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December 31, 2019
CBS News’ online news platform has been surprisingly in depth in its reporting on immigration. Today they published a valuable retrospective on the year that details the many ways that the administration spent the year unraveling the asylum system and sought to limit other avenues of authorized immigration. On the dismantling of asylum, one of the most important points of departure from humanity for this administration has been the Remain in Mexico program. From the review:
The most effective policy, from the administration's point of view, has been the so-called "Remain in Mexico" program, through which the U.S. has returned about 56,000 asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for the duration of their U.S. immigration proceedings.
Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America, Cuba, Venezuela and other Latin American countries who would otherwise be in the U.S. are stranded in overcrowded shelters and squalid makeshift encampments in northern Mexico, including in crime-ridden cities like Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros, located in a region the U.S. government warns American travelers not to visit due to rampant violence.
Advocates and even some of the asylum officers implementing the program have been withering in their criticism of Remain in Mexico, saying it violates international obligations against returning migrants seeking refuge to dangerous places. The group Human Rights First has denounced hundreds of reported kidnappings and assaults. Last month, an asylum-seeking father from El Salvador was killed and dismembered in Tijuana after he and his family were placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols, the administration's official name for the policy.
The report notes that forcing people to wait in Mexico limits their access to attorneys, less than 4% of the people who cycle through the makeshifts court system - temporary facilities under tents in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where judges participate via tele-conference - are represented. One result of this sham process is that only 117 people of the 24,000 closed cases have received asylum.
An attorney working with people in Ciudad Juarez offers some perspective:
"Remain in Mexico has definitely affected and reduced apprehensions," Taylor Levy, an independent immigration lawyer based in El Paso, told CBS News. "However, I don't think that's a good measure of success, because the program has seen utterly horrific humanitarian consequences."
Levy said Remain in Mexico has also depleted the morale of the relatively small cohort of immigration lawyers in the area willing to represent asylum-seekers returned to often dangerous cities like Ciudad Juárez, which she frequently visits to assist migrants.
"So many of us thought that family separation was the worst things could possibly get," she said. "Remain in Mexico is exponentially worse. It is so much human suffering that we have to confront every single day that it's very draining and it's been very difficult psychologically for both myself and for most of my colleagues."
The summary also details the third country transit ban - which denies people who have crossed through a third country before arriving at the U.S. southern border the ability to apply for asylum (unless they have applied and been denied in that third country). This effectively shuts down asylum applications for anyone other than Mexican nationals at the U.S./Mexico border. The policy is being implemented in one sector after the Supreme Court allowed it to go forward pending litigation.
There are also the agreements signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to receive asylum seekers from the U.S. - a pretty insane policy that treats these three countries as “safe third” countries, even though most asylum seekers are actually coming from one of these three countries. Guatemala is the only country where the program has launched - the administration is now considering sending Mexican asylum seekers there.
Of the cumulative impact of these policies, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU sums it up this way, "The policies now effectively eliminate asylum — which is a historic moment in this country."
The review then takes on the vast number of policy changes that the administration has put into place to limit other authorized paths to immigration. This has been particularly true under the leadership of Ken Cuccinelli at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - who has yet to be confirmed to this position, but is dramatically reshaping the agency anyway, effectively turning a service agency into another enforcement arm to limit immigration overall.
The only thing missing in this otherwise comprehensive review is what the last year has meant for immigrants in detention -many of whom are in fact asylum seekers who have already established a credible fear of torture or persecution if returned to their country. Which is to say, while Trump has done everything he can to keep asylum seekers from even getting into the United States - if they make it, most recent arrivals are locked up for the duration of their cases.