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First asylum seeker from Central America returned to Mexico

Central American migrants heading for the United States. (Rafael Victorio/DPA/Abaca Press/TNS)

The Trump administration launched a potentially sweeping change in U.S. asylum policy Tuesday with a single Honduran man being returned to Tijuana to wait for his claim to process.

The new policy, called “Migration Protection Protocols” by the Trump administration and known more widely as Remain in Mexico, is operating initially as a pilot program, according to several Mexican officials. It is designed to send asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador back to Mexico to wait for immigration court dates in the United States.

Implementation of the program coincided with a visit to San Ysidro from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. She announced the program in December, and last week rumors swirled that it would begin imminently.

The program comes on the heels of a large caravan last year that brought close to 6,000 Central Americans to Tijuana, many with the intention of seeking asylum in the United States. Its launching comes as thousands more have come to Mexico this month, with many planning to cross the country to reach the U.S. border.

Mexican officials emphasized that the decision to return asylum seekers to Mexico was made “unilaterally” by the U.S. and that they are responding to that decision based on humanitarian concerns.

“We’re not going to respond in a manner that goes against the principles of protection of individuals and respect for human rights,” said Tonatiuh Guillén López, Mexico’s immigration commissioner, on Monday night.

While Mexican officials said they’d been told by their U.S. counterparts to expect up to 20 returnees per day, on the first day of the pilot program, there was only one.

The asylum seeker, a 55-year-old Honduran man, arrived around 10:45 a.m. in a van driven by Mexican immigration officials to a parking lot that is part of El Chaparral, the Mexican counterpart to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. With a backpack in one hand and documents in the other, he was met at the port gates by a swarm of media hoping to interview him.

The man, Carlos Gómez Perdomo, arrived in Mexico with the most recent migrant caravan, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute.

He appeared scared and confused as reporters pressed him with questions. Grupo Beta, the migrant protection unit in Mexico, quickly escorted him out of the throng of cameras to an awaiting van. The van took him to a shelter that officials will use to house returnees.

While officials declined to say which shelter is taking the man, it will not be El Barretal, which closed Tuesday after housing the most recent migrant caravan.

Gómez Perdomo already had a one-year humanitarian visa from Mexico, which allows him to enter and exit the country multiple times, according to Rodulfo Figueroa of the National Migration Institute in Baja California, and to stay in Mexico and work as long as the document is valid.

Figueroa said that those who are returned without humanitarian visas may still be allowed back into Mexico.

“Certainly we will look for ways to give them support on the part of the Mexican government,” Figueroa said.

Gómez Perdomo will be responsible for getting himself back to the port of entry to go to court on the date given to him by U.S. officials, Figueroa said.

It was not immediately clear why the man was the only person to return under the new policy on Tuesday.

Guillén López said the pilot program will operate only at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest port for asylum claims along the southwest border, and will involve Central American migrants between the ages of 18 and 60. U.S. officials told their Mexican counterparts that only single adults applying for asylum initially will be in the program, but it eventually it would expand to include families as well, said a Mexican official.

The Department of Homeland Security has also said that pregnant women or those with pressing medical needs will not be included in the program.

The program “will not impact regular processing” of asylum applicants, who will continue to be accepted under existing policies, the Mexican government official said.

Not many people who have entered the port of entry to ask for asylum in recent weeks appear to fit the criteria for the pilot program. Many of those asking the U.S. for protection are from Mexico, particularly the states of Michoacán and Guerrero.

The program does not apply to Mexican asylum seekers because of laws against “nonrefoulement” or returning an asylum seeker to the place he or she fled without giving them a chance to explain his or her claims.

Many Central Americans asylum seekers who pass through the San Ysidro Port of Entry are coming as families rather than individual adults, meaning that the pilot program may not initially apply to most of them.

Many of the adults traveling without children who have entered in the past few days were from Eritrea and Cameroon. On Tuesday, at least one man from Honduras went into the U.S. to ask for asylum who was not traveling with family.

While families arriving at the California border are often released into the U.S. to wait for their cases, individual adults are typically held at immigration detention centers for the duration of their cases.

Those who do get selected for the pilot program will go through a process called “entry fiction” which means that though they are physically across the border in the U.S., they will not be considered to have entered the country, according to a Mexican government official. They will be returned to Mexico within 12 to 24 hours, and they will have court hearings on an expedited docket that would aim to finish cases within 90 days, the official said.

Asylum cases in immigration court typically require several court appearances and can last months or years, depending on which court hears them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff received guidance about the new policy on Monday. According to the memo, if a person who is selected for the Remain in Mexico program says he or she is also afraid to be in Mexico, an asylum officer will interview that person to see if his or her fear merits exempting them from the new process.

Many anticipate that the new program will soon lead to a court challenge as has happened with many other immigration policy changes from the Trump administration.

Nielsen did not have press availability during her visit to the border.

“Secretary Nielsen will see firsthand how MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols) implementation will ensure migrants are protected according to U.S. and international obligations while also addressing the crisis at our Southern Border,” DHS said in announcing Nielsen’s visit. “MPP will bring order to chaotic migration flows, restore the integrity of the United States immigration system, and allow DHS to focus resources on individuals who are actually fleeing persecution while holding individuals accountable who make false immigration claims.”

Meanwhile, on the Tijuana side of the port of entry, 103 asylum seekers — 61 of them from Mexico — lined up early in the morning to add their names to a wait list in an old, gray notebook.

Those in charge of the notebook called two round of names, sending a total of 80 into the port of entry for processing.

A volunteer with Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization, addressed a group of migrants huddled around her before they were taken to the U.S. She held back tears as she explained to them that some might soon be returned to Tijuana to wait again.

“We’re going to fight for you,” she promised.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.