US Returns Asylum Seekers to Mexico

January 25, 2019 Updated: January 25, 2019

TIJUANA/MEXICO CITY, Mexico—The United States was expected to send a first group of 20 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico through the border city of Tijuana on January 25, as part of President Donald Trump’s hardening of longstanding immigration policy.

Under a policy dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols, announced on December 20, the United States will return non-Mexican migrants who cross the U.S. southern border back to Mexico while their asylum requests are processed in U.S. immigration courts.

Mexican Foreign Ministry spokesman Roberto Velasco confirmed U.S. authorities were expected to send the first group of 20 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexican territory through Tijuana on Jan. 25.

Migrants are escorted by a U.S. Border Patrol agent
A U.S. Border Patrol agent escorts migrants detained for climbing over the border wall from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, to San Ysidro, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2018. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)

U.S. authorities will send as many as 20 people a day through Tijuana and gradually start sending people back through the other legal ports of entry along the Mexican border, Velasco said.

Mexico will accept certain individuals who have a date to appear in a U.S. immigration court but reject those in danger on Mexican territory, suffering from health problems, or are unaccompanied minors, he said.

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People from a caravan of Central American migrants walk along a highway on their way to the United States, near Santo Domingo Zanatepec in Mexico, on Jan. 22, 2019. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Velasco said Mexico does not have a “Safe Third Country Agreement” with the United States, which would “imply a binding commitment to process in our territory all U.S. asylum requests of migrants that pass through our country and take full responsibility for their legal situation.”

Asylum seekers have traditionally been granted the right to stay in the United States while their cases are decided by a U.S. immigration judge but a backlog of more than 800,000 cases means the process can take years.

Migrants from Central America are seen escorted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials after crossing the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this picture taken from Ciudad Juarez
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials escort migrants from Central America who crossed the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Now, the U.S. government says migrants will be turned away with a “notice to appear” in immigration court. They will be able to enter the United States for their hearings but have to live in Mexico in the interim. If they lose their cases, they will be deported to their home countries.

“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.

Leopoldo Guerrero, Tijuana’s secretary of government, said Mexico’s federal government should take responsibility for the migrants, stressing the city does not have the resources to cope.

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US border patrol agents search for Central American migrants hiding at the US-Mexico border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on Nov. 30, 2018. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

The U.S. policy aims to curb the increasing number of families, arriving mostly from Central America to request asylum. They claim to be afraid of returning home due to threats of violence. The Trump administration believes many of the claims are invalid.

The program will apply to arriving migrants who seek asylum at ports of entry, or those who are caught crossing illegally and are afraid to return home.

It is unclear exactly how Mexico plans to house what could be thousands of asylum seekers during their immigration proceedings.

By Julia Love and Delphine Schrank