STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Every year, thousands of immigrants come to the U.S.-Mexico border and request asylum. That means they're seeking safety from persecution in their home countries. It is common for asylum-seekers to stay somewhere in the United States until their cases are decided. To get asylum, they must show they're fleeing political persecution, not just economic trouble. Migration and human rights advocates insist that, in recent weeks, some asylum-seekers haven't even gotten the chance to make a case. Under President Trump, some are discouraged or turned away. NPR's John Burnett has our story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Six times, Marco Antonio Cabachuela, his wife, Irma, and their 3-year-old, Valerie, walked up to blue-uniformed immigration officers at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry and asked for asylum. And every night, they came back to this immigrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, where men and women sit listlessly in a shady courtyard.
MARCO ANTONIO CABACHUELA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "They rejected it," he says. "They said there was no room for us."
IRMA CABACHUELA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Irma chimes in. "The last official told us they weren't processing asylum applicants anymore and not to return. If we didn't leave voluntarily, they would have us deported by Mexican immigration authorities."
Marco Antonio says he fled gangs in La Ceiba, Honduras, who were gunning for him because he had threatened to turn them in. And he has a bullet wound in his abdomen to prove it. Shortly after this interview, a pro bono attorney accompanied the Cabachuela family to the international bridge, and they were finally permitted to apply for asylum on their seventh try.
In recent years, Central Americans have been surging across the southern border seeking refuge from marauding criminal gangs and, in the case of women, from abusive husbands. The number of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans, mostly mothers and children, who were granted asylum jumped 400 percent between 2013 and 2015 to nearly 4,700. There are widespread reports that some U.S. officials at ports of entry, emboldened by the new administration's tougher stance on immigration, are blocking asylum applicants. Sister Maria Nidelvia is director of Casa de Migrante in Reynosa, Mexico.
MARIA NIDELVIA: (Through interpreter) According to the testimony we hear from Central Americans, yes, they have had problems asking for humanitarian asylum at the bridge. They have been returned. It's stricter now, much more restricted.
BURNETT: Customs and Border Protection says it follows established procedures which, quote, "protect some of the world's most vulnerable and persecuted people." CBP says it does not tolerate any kind of abuse. But advocates who work with immigrants challenge the agency's assurance that its port officers are following asylum law.
In January, eight immigrants' rights organizations filed a formal complaint with the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department. The grievance alleges that CBP officers have been illegally turning away asylum-seekers for months now.
ELENA ALDERMAN: They are being told President Trump no longer wants immigrants. They are being told that there is no more asylum in United States, there's no more asylum specifically for mothers, which is a terrifying thing that I heard recently.
BURNETT: Elena Alderman works with CARA, a pro bono legal group that advises detained immigrants seeking asylum. She and other advocates have rented a ranch house in Dilley in South Texas to be closer to clients held in the nation's largest family detention center. She says she has heard dozens of similar stories.
ALDERMAN: We are seeing the beginnings of the systematic denials of asylum-seekers all along the border, which represents a complete violation of human rights and a complete disregard for international and domestic law.
BURNETT: There are also reports coming from inside detention facilities. A 24-year-old Mexican asylum applicant named Marta, who asked that her last name be withheld because she fears retaliation, called NPR from an immigrant jail in Laredo.
MARTA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: She says immigration agents told the detainees asylum doesn't exist anymore - everyone in the facility asking for asylum is going to be deported.
Trump's Homeland Security Department has indicated that it wants to bring order to the chaotic asylum process on the southern border and crack down on asylum fraud. Officials want to ensure that applicants are telling the truth. They've tightened up the screening process that allows an asylum-seeker to get to the final stage, a full hearing before an immigration judge.
Katie Shepherd with the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council worries that those changes...
KATIE SHEPHERD: Will possibly have the impact of reducing the number of asylum-seekers who are allowed to have a meaningful day in court.
BURNETT: The asylum turn-aways and Trump's immigration posture may already be having an effect. Last week, Homeland Security reported the number of family units apprehended on the southern border dropped 66 percent from January to February - since Trump took office - from 9,300 to about 3,000.
BURNETT: Here at the immigrant sanctuary at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, the number has dropped from 300 to 30 a day. Margarita Yxtuc is one of the lucky ones. She left the Guatemalan highlands for Texas last month, with four of her children, to flee a violent spouse. She was admitted into the U.S., and she has a court date to make her asylum claim. Yxtuc says she knows women back home who've decided not to make the perilous journey north.
MARGARITA YXTUC: (Through interpreter) They say the new American president doesn't want us. He's sending us all back to our countries. They're saying let's not go.
BURNETT: Trump's stricter asylum policies may only be the beginning of actions to deter families from leaving Central America for the U.S. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly confirmed he's considering separating children from their parents if they cross the border illegally.
John Burnett, NPR News, on the Texas-Mexico border.
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