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.

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