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Two weeks after order, no sign of ‘remain in Mexico’ policy at the border

Migrants from a caravan cross from Mexico into the U.S. on the Tijuana-San Diego border at La Playa on Dec. 2, 2018. Dozens of mostly women and children squeeze through the fence on the beach or climb over the wall at low points, passing children over. All were detained after entering the U.S. Most migrants knew they would be immediately detained but preferred that to the limbo of living indefinitely in shelters in Mexico, believing at least their asylum cases would be heard. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Wire/TNS)

Just over two weeks after the Trump administration announced a policy that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their turns in U.S. immigration court, there is no sign yet at the border that it has been implemented.

Though the Department of Homeland Security said Dec. 20 that the change was “effective immediately,” advocacy groups all along the border continue to receive large numbers of migrant families who have been released from immigration custody into the U.S. Asylum seekers continue to move through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which is, according to a recent study, the busiest port on the southwest border for asylum claims.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the change will happen. “We are in the process of beginning implementation,” she said. “We want to ensure an orderly, safe, and efficient process.”

Under the policy, asylum seekers who come either to ports of entry or cross the border illegally would go through preliminary processing before heading back across the border with documents showing their next court hearing dates in the U.S.

Mexico announced that it had decided to temporarily allow asylum seekers waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings to re-enter the country and that it would provide humanitarian visas to allow asylum seekers to work while they wait. However, the head of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration said Mexico would have to change its laws to comply with such a policy.

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Since then, it has been unclear what will happen if and when the U.S. begins to implement the policy.

“It is not an agreement, but a unilateral measure by the U.S. government and, as such, the decision is entirely a domestic issue,” said a spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington when asked about the delayed implementation. “As is its sovereign right, the government of Mexico will take appropriate measures in accordance with our legal framework.”

She said Mexican officials would ask the U.S. for more information about what it plans to do.

Besides the confusion in Mexico, the proposed change also brought logistical questions from immigration attorneys, advocates and others who work closely with the U.S. immigration system.

How would the migrants get from the border to immigration court? Would immigration courts along the border be responsible for hearing all of the new asylum cases? How would attorneys meet with their clients before their hearings, or how would migrants even find attorneys to take their cases?

For Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, the delayed rollout is not entirely surprising.

“It’s on pattern with almost everything they’ve tried to do with immigration in the past two years,” Meade said. “They front-load policies that sound very harsh and decisive but also sound like they’re simple when in fact implementation is complicated and much more constrained by the law.”

For Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California who supports lower levels of immigration, the lack of implementation reflected a different pattern.

“I’m so jaded, so disappointed, so confused at the way things work these days where things that seem to be fairly straightforward and easily accomplished end up being not any of those things either because someone in the administration doesn’t do it right, or if they do it right, there’s immediately 10 lawsuits,” Nunez said.

He believes that asylum seekers should be required to ask for protection in the first country they enter that is not their own, he said. He hadn’t paid much attention to whether the new policy had gone into effect because of his dissatisfaction with the way things have been going overall, he said.

“I didn’t have any expectations, bottom line,” Nunez said. “It’s so frustrating that any attempt to do anything rational is thwarted either in Congress or the courts or both.”

Many expect a court challenge to the “Remain in Mexico” policy if and when it is implemented.

For Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, the lack of implementation is a good thing. He worries about migrants’ safety if they’re forced to wait months or even years in Mexico and gave as an example the two Honduran teenagers who were recently killed in Tijuana.

“It’s somewhat of a relief that Mexico hasn’t fully bought into the idea that they should be the waiting country for migrants who are having their asylum claims processed in the U.S.,” Rios said.

Asylum seekers in Tijuana — which has a long backlog of people waiting to come into the U.S. for processing — were initially stunned by the Trump administration’s announcement. As time has passed without any sign of the change, those huddled around the tent in a corner of the Chaparral Plaza have continued to step forward eagerly when their names are called.

Migrants organizing the list of people waiting said they hadn’t seen or heard about anyone being brought back to Mexico to wait some more.

What has changed is how many show up to hear their names. Since the line reached the part of the list with names of members from the most recent caravan, many names called have received no response.

Sixty people went in Friday morning after more than 160 names were called.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.