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When asylum-seekers are turned away at border, migrants are more vulnerable

By: - November 27, 2018 9:43 am

An aspiring migrant from Mexico into the U.S. at the Tijuana-San Diego border. The crosses represent those who died while attempting to cross the border. Photo by Tomas Castelazo | www.tomascastelazo.com

You’ve seen the dramatic images from Tijuana of migrants clashing with Mexican federal police in riot gear and U.S. authorities firing tear gas at groups that rushed past blockades and approached border fencing.

It is evident the situation in the border community, where more than 5,600 Central Americans have arrived in the past weeks, is desperate. The migrants have endured a journey north of more than 2,000 miles, the Mexican public is increasingly critical of the caravan, municipal leaders in Tijuana have called for international aid to a humanitarian crisis and President Donald Trump threatened Monday to close the border permanently.

Migrant service organizations in Tijuana were already near capacity before the arrival of the caravan, Vox reported. An unofficial waitlist system, in place since the summer, has thousands of asylum-seekers waiting months for a turn to present themselves to U.S. border officials.

A report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General in late September pointed to a likely unintended consequence of turning back asylum-seekers at ports of entry, which is happening now in Tijuana.

The report, titled Initial Observations Regarding Family Separation Issues Under the Zero Tolerance Policy, was based on inspections conducted from June 26 to June 28 at the Texas border.

The report showed Customs and Border Protection was regulating the flow of migrants seeking asylum at its port of entries in cases where it didn’t have space to hold and process them, a practice known as metering.

The report concluded that metering the asylum-seekers at the ports of entry may have unintentionally resulted in asylum-seekers opting to cross illegally.

“OIG saw evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally,” the report stated. “According to one Border Patrol supervisor, the Border Patrol sees an increase in illegal entries when aliens are metered at ports of entry.”

One woman interviewed by inspectors said she decided to take her chances via illegal entry after she was turned away three times by an officer on a bridge that led to U.S. soil, according to the report.

Images from Sunday showed Mexican federal police in riot gear restricting peaceful migrant demonstrators from approaching a pedestrian bridge that leads to the busy San Ysidro port of entry. Media reports said a group ran through the police line and rushed past a riverbed to a fence closer to the border, where some tried to get past the barrier and U.S. border agents fired tear gas. Four agents were hit with rocks, the White House said Monday.

Most migrants in Tijuana waiting to request asylum in the U.S. are living in precarious conditions inside a sports-complex-turned-shelter.

More are still making their way north and authorities estimate that, at the end of it all, as many as 9,000 migrants will have arrived in Tijuana, according to the Los Angeles Times.

There is no indication the U.S. will ramp up its processing of asylum-seekers, and the municipal government in Tijuana has said it won’t allocate funds to public services for the migrants.

It is known among migrant-aid groups along the border that criminal enterprises, like human smugglers and drug traffickers, often prey on migrants in these desperate conditions, making them more vulnerable.

The Trump administration’s proposed restrictions to the legal ways to seek asylum, if the policy survives court challenges, won’t make the situation at the border easier.   

When the administration announced its new restrictions, the Kino Border Initiative, which operates shelters for migrants traveling north and recent deportees in Nogales, Sonora, called the move out of touch with attitudes of border residents.

“Our Catholic identity also informs our desire to welcome each individual and recognize Christ’s image in each person. This doctrine of our faith is especially relevant as we approach Christmas and remember that Mary and Joseph were turned away at many inns before Jesus could lay at rest in a barn,” the statement from the group said. “Men, women, and children who are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America are also eager to find a place to rest.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.