Tue, May 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

US border agents rejecting refugees: report

Trump’s rhetoric on illegal immigration seems to have encouraged some border agents to act beyond their purview by turning away people seeking refuge

By Caitlin Dickerson and Miriam Jordan  /  NY Times News Service, TIJUANA, Mexico

Illustration: Yusha

By the time Francisca, Armando and their two surviving children made it to the US border in late February, they were hungry, exhausted and virtually penniless, but the couple, which said their son had been killed by a gang in El Salvador and that their daughter had nearly been raped, thought they had finally reached safety.

Under US and international law, everyone who asks for asylum is supposed to be allowed into the country to plead their case — but instead, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent shooed them away, they said.

“There is no asylum here,” Francisca, 32, recalled the agent telling them. “We are not granting asylum.”

Customs agents have increasingly turned away asylum seekers without so much as an interview, according to migrants and their lawyers, in a trend first noted several months ago and that appeared to accelerate after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

That has left an untold number of migrants trapped in Mexico, where they have sometimes fallen prey to kidnappers seeking ransom or been driven into the hands of drug cartels and smugglers. Some have tried to enter the US illegally and dangerously, through the desert or across the Rio Grande, a risky journey.

“By rejecting asylum seekers at its borders, the United States is turning them away to face danger, persecution, torture, kidnapping and potential trafficking in Mexico,” Human Rights First, an organization that has studied the problem, said in a report released on Wednesday last week.

No hard data exists on how often customs agents prevented asylum seekers from entering the US, but many do make it past the border gates.

Human Rights First said it had documented 125 people or families from countries including Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Turkey, who were turned away at entry points in Arizona, California and Texas from November last year to last month.

The organization said the actual number was likely to be far higher, since most of the migrants never make contact with a lawyer or US advocate.

In response to questions, CBP said that the US adhered to international law and convention permitting people to seek asylum on the grounds that they were being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political belief or other factors.

“If an officer or agent encounters a US-bound migrant without legal papers and the person expresses fear of being returned to his or her home country, our officers process them for an interview with an asylum officer,” it said in a statement.

The Trump administration has not ordered customs agents to turn away asylum seekers, but Trump has made it clear he believes the asylum system contributes to the problem of illegal immigration.

LIVING IN FEAR

By law, those who request protection at a US entry point must first be referred for a screening, known as a credible-fear interview, with an asylum officer from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

If the asylum officer decides an individual has a significant chance of proving a fear of persecution in their home country, that person is allowed to apply for asylum before a judge, and from October last year through March, more than 38,000 people passed that step, the immigration agency said.

However, in recent years, judges have approved less than half of asylum requests.

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