Tariff deal will keep migrants in Mexico
SAN DIEGO — In a cramped San Diego courtroom, migrants waited to go before a judge. After a quick exchange, they were returned back to Mexico where they will wait as their cases play out, rather than being released back into the U.S.
Scenes like this will be playing out in U.S. border courtrooms under a deal that led President Donald Trump to suspend his threat of tariffs on all Mexican exports to the U.S. A centerpiece of the agreement calls for rapid expansion of a policy that requires Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases wind through U.S. immigration courts.
The policy got off to a modest start in January in San Diego and then expanded to El Paso while surviving an initial court challenge from critics who call it a violation of long-standing protections for asylum seekers. The Mexican government said last week that 10,393 Central Americans had been returned to Mexico since the end of January to await court proceedings.
The administration has yet to say when and where the policy will be expanded.
The policy targets Central Americans migrants who have overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system in recent months, forcing authorities to release them into the U.S. while they await court appearances – which many never re-appear for.
It’s too early to say if the policy will achieve that, but
the surging numbers of family arrivals show it has yet to have the desired effect. Border arrests rose to a 13-year-high in May, with El Paso slowly approaching Texas’ Rio Grande Valley as the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
Asylum seekers — and the Mexican border cities that host them — face a large and growing backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts. For some, it could take years for their court cases to be resolved. During that time, migrants need to work and send children to school.
Migrants at El Buen Pastor shelter who were returned to Juarez on May 23 were not given hearing dates in El Paso until next February. The Rev. Juan Ferro, who manages the Methodist shelter, said he no longer imposes a 15-day cap on how long people can stay, realizing that migrants could be in his city for the long haul with few options.
“We are living in uncertainty,” Ferro said. “We don’t know how to guide the migrants because we are in the same situation as the migrants. ... We don’t know
what’s going on.”
Many say they feel unsafe waiting in Mexico and have had trouble contacting American attorneys willing to cross the border to give legal advice.
The Department of Homeland Security said Monday that Mexico had for the first time agreed to “full and immediate expansion” of the policy but it has not said when and where that will happen.
As the policy is applied to more remote areas, asylum seekers will have to travel longer distances for hearings.
In Mexicali, a large Mexican border city, they must travel 120 miles (190 kilometers) to Tijuana by bus or — if they’re lucky, in an immigrant rights activist’s car — to report at the Tijuana border crossing by 9 a.m. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement buses then take them to the San Diego courtroom.
In San Diego last week, U.S. immigration authorities kept a close watch on a group of immigrants as they waited to go before the judge. When a baby started to whimper, authorities signaled for the
child’s mother to wait in the hallway.
A Guatemalan man appeared with his young daughter after another asylum seeker said he had been threatened by a Tijuana taxi driver and feared returning.
He said he couldn’t bear staying in Mexico and wanted to know how long it would take to resolve his case.
The judge, Rico Bartolomei, didn’t know.
“I do know this: Your case won’t be instant,” the judge said.