at the port of entry who have arrived with notices to appear in immigration court causing them to not appear, obtain orders of removal due to their absence and have their cases closed.

Speaker 2: 06:21 Yeah. So she's again explaining how difficult it is for anybody to navigate this, especially because almost, I think the last numbers were just over 1% of people actually had a lawyer and I've sat an immigration court in downtown San Diego and it is incredibly rare to see anybody who has a firm grasp of what's happening or what's being asked of them while they sit in these, um, small immigration court rooms. And on top of that, there were requirements like things like a certified English translations. They people don't have access to those in Tijuana and they're not allowed to enter the U S to take care of that. The program is currently being challenged in federal court. Where does that case stand? So there was a injunction that was placed, Oh, almost a year ago. Right after this went into effect that was then stayed by the ninth circuit pending oral arguments.

Speaker 2: 07:12 And right now the case is being challenged in the ninth circuit. Oral arguments in that case were heard over three months ago. So people have been waiting for this argument for, you know, the results of this argument and this ruling for months now, uh, many, many lives hang in the balance. And even if the ninth circuit were to go ahead and say, this is illegal, of course, uh, the Supreme court can always step in like it did recently on the public charge rule, uh, effecting people trying to get their green cards. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter max Rivlin Adler. Max, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks

Speaker 3: 07:50 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.