U.S. Will Send Asylum Seekers To Mexico While Claims Are Processed

By Jorge Valencia
Published: Friday, December 21, 2018 - 9:26am
Updated: Friday, December 21, 2018 - 1:06pm

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Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Many Central American migrants traveling through Mexico toward the United States have stayed at shelters near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City

People seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border will no longer be released into the United States while their cases are resolved, and will instead be returned to Mexico and forced to wait there, under a plan announced Thursday.

The measure is one of the most aggressive actions taken by the Trump administration in an effort to reshape the country’s immigration policy. It's being rolled out as the U.S. and Mexico are struggling to deal with a growing wave of migration, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Savlador.

Trump administration officials have long argued asylum seekers game the system by petitioning for asylum and failing to appear for court hearings once they have been allowed into the United States. While a majority pass an initial screening, only about 9 percent are eventually granted asylum, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

“All too frequently, if they say the magic words, they get a free pass into America,” Nielsen said.

The Mexican government responded to the plan by saying it would give foreigners temporary permission to remain in Mexico after receiving a notice to appear in U.S. immigration court and will be allowed to petition for work authorization. Previous Mexican administrations had resisted similar measures. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office Dec. 1.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, referred to the plan as the “remain in Mexico agreement.”

As Nielsen presented the measure in Washington, immigration lawyers across the border and humanitarian groups and scrambled to react.

The new policy violates U.S. due process rights and international law, said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City. Asylum seekers will be kept from waiting for their asylum application in the country that’s safest to them, and it is unclear how they will have access to legal aid, Kuhner said.

A pedestrian street outside the the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Many Central American migrants traveling through Mexico toward the U.S. have stayed at shelters near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City

It’s likely human rights advocates on both sides of the border will try to stop the plan from being implemented, Kuhner said.

"The United States is doing everything possible to limit access to asylum for people who are fleeing violence, especially from Central America," Kuhner said.

In Mexico City, Kevin Fraga, a 27-year-old recent arrival from Honduras, tried to lure tourists visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe toward a nearby restaurant. Fraga is passing through on his way to the Mexico-U.S. border, and is being paid just over $20 per week -- under the table.

If Fragas were to apply for asylum in the U.S., the new plan would make him eligible to apply for a work permit in Mexico. He sees that favorably because it would allow him to look for better paid work, he said.

“I wouldn't be here waving a restaurant menu,” he said.

Fraga left Honduras to find work and send money to his mother and son, he said. Yet his plan is still to somehow enter the U.S., he said.

"I like to work," he said. "I don’t like to cheat. If I did, I would’ve just stayed in Honduras."

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