Migrant shelters overflowing as Tijuana braces for returnees

Trump administration will return asylum seekers to Mexico for the duration of their application process.

    Central Americans remain at a shelter near the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana [File: Pedro Pardo/AFP]
    Central Americans remain at a shelter near the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana [File: Pedro Pardo/AFP]

    Migrant shelters in a northern Mexican border city are overflowing with people as they cope with the influx of asylum seekers set to be returned to the city from the United States, say activists and local shelter officials. 

    Officials at shelters located in Tijuana, currently filled to the brim with Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, say they are unable to cope with the asylum seekers expected to be returned starting on Friday. 

    Dubbed the "Migrant Protection Protocols", the policy was first announced by US President Donald Trump's administration on December 20.

    The policy will return non-Mexican migrants who cross the US southern border back to wait in Mexico indefinitely while their asylum requests are processed in the US immigration courts. 

    Mexican Foreign Ministry spokesman Roberto Velasco said the US was expected to send the first group of 20 asylum seekers back to its territory later on Friday through Tijuana.

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    Asylum seekers have traditionally been granted the right to stay in the US while their cases were decided by an immigration judge, but a backlog of more than 800,000 cases means the process can now take years.

    Now, the US government says migrants will be turned away with a "notice to appear" in the immigration court. They will be able to enter the US for their hearings but will have to live in Mexico in the interim.

    If they lose their cases, they will be deported to their home countries.

    Fleeing violence 

    "Shelters are at capacity and we can't receive migrants that are being deported or (Mexican) nationals that are passing through the city. Let's hope this doesn't happen," said Jose Maria Garcia, who runs the Juventud 2000 shelter in Tijuana.

    The US policy shift is aimed at curbing the increasing number of families arriving mostly from Central America who say they fear returning to their home countries due to threats of violence.

    The Trump administration says many of the claims are not valid.

    The programme will apply to arriving migrants who ask for asylum at ports of entry or who are caught crossing irregularly and say they are afraid to return home.

    Immigration advocates fear Mexico is not safe for asylum seekers and migrants who are regularly kidnapped by criminal gangs and smugglers, and have raised concerns that applicants will not be able to access proper legal counsel to represent them in the US courts.

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    Danis Lazaro, 24, who left his native Guatemala five months ago with his two daughters, aged six and seven, said he was concerned about the new US policy.

    "It doesn't seem fair to me. It's safer for us on the other side [of the border]," he said.

    It is unclear how Mexico plans to house what could be thousands of asylum seekers for the lengthy duration of their immigration proceedings.

    Some Mexican border towns are more violent than the cities the Central Americans left behind.

    'War on asylum seekers' 

    "Asylum seekers from Central America are fleeing unspeakable violence and their journeys to the United States are dangerous and harrowing," said Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project.

    "For many of them, Mexico is not a safe place to stay."

    The administration of President Trump, who has falsely described Central American migrants as a danger, says it is relying on a law that allows migrants attempting to enter the US from a contiguous country to be removed to that country.

    But the policy will likely be challenged in court since claiming asylum is protected under both international and US law.

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    "The Trump administration's war on asylum seekers continues. There is no doubt that, unless blocked, this policy will lead to even more chaos and further erode our nation's core values," the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement.

    Several of Trump's signature immigration policies, including some attempting to reduce asylum applications, have been halted by US federal courts.

    On Friday, Trump announced an agreement with Democrats that will temporarily reopen the government after a 35-day partial shutdown.

    The president had allowed the shutdown to take effect in December after Democrats refused to approve $5.7bn in funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies