As caravan nears U.S. border, lawyers warn migrants about difficulties of seeking asylum

U.S. immigration lawyers are telling Central Americans in a caravan of asylum seekers that travelled through Mexico to the U.S. border that they face possible separation from their children and detention for many months. They say they want to prepare them for the worst possible outcome.

Asylum seekers may pass initial screening, but they may be separated from their children or held for months

Members of a migrant caravan from Central America line up to receive breakfast prior to preparations for an asylum request in the U.S., at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

U.S. immigration lawyers are telling Central Americans in a caravan of asylum seekers that travelled through Mexico to the border with San Diego that they may be separated from their children and detained for many months if they seek asylum in the United States.

They say they want to prepare them for the worst possible outcome.

"We are the bearers of horrible news," Los Angeles lawyer Nora Phillips said during a break from legal workshops for the migrants at three locations in Tijuana, Mexico, where about 20 lawyers offered free information and advice. "That's what good attorneys are for."

The Central Americans, many travelling as families, will test the Trump administration's tough rhetoric criticizing the caravan on Sunday when they begin seeking asylum by turning themselves in to border inspectors at San Diego's San Ysidro border crossing, the nation's busiest.

U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet have been tracking the caravan, calling it a threat to the U.S. since it started March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border. They have promised a stern, swift response.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the caravan "a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system." He pledged to send more immigration judges to the border to resolve cases if needed.

Any asylum seekers making false claims to U.S. authorities could be prosecuted, as could anyone who assists or coaches immigrants on making false claims, she said. Administration officials and their allies claim asylum fraud is growing and that many who seek it are coached on how to do so.

A volunteer lawyer informs migrants on what to expect when requesting asylum in the U.S. Even if the migrants pass the initial screening, their chances of being granted asylum are not high. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/Associated Press)

The lawyers who went to Tijuana denied coaching any of the roughly 400 people in the caravan. The asylum seekers are camping out in shelters near some of the city's seedier bars and bordellos.

Kenia Elizabeth Avila, 35, appeared shaken after the volunteer attorneys told her Friday that temperatures may be cold in temporary holding cells and that she could be separated from her three children, ages 10, nine and four.

But she in said an interview that returning to her native El Salvador would be worse. She fled for reasons she declined to discuss.

"If they're going to separate us for a few days, that's better than getting myself killed in my country," she said.

Roughly 400 asylum seekers in caravan

Since Congress failed to agree on a broad immigration package in February, administration officials have made it a legislative priority to end what they call "legal loopholes" and "catch-and-release" policies that allow asylum seekers to be released from custody while their cases wind through the courts. The process can take years.

Asylum seekers are typically held up to three days at the border and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they pass an asylum officer's initial screening, they may be detained or released with ankle monitors.

Nearly 80 per cent of asylum seekers passed the initial screening from October through December, according to the latest numbers available. But few are likely to eventually win asylum.

Mexicans fared worst among the 10 countries that sent the largest numbers of U.S. asylum seekers from 2012 to 2017, with a denial rate of 88 per cent, according to asylum outcome records tracked by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse. El Salvadorans were close behind with a 79 per cent denial rate, followed by Hondurans at 78 per cent and Guatemalans at 75 per cent.

Sharing their stories

Evelyn Wiese, a San Francisco immigration attorney, said she tried to make migrants more comfortable sharing memories of the dangers they faced in their homelands.

"It's really scary to tell these experiences to a stranger," she said after counselling a visibly shaken Guatemalan woman. "The next time she tells her story will be easier."

Nefi Hernandez, who planned to seek asylum with his wife and infant daughter who was born on the journey through Mexico, worried he could be kept in custody away from his daughter. But his spirits lifted when he learned he might be released with an ankle bracelet.

About 400 migrants from Central America, mostly from Honduras, are seeking to enter the United States. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/Associated Press)

Hernandez, 24, said a gang in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, threatened to kill him and his family if he did not sell drugs.

Jose Cazares, 31, said he faced death threats in the northern Honduran city of Yoro because a gang member suspected of killing the mother of his children learned one of Cazares' sons reported the crime to police.  

"One can always make up for lost time with a child, but if they kill him, you can't," he said outside his dome-shaped tent.