Border guards accused of illegally turning away foreigners seeking asylum

A Mexican soldier stops Cuban immigrant Reinier Aguila Esquivel and other Cubans stranded in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico as they try to pass to the international bridge, following a rally, marching from Plaza Juarez to the International Bridge, on Saturday, April 8, 2017.
A Mexican soldier stops Cuban immigrant Reinier Aguila Esquivel and other Cubans stranded in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico as they try to pass to the international bridge, following a rally, marching from Plaza Juarez to the International Bridge, on Saturday, April 8, 2017. San Antonio Express-News

New allegations have emerged about American immigration officials turning away foreign nationals who arrive at the Mexican border seeking asylum from persecution in their homelands.

A new report by the group Human Rights First says its researchers have gathered additional information showing how immigration authorities at various ports of entry along the border have continued to block foreign asylum seekers from the United States and turning them back to Mexico.

If the report's assertions are true, they constitute evidence that some border immigration officials are either violating U.S. law and U.S. international agreements or are ignorant of these commitments.

Under U.S. immigration law and international agreements, the United States is not to reject asylum-seekers at its borders, which include border ports of entry and international airports.

Yet, information published by Human Rights First in a May report, and an earlier complaint in January to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the American Immigration Council (AIC) and other groups, show that American border officials have failed to receive some foreign asylum seekers along the border with Mexico.

“U.S. border agents have turned away asylum seekers, without referring them for the required protection screening or immigration court proceedings, at official ports of entry across the southern border,” according to the May report. “In some cases, asylum seekers report that CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officers simply ignored their request to seek asylum or their statements about fearing return, or said, for example, ‘We are deporting you now’.”

In a recent statement, CBP insisted that asylum policies have not changed.

“CBP has not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures,” the CBP statement said. “The United States has long adhered to international laws and conventions allowing people to seek asylum on grounds that they are being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or other factors.”

The May report by Human Rights First does not cite a specific number of rejections, but it said that its researchers had their survey on 125 cases of individuals and families denied access at border ports of entry. Some of them are Cubans and Central Americans who likely were headed to Miami to join relatives.

CBP officials denied that their border officers are rejecting asylum seekers, but did not specifically deny the cases cited in the Human Rights First report or the prior AIC complaint.

They include stories from people group investigators interviewed at ports of entry in Texas, Arizona and California. Asylum seekers interviewed came from Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Turkey.

In many instances, the asylum seekers interviewed said border officials told them that because of the change in administrations, the United States was no longer granting asylum like before, according to the May report.

“Lawyers reported to Human Rights First that CBP agents at the Hidalgo port told asylum seekers, ‘Trump says we don’t have to let you in,’ and ‘you can’t just show up here’,” the report says. “In February 2017 CBP agents at the Ped-West entry point told an asylum seeker that ‘the United States is not giving asylum anymore’.”

However, none of these assertions — if true — are backed up by any new regulations, policies or laws under President Donald Trump, who was sworn in on Jan. 20.

Although Trump has ordered a toughening of immigration enforcement and asked for a more skeptical attitude toward asylum seekers, he had not changed the way border officers must deal with foreign nationals who claim persecution in their homelands and ask for asylum.

In fact, one of Trump's many executive orders on immigration specifically said that the United States will continue to honor its asylum obligations.

“Nothing in this order shall be construed to limit the ability of an individual to seek asylum, withholding of removal, or protection under the Convention Against Torture, consistent with the laws of the United States,” according to a March 6 executive order.

Also, a Jan. 25 Trump executive order said: “The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately assign asylum officers to immigration detention facilities for the purpose of accepting asylum referrals and conducting credible fear determinations.”

Specific cases cited in the report, however, show that some border officers are not following prior procedures under which they would immediately allow foreign asylum seekers to enter the country and pursue their claim, albeit in initial detention.

Some of the cases cited in the May report dealt with Cuban nationals who allegedly were turned away by border officers claiming that the law had changed for them when President Barack Obama revoked the so-called “wet foot, dry-foot” imigration policy for Cubans days before Trump took office.

“After President Trump’s inauguration CBP told a woman seeking asylum from Cuba that the law for asylum ‘does not exist anymore’,” according to the report.

While the Obama administration revoked the policy that allowed Cubans to be automatically paroled into the United States, a Cuban national at a U.S. port of entry can still seek U.S. asylum through the processes generally applicable to any foreign asylum seeker.

“When the woman refused to turn around, the CBP agent threatened to call Mexican immigration to remove her,” the report said

A more dramatic episode occurred on April 8, about three months after Obama revoked the policy.

“As reported by The San Antonio Express, a group of 500 Cubans, including many asylum seekers, approached the port in Laredo, after getting past Mexican military which tried to stop them,” the report said. “CBP agents told them, ‘the law has changed, you have to go back,’ after one Cuban told the officer they were seeking asylum.”

The San Antonio Express website reported on April 9 that a “peaceful demonstration” involving about 500 Cuban migrants “quickly escalated” when a large group staged a protest on the international bridge.

Many had been in Mexico since January, when Obama ended the policy and had “grown restless,” the report said. “Mexican soldiers armed with rifles turned them back, but a dozen slipped past the soldiers in a second wave, only to be told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers that the bridge was closed to them.”

Another case cited in the report involved three transgender women who had fled El Salvador and showed up seeking asylum at the Otay Mesa port of entry across from Tijuana.

“CBP agents told them that the United States was ‘not giving asylum anymore,’ according to the women,” the report said. “The officers then told the asylum seekers to leave.”

Besides issues at the border, asylum-seekers are also encountering problems at detention centers inside the United States, according to a new report from the American Immigration Council (AIC).

These problems, the report says, stem from revised expedited removal directives aimed at newly-arrived undocumented immigrants.

A person subject to expedited removal, which, under current policy may include those apprehended within 100 miles of a U.S. border and within 14 days of entry, can be immediately ordered deported by an immigration officer without ever seeing an immigration judge — unless the foreign national expresses fear of being returned to his or her homeland.

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