Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – In a major shift, the Department of Homeland Security is about to begin sending asylum-seekers who crossed the border in the El Paso region back to Mexico, where they will wait for their cases to be heard.
The changes under the migrant protection protocols are set to start by the end of the week. Currently, families seeking asylum usually are released within days and allowed to remain in the United States for months, and sometimes years, for their cases to wind through the court system.
In recent weeks, several hundred asylum-seeking migrants a day have been crossing through the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico. Most crossed illegally – often waiting for and waving down Border Patrol – while a few dozen of those waiting to cross at the border checkpoints were allowed in each day. In the Journal’s “8 hours on the border” series published earlier this month, the Border Patrol recounted how the influx of families has stretched their resources.
The series also reported how Ciudad Juárez is struggling to care for the thousands of migrants waiting there to enter the U.S. through a port of entry.
“It’s a crisis because we are not ready as a city,” Jorge Muñoz, migrant relief coordinator at a makeshift shelter in Ciudad Juárez, said of the change. The shelter lies just across the border from El Paso.
Authorities in Mexico were notified in meetings this week about the U.S. plan to expand the migrant protection protocols along this stretch of border.
Under the plan the Trump administration first called “Remain in Mexico,” asylum applicants will be sent south of the border to wait while their cases move through immigration courts in the U.S. The protocols are already in place on the California border in the Mexican border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali and now have been expanded to include Ciudad Juárez.
“It’s going to be a crisis in security, a humanitarian crisis, a public health crisis, a housing crisis, a public services crisis, because we don’t have the capacity as a city or funding as a city or state to keep attending to the large migration flow,” Muñoz said.
Thousands of migrants waiting in Ciudad Juárez remain on a waiting list to file an asylum claim at an official port of entry in El Paso while more arrive daily. The State of Chihuahua opened the Colegio de Bachilleres gym to migrants when the main shelter, “Casa del Migrante,” run by a Catholic charity, reached capacity.
Burden on the state
The Chihuahua state government is paying for food, water and basic medical care for more than 600 people at the gym shelter with help from some donations. Staff like Muñoz have also been reassigned from their regular jobs to coordinate the relief effort.
“It’s a lot, and the most worrisome thing is this is not budgeted,” Muñoz said. Mexico’s federal government, which agreed to the U.S. Migrant Protection Protocols, so far has not provided any money to help Ciudad Juárez.
The U.S. side of the border has been stretched thin as well.
Nonprofit organizations and churches in El Paso, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico have stepped in to provide respite centers for thousands of migrant parents and children.
Shelters in the region have been so overwhelmed, the nonprofit Annunciation House bused several hundred migrants last week to charities in Albuquerque that agreed to help provide temporary shelter.
Some of those migrant parents with children have come through official ports of entry. Others crossed the border illegally and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park and other areas of the New Mexico border. Most have been processed and released by U.S. authorities while waiting for ruling on their asylum claims in immigration court.
Most migrants only need temporary shelter for a day or two while waiting for sponsors, usually relatives in the U.S., to buy bus tickets to other cities or make other travel arrangements. Many are Central American families seeking asylum to live with relatives or friends in the U.S. while their cases slowly wind through U.S. immigration court.
By the end of the week, this will change. Most asylum-seekers will be sent back to Mexico as soon as they are processed.
The vast majority are from Central America, with others coming from Cuba and Brazil.
Reason for change
The Border Patrol told the Journal that many of the migrants they encounter hired human smugglers to bring them to the border. The smugglers advised them that once they reached U.S. soil and asked a Border Patrol agent for asylum, they would be allowed to remain in the U.S.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in a statement announcing the policy in late January said, “This humanitarian approach will help to end the exploitation of our generous immigration laws. The Migrant Protection Protocols represent a methodical commonsense approach, exercising long-standing statutory authority to help address the crisis at our Southern border.” During her visit to the south Texas stretch of border Thursday, Nielsen reiterated there’s a crisis on the border.
But immigrant advocates expressed concern about making migrants applying for asylum in the U.S. wait in Mexico in a joint statement released by the Hope Border Institute, a grass-roots, faith-based organization working in the El Paso, Las Cruces, Ciudad Juárez region.
“Whatever the scale or scope of this program here, by forcing asylum-seekers to make their case on the other side of the border, and thus on the other side of safety and security, it will endanger too many lives and strain the resources of our sister city of Ciudad Juárez,” according to the statement released Wednesday by the Hope Border Institute.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the policy in court and a hearing is scheduled for today.
8 hours on the border by Albuquerque Journal on Exposure