SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Trump administration announced a controversial policy in December for migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border. They would be returned to and remain in Mexico while their asylum cases are considered. The policy is in effect at a major border crossing in San Diego.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups are suing the administration, calling the policy - known as the Migration Protection Protocols - quote, "war on asylum-seekers and our system of laws." Melissa Crow is with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thanks so much for being with us.
MELISSA CROW: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: You contend this policy violates both U.S. and international law. How so?
CROW: So first of all, Scott, the government is basing this policy on a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that was never intended to apply to the group of asylum-seekers who present themselves at ports of entry along the southern border. We allege that this new policy violates both U.S. and international legal principles that provide that individuals must not be returned to countries where they risk persecution or torture.
SIMON: Miss Crow, you and other groups represent 11 asylum-seekers who've already been returned to Mexico. And you believe that Mexico is a country in which they're at risk?
CROW: Yes. Even the U.S. State Department has indicated in its "Country Reports On Human Rights" that there is deep-seated animus in Mexico toward migrants. Other of the plaintiffs have fled gang violence in their countries of origin. And gangs don't observe state boundaries. And these people are terrified that they're going to be killed.
SIMON: President Trump and others in the administration say that there are large numbers of people who use these - asylum law - to enter the U.S. and then just disappear. Do you agree?
CROW: We strongly disagree. And we think his figures are inaccurate. I would urge him to spend some time down on the border and hear some of the harrowing stories about the situation that these individuals have fled. I would also note that they are trying to enter the country legally, have entered the country legally because they were inspected and processed at ports of entry. And he's been saying for a long time that that's what people should do. So it's kind of like a slap in the face when they try to do that and they get sent back.
SIMON: The Department of Homeland Security, though, says that because they can't detain families for more than a few weeks, that's not enough time for the asylum claim to be processed. So they have to come up with something else.
CROW: I don't actually see a need to detain people at all. There are lots of alternatives to detention that have been shown to work. In many cases, people are released on ankle monitors so that the government can keep track of where they are. But once again, I don't think that the government's figures on appearance rates at hearings are accurate.
SIMON: Mexico has expanded some of the rights of asylum-seekers, non-Mexican asylum-seekers - haven't they? - in recent weeks. Humanitarian visas, work permits, access to legal services, does any of that help?
CROW: I know that they have started giving humanitarian visas to individuals who are returned. They are supposed to provide for work authorization. But I understand that a number of our plaintiffs have had trouble finding jobs and also trouble proving that they are entitled to work in Mexico. I think that goes back to the animus against migrants that I spoke of before.
SIMON: Do you and other groups have an idea of how many people we might potentially be talking about who were asylum-seekers in Mexico?
CROW: We don't have an exact number. The government has said that they're going to expand this policy to Texas in the not-too-distant future. And my understanding is that as of Thursday, eight families were returned- eight families comprised of 13 adults and 13 children. And that was just one day.
SIMON: Melissa Crow of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thanks so much for being with us.
CROW: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.