As caravan nears U.S. border, lawyers warn migrants about difficulties of seeking asylum
Asylum seekers may pass initial screening, but they may be separated from their children or held for months
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.