Several asylum seekers who are being forced to wait in Mexico while their cases wind through United States immigration court told a judge on Tuesday that they are afraid to return to Mexico as they await their next hearing – a development that introduces a new wrinkle to a major US policy shift.
The seven cases being heard in a downtown San Diego courtroom are among the first to advance under the Trump administration policy that calls for people seeking asylum in the US to be held in Mexico.
The initial appearances came three days before a federal judge in San Francisco is set to hear arguments by advocacy groups aiming to halt the policy.
Robyn Barnard, a staff lawyer for Human Rights First, requested access – at least by telephone – to any interviews conducted with her Honduran client with US officials. She asked to be apprised about whether his fears of returning to Mexico are well founded.
Jason Aguilar, a lawyer for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, did not object but deferred the request to other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.
US Customs and Border Protection said it would not comment due to pending litigation, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services had no immediate comment.
The developments raised more questions about the administration’s new approach to handling the claims of people who say they fear that returning to their homelands because of danger related to race, religion, political beliefs, nationality or membership in particular social groups.
The administration hopes that making asylum seekers wait in Mexico will discourage some claims and help reduce an immigration court backlog of more than 800,000 cases. Currently, families are typically released in the US with notices to appear in court. They are allowed to stay until their cases are resolved, which can take years.
Critics say asylum seekers are forced to wait in unsafe environments and will struggle to find legal advice while in Mexico. Tijuana, a Mexican city directly across the border from San Diego, had more than 2,500 homicides last year.
The policy shift was introduced as families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador arrive at the US border to seek asylum.
Five of the seven people who were scheduled to appear Tuesday were represented by attorneys. Six were Honduran; one was Guatemalan.
Gerson Alonzo Beltrand of Honduras, who had Barnard speak on his behalf, expressed fear of returning to Tijuana. But the government lawyer’s response left unclear whether Homeland Security would grant his request. A judge scheduled an August 6 hearing on the merits of his asylum claim.
“Sir, we made significant progress in your case this afternoon,” Rico Bartolomei, the chief immigration judge in San Diego, told Beltrand.
The Associated Press witnessed one of the seven cases in the small courtroom before security guards cleared the aisles due to overcrowding.
Lisa Knox, a lawyer from Centro Legal de la Raza who represented two Honduran men, was in the courtroom and said three asylum seekers had expressed fear of returning to Mexico.
Knox said the judge postponed her cases until early May to give her more time to prepare. One man failed to appear because he was in US custody in another part of the country.
The policy change, which followed months of high-level talks with Mexico, has been introduced slowly with an average of 40 people a week being returned to Tijuana in the first six weeks. Mexico agreed to accept up to 120 people a week.
US officials began returning immigrants to Mexicali, Mexico, from Calexico, California, last week and say they intend to sharply expand such activity across the entire border.
Mexicans and children travelling alone are exempt from the policy.
US and Mexican officials characterize the policy change as a unilateral move by the Trump administration. Mexico has said it will allow asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for humanitarian reasons.