Asylum-Seekers Locked In Limbo At Backed-Up U.S.-Mexico Border
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
We have a story now from the U.S.-Mexico border, where a backup at border entry points has left asylum-seekers temporarily trapped in Mexico with nowhere to go. Many of them are stuck in an unusual, sometimes dangerous limbo - avoiding Mexican authorities while waiting to turn themselves over to U.S. officials. Jean Guerrero, who covers immigration at member station KPBS in San Diego, has been following the issue near the border city of Tijuana.
JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: Hi, Ray.
SUAREZ: You're closest to San Ysidro, that very busy port of entry. Tell us what's happening in that city and how this particular problem is playing out there.
GUERRERO: What we're seeing right now is a really intense backlog of people lining up at the San Ysidro port of entry. On any given day, we'll see up to a hundred people just waiting to get into the port of entry, many of them trying to seek asylum and being told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that they can't come in. A majority of them are from Central America, primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But there are also some people from African countries, from Haiti, from Eastern Europe as well.
SUAREZ: What's different about an asylum-seeker? These aren't people who are trying to sneak across the border. They want the authorities to know they're there. Don't they?
GUERRERO: Exactly. So these are people who don't have status in the United States. But they're trying to get into the United States legally. They're presenting themselves at the ports of entry instead of trying to sneak across the border through the desert or by jumping the fence. These are people who, in many cases, fear for their lives in their home countries because we're seeing such a huge uptick in violence, particularly in Central America - people fleeing extortion by gangs, sometimes direct threats on their lives.
SUAREZ: How does the Customs and Border Protection agency explain the fact that it just can't handle the flow?
GUERRERO: They sent me a statement earlier this week saying that they are at capacity and that they can't currently accept any new asylum-seekers at the San Diego-area ports of entry because they simply don't have space. They just don't have room to accept any more people. Normally, what happens when an asylum-seeker presents themselves is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection accepts them into the port of entry. And then they are - if they express a fear for their lives, they are transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But what's happening right now is that there are so many people who are coming through right now that the ports are full. And they don't have a place to detain these people before they're able to turn them over to Immigration and Customs.
SUAREZ: Any indication of whether help is on the way, whether they're going to beef up the response? And where are people supposed to go in the meantime?
GUERRERO: So there is currently no indication that they plan to beef up personnel to be able to process these asylum-seekers. Currently what's happening is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has this sort of informal agreement with Mexican immigration officials. They're working to take these groups of people to migrant shelters throughout Tijuana. And at these migrant shelters, they're assigned, like, a sort of ticket to where - they're like, OK, so this person gets ticket No. 1, this person gets ticket No. 2.
And then Customs and Border Protection tells Mexican immigration when they are able to accept a few more people. And then Mexican immigration sends those people from the shelters back to the border. Mexican immigration officials are also detaining non-Mexicans who are in the country illegally, which pertains to most asylum-seekers.
And I spoke to the head of Mexico's National Immigration Institute in Baja California, Rodolfo Figueroa. He confirmed that Mexican immigration officials are in fact detaining asylum-seekers who are trying to get into the U.S. and, in some cases, deporting them.
SUAREZ: Is American behavior - is American response controlled by international law? Has this country promised to abide by certain standards when dealing with asylum-seekers?
GUERRERO: That's correct. The refugee convention that the United States is a part of says that asylum-seekers have a right to come into the United States. The United States cannot turn people away if they express fear of persecution or having been the victims of persecution. I spoke to Deborah Anker, who is the founder and director of Harvard Law School's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. And she does believe that this current practice of turning people away at the San Diego ports of entry violates international asylum law.
SUAREZ: Jean Guerrero is an immigration reporter at member station KPBS in San Diego. Thanks a lot, Jean.
GUERRERO: Thanks, Ray.
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