TIJUANA, Mexico — The government of Mexico said Friday that it disagreed with the Trump administration’s decision to roll out a policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while they pursue their cases in the United States — but said it would take in some of the asylum seekers anyway.
In a statement, the Mexican government said that it “does not agree with this unilateral measure implemented by the government of the United States” and outlined the conditions that it had negotiated since the Department of Homeland Security announced the plan a month ago.
Roberto Velasco, a spokesman for Mexico’s Foreign Ministry, said it was “trying to respond to U.S. policy” with respect to the nation’s own immigration policy. “We’re making a sovereign decision to allow some people into Mexico with very clear limits based on what our laws and international commitments allow,” he said.
The policy, which the Trump administration said Thursday it would begin to implement, marks an escalation in the administration’s attempt to rein in illegal immigration and a dramatic reversal of the decades-long practice of allowing applicants to request protection from within the United States or at official ports of entry, and to remain in the country while their cases wind through immigration courts.
If applied to a majority of asylum applicants, it could potentially flood Mexican border towns like Tijuana with thousands more people seeking protection in the United States.
Currently, most migrants who request asylum at the border are released within days with a notice to appear at an immigration court in the interior of the country for their proceedings, a practice that President Trump has derided as “catch and release.” It takes years for cases to advance through the courts. Only 20 percent of all asylum applicants ultimately win the right to remain permanently in the country. That figure is even lower, 10 percent, for Central Americans, who account for most of those requesting asylum at the border.
Mexican officials said on Friday that they had held three meetings to discuss the proposal with their counterparts in the United States since it was first announced on Dec. 20, but that ultimately the Department of Homeland Security decided unilaterally to send the first returnees.
Still, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has said he would welcome migrants and promised to respect human rights while affording them economic opportunities here in Mexico. The migrants would be granted yearlong humanitarian visas to live and work in Mexico while they await court hearings on the American side. Those court hearings would have to be scheduled within the year, officials said.
The Trump administration said the measure would curtail illegal immigration while remaining faithful to international law.
“For far too long, our immigration system has been exploited by smugglers, traffickers and those with no legal right to be in the United States,” said Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, on Thursday.
The Department of Homeland Security said that the claims for those returned would be adjudicated within a year, with an initial hearing held within 45 days. But immigration courts are already clogged with 800,0000 pending cases, raising questions about whether this timetable can be achieved, experts said.
The policy would apply both to some asylum seekers who try to enter the United States at border crossings and to those apprehended by the authorities after illegally touching United States soil.
Historically, undocumented single men have represented the bulk of those arrested and subsequently removed from the county. But since 2013, unaccompanied children and families have arrived in ever-larger numbers.
That influx of people was cited by a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet as justification for the policy. Children cannot be detained for more than 72 hours in border holding facilities, prompting the authorities to release their adult parents with them, and the fact sheet referred to a shift in the profile of immigrants reaching the border, “from a demographic who could be quickly removed when they had no legal right to stay to one that cannot be detained and timely removed.”
Analysts and lawyers raised other questions about the program.
Human rights groups questioned the ethics of sending people fleeing in search of safety back into Mexico, which itself is experiencing horrific violence. Politically, some have asked why Mexico’s new president would essentially agree to turn his country into a waiting room for American asylum seekers.
The Mexican government has cautioned that the details of who would be returned and when were still unclear. But in its statement, the government said that it would not accept unaccompanied children or people suffering from health problems. Mexico has yet to agree to accept families, but opened the door for future discussions.
Also unclear were the logistics of how the asylum seekers would be taken back into the United States for hearings, or how they might obtain legal counsel while waiting in Mexico.
Lawsuits challenging the policy, which may expand to other border areas, are widely expected.
Immigrant advocates criticized the administration for what they regard as a denial of due process to asylum seekers fleeing extreme violence or persecution in their home countries and making a harrowing trek to reach the United States.
“Once again, the Trump administration is doing everything they can to sabotage the asylum process and harm those who come to us in need of protection,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York.
They cautioned that the policy will imperil the lives of immigrants, including many families with children, stuck in encampments and shelters in Mexico. Already, asylum seekers are waiting months — during which some sleep outdoors — to put in their applications.
“Whether in shelters or not, the families are sitting ducks for criminal organizations,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who fought in federal court to reunite migrant parents and children who were separated during a border crackdown last year. Family separations were officially suspended in late June.
César Palencia, who is in charge of migrant affairs for the city of Tijuana, said that the city had received no information from the Mexican government about the plan and was not ready to receive more migrants.
Tijuana did not have the space to accommodate them or resources to incorporate them, and did not want to “convert itself into a kind of shelter” for these returned migrants, he said.
The border city is already overwhelmed with Mexicans deported from the United States, who arrive at the rate of 120 people each day, as well as with migrants from Central America and other countries who have come seeking entry into the United States.
Tijuana is still dealing with the aftermath of the last big caravan of Central American migrants. Of some 7,000 people who arrived in November, between 1,500 and 2,000 remained in Tijuana, he said. Another caravan of between 10,000 and 12,000 migrants is heading north from southern Mexico, many likely toward Tijuana.
About 1,200 people are on a list awaiting an interview with United States immigration authorities to seek asylum. Their stay could extend to at least one year if they are returned to Tijuana to wait for a court decision after making a claim.
Orignially published in NYT.