Judge questions Trump administration plan to have some asylum seekers wait in Mexico
'I don't have the answer': Government lawyer responds to question on how U.S. will track those in Mexico
A U.S. judge on Wednesday questioned how the government would be able to properly attend to Central American asylum seekers forced to live in Mexico while their claims are processed, on the same day the government expanded the program to El Paso.
The program is a key part of measures by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.
Critics say it violates U.S. law and international norms as migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico, where it is difficult to keep track of their U.S. court dates and to find legal help.
On the second day of hearings under the program, known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), Judge Jonathan Simpson at a San Diego courthouse repeatedly asked the government's attorney how to handle cases of applicants told to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexican border towns.
"How does the court serve them if we do not have an address?" Simpson asked, after saying he was concerned whether the government could serve notices for court appearances to migrants in Mexico.
"I don't have the answer," replied government attorney Robert Wetteis.
Simpson on Wednesday heard petitions from 12 migrants, with two saying they were confused over appearance orders with conflicting dates. Applicant William Melendez said he received two orders to appear, each scheduled 10 days apart, and was unclear if both were valid.
A Honduran migrant named Jorge C.N. was taken into Customs and Border Patrol custody overnight because he had been told to arrive at a port of entry for a court appearance the following day, his lawyer said.
He withheld his full name to protect his privacy.
Several other applicants did not have lawyers because they said it was hard to find attorneys to take cases in Mexico, and that even making phone calls to the United States posed a challenge.
Four more people scheduled to appear did not show up at the border port of entry, where they had been told to meet officials to escort them to court.
Hearings for separate lawsuit begin Friday
The snafus came two days before a federal judge in San Francisco hears oral arguments to halt enforcement of the MPP policy in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.
The policy shift, which followed months of high-level talks between the U.S. and Mexico, was launched in San Diego on Jan. 29 amid growing numbers of asylum-seeking families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Mexicans and children travelling alone are exempt.
Families are typically released in the U.S. with notices to appear in court and stay until their cases are resolved, which can take years. The new policy aims to change that by making people wait in Mexico, though it is off to a modest start with 240 migrants being sent back to Tijuana from San Diego in the first six weeks. U.S. officials say they plan to sharply expand the policy across the entire border.
Mexican officials have expressed concern about what both governments say is a unilateral move by the Trump administration but has allowed asylum seekers to wait in Mexico with humanitarian visas.
U.S. officials call the new policy an unprecedented effort that aims to discourage weak asylum claims and reduce a court backlog of more than 800,000 cases.
But crossings between ports of entry at the southern border have dropped dramatically compared to earlier decades, although applications for asylum have seen a spike in recent years. As well, the demographics have changed compared to the 1980s and 1990s, with a greater share of migrants comprising Central American families and unaccompanied children rather than Mexicans.
Mexico doubted as a 'safe 3rd country'
Even before the Trump administration sought to clamp down on irregular and legal immigration, only 21 to 25 per cent of asylum claims from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were approved between 2012 and 2017, according to tracking by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse.
Mexico's foreign ministry has said the MPP policy does not represent a "safe third country" scheme like the kind which exists between the U.S. and Canada. Critics say asylum seekers are forced to wait in unsafe environments and will struggle to find legal advice while in Mexico. Tijuana had more than 2,500 homicides last year, while Mexico overall saw an 18 per cent jump in its homicide rate from the previous year.
Despite the opposition to the administration's plans from several quarters, on Wednesday the Department of Homeland Security said it would begin next week to send asylum seekers back from El Paso, just north of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, the third port of entry to do so after San Ysidro, a district across from Tijuana.
The U.S. government in a court filing on Monday said that returns had also commenced through the Calexico port of entry, over the border from Mexicali.
The three crossing points fringe Mexico's northern border zone that has witnessed extensive bloodshed over the past decade as a main battlefield of warring drug cartels.
Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar said she would stand up against the program's expansion to El Paso.
"With this shameful policy, the administration is endangering lives, abandoning its obligation to bring forward smart solutions for our broken immigration system, and imposing on another country the task of solving our immigration challenges," she said in a statement.
Immigration attorneys and activists said they feared the move would put further strain on the resources of Ciudad Juarez, where a surge of migrants arrived in February.
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press