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Kids are stranded in Mexico because officials won’t let them seek asylum in the US

Mexico won’t let unaccompanied children go to a US port. Trump doesn’t want to give them other options.

Immigrant Caravan Members Arrive At U.S.-Mexico Border
A man scaling the US-Mexico border fence on November 18, 2018, in Tijuana, Mexico.
John Moore/Getty Images

Children and teens traveling without their parents are being blocked by Mexican officials from crossing into the US to seek asylum at the biggest port of entry along the US-Mexico border, according to advocates and lawyers.

Representatives of the Tijuana/San Diego immigration services nonprofit Al Otro Lado have witnessed Mexican officials preventing unaccompanied children and teens from getting into the line to seek asylum in the US at the San Ysidro Port of Entry since November 1.

Children represented by Al Otro Lado have been returned to Mexico without explanation when they seek to enter the port, and have been threatened by Mexican officials that if they try to seek asylum, they’ll be sent to the Mexican government’s “child-custody agency,” according to a sworn court declaration filed over the weekend by Al Otro Lado lawyer Erika Pinheiro.

Under President Donald Trump’s asylum ban, which was in effect from November 10 until Monday, presenting at a port of entry was the only way for anyone coming from Mexico — including children — to actually be eligible for asylum in the US. But these new allegations mean that the asylum ban effectively prevented unaccompanied children from getting asylum in the US at all.

The asylum ban was put on hold by Judge Jon Tigar of the Northern District of California Monday night, but the Trump administration intends to keep fighting in hopes of getting the newly ensconced conservative majority on the Supreme Court to uphold the ban.

Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Mary Bauer confirmed to Vox that the practice is ongoing. “I’ve talked to a dozen kids and they’ve all been there any number of weeks,” she said, “and they’ve all been told that if they try to get on the list [to get into the US for an asylum claim], they’ll be taken into custody.”

A spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection referred Vox to the INM, the Mexican immigration agency, whose officials are accused of blocking children at the port. The INM’s Tijuana office did not reply to a request for comment.

Applying the asylum ban to children who arrived in the US without parents was controversial even within the Trump administration. One anonymous official described it as a “punch in the gut” to BuzzFeed News’s Hamed Aleaziz, and asked rhetorically, “Have we sunk this low?”

The allegations from Tijuana make it clear that the asylum ban actually affected children more than anyone — and made asylum literally unavailable to them. And even now, with the ban on hold, these children will have to find a way to cross into the US illegally — over newly mounted concertina wire — if they want a shot at asylum.

The US has all but outsourced asylum access to the Mexican government

In theory, according to US law, asylum seekers have the ability to enter the US even if they don’t have papers. And once someone sets foot on US soil, with few exceptions, the US is legally obligated to allow them to pursue an asylum claim. (This provision of federal law is at the heart of the lawsuit over the asylum ban, which sought to limit asylum by barring people who crossed between ports of entry from being eligible for it.)

At ports of entry across the US-Mexico border, however, US and Mexican officials are checking border crossers’ papers while they are still on Mexican soil, and telling people who are trying to come without papers to seek asylum that there isn’t capacity to process them right now and they’ll have to wait.

This practice, known as “metering” or “queue management” within the government, was pioneered by the Obama administration but has become widespread and pervasive this year. It’s resulted in long backups at several ports of entry — especially the port at San Ysidro, a common destination for asylum seekers because the route to Tijuana is safer than traveling through northeastern Mexico to Texas.

The rate at which people are let in varies greatly from port to port and day to day. (At San Ysidro, which has space in the port building for short-term detention of up to 300 asylum seekers, the biggest limitation is how many people a day can be transferred to ICE for longer-term detention pending their screening interviews.) Reports indicate that if anything, admissions at ports slowed down while the asylum ban was in effect.

In some ports, there’s no way for asylum seekers to keep track of who’s been waiting the longest and should be admitted first. In others, the only way to hold a spot is to physically stay on the bridge to the port day and night. Tijuana is the exception; for several months, a notebook has been maintained that lists names and nationalities of asylum seekers as they arrive.

At the beginning of the day, CBP officials tell their counterparts in Mexico how many people will be allowed to enter and seek asylum; INM, the Mexican agency, passes on that information to the asylum seeker who officially manages the notebook; and the manager reads that many names off the list.

According to the allegations, unaccompanied children and teens aren’t being allowed to put their names on the list to begin with. Pinheiro’s court declaration claims the organizers of the notebook told her that “unaccompanied minors could not get on the list unless they had original identity documents and were accompanied by a parent” — which, as they were unaccompanied minors, was obviously impossible.

The Mexican immigration agency tries to keep its fingerprints off the waitlist. But it’s generally understood that its humanitarian arm, Grupo Beta, is responsible for it — and, by extension, for managing the crowd of asylum seekers in Tijuana waiting to enter the US and access their legal right to asylum there.

Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center told Vox that over the weekend, she witnessed Mexican officials guarding the woman who held the notebook.

It’s not clear whether refusing to allow unaccompanied children and teens to put their names on the waitlist is an official Mexican government policy or just the actions of a few individuals — or something between the two. And there’s no evidence that anyone in the US government was even aware of the practice.

But because access at San Ysidro is officially limited — and the only way to get access is by putting one’s name on the list — the US can’t actually control who gets in and who doesn’t.

Advocates have been raising concerns for more than a year that metering violates the US’s obligation to allow people to seek asylum. The US counters that it’s not telling anyone they can’t seek asylum, just forcing them to wait a little longer to do it; “It’s not turning people away,” said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan of the policy in October, “it’s asking them to wait.”

But unless the new allegations are false — which would mean Pinheiro would be lying under oath — some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers are in fact being turned away. And under the asylum ban the administration is pushing, they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go.

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