STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today immigrant advocates challenge a key part of President Trump's immigration policy. They're in federal court, and they question the U.S. practice of telling asylum-seekers to await their court hearings in Mexico. This was President Trump's answer to what he calls catch and release, the practice of letting asylum-seekers live in the U.S. while their cases wind through immigration court. Immigrant advocates say the solution is worse than the problem. NPR's Joel Rose has one family's story.
JOEL ROSE, HOST:
One night this past March, Gabi (ph) and her family crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso, Texas, where Border Patrol agents took them into custody.
GABI: (Through interpreter) They then told my kids to stop crying, they were going to a safe place where they'd have food and be treated well.
ROSE: But Gabi and her family spent the next three nights sleeping on the ground under a bridge, where hundreds of migrants were detained. She asked that we not use the family's last name because they are still in immigration proceedings. Images of those migrants penned in parking lots with Mylar blankets were big news in the spring, when immigration authorities didn't have the space to handle more than 100,000 migrants arriving each month. Kevin McAleenan, who was head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the time, went to El Paso to sound the alarm.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility. But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time.
ROSE: Gabi's 5-year-old daughter did get sick. She suffered from severe stomach problems that required a lot of medical attention. Gabi blames the food and the stress of being detained. Then, her family was separated by immigration authorities, she thinks because she and her husband don't have an official marriage license. Without explanation, her husband and son were released to join relatives in the U.S. while Gabi and her daughter were sent back to Mexico. She's still struggling to understand why.
GABI: (Through interpreter) Everyone has asked me that question. Why were you sent back with a child who was sick?
ROSE: Gabi and her family arrived in El Paso just as the Trump administration was engineering a huge shift in U.S. asylum policy. It's known as "Remain in Mexico" or by its official name, the Migrant Protection Protocols, and it was designed by the Trump administration to stop the historic influx of migrants. Here's then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen telling Congress that migrants would still be allowed to cross the border for their asylum hearings.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: This is to assure a safe and orderly flow and to ensure that their human - humanitarian rights are protected.
ROSE: But immigrant advocates say that's not happening. They will argue in court today that the program violates U.S. law because it forces migrants to wait in places where they're not safe and can't get lawyers. Advocates say the human toll is enormous. Families like Gabi's are separated if they don't have the right paperwork, and vulnerable migrants are targets in dangerous Mexican border towns.
GABI: (Through interpreter) No, I don't feel safe in Juarez.
ROSE: Gabi says she and her 5-year-old daughter were kidnapped by a cab driver in Ciudad Juarez. Her family in Honduras had to send money to get them released. She says cartels and gangs prey on migrants.
GABI: (Through interpreter) I'm a migrant. In Juarez, a migrant is money. For bad people here, I represent money to them.
ROSE: Immigration officials have downplayed reports of kidnapping and other crimes against migrants who were forcibly returned to Mexico. Instead, they say the program is a, quote, "game changer" because it's allowed them to fulfill a central campaign promise of President Trump, the end of so-called catch and release. Here's Kevin McAleenan, now the acting Homeland Security secretary, announcing last week that most migrant families will no longer be allowed to live in the U.S. while they wait for their day in immigration court.
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MCALEENAN: DHS will no longer be releasing family units from Border Patrol stations into the interior. This is a vital step in restoring the rule of law and integrity to our immigration system.
ROSE: Those migrants are now being sent back to Mexico, more than 48,000 of them so far. Gabi and her daughter were among the first to be returned to Juarez. They've been going back and forth to immigration court in El Paso for months, arguing that they deserve political asylum in the U.S. In Honduras, which is rife with corruption and violence, Gabi says her family was threatened by a local gang for supporting the wrong political party. Her attorney is Linda Rivas with the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, one of the few lawyers in El Paso who's been willing to take on cases of migrants in Juarez.
LINDA RIVAS: I feel she has a decent asylum claim. But the reality is we are in an incredibly difficult jurisdiction, and I can't guarantee her a victory in an El Paso court. I just can't.
ROSE: That's left Gabi facing a harrowing choice between doing what's best for her daughter or what's best for her son. Her daughter, who is 5, has dropped from 40 pounds to just 26 pounds - what a 3-year-old should weigh.
GABI: (Through interpreter) It's still her stomach. She's really sick from her stomach since we got here. Sofia (ph) hardly eats anything. She just watches TV. There are days that she doesn't want to talk to me. She doesn't want anything.
ROSE: Gabi's 7-year-old son, meanwhile, is growing up without her - thousands of miles away with his father in Connecticut.
GABI: (Through interpreter) He says, Mommy, I'm praying every day to God for you to come here. He pleads with me to not give up and tells me that he's waiting for me. It's really hard because it's the first time we've been separated, and he tells me he misses me and doing homework together. It's really hard.
ROSE: Gabi's lawyer, Linda Rivas, says this is what happens to migrants under Remain in Mexico.
RIVAS: It is a tool of cruelty by this administration. And this young mother - this young but strong and brave mother is living this every single day.
ROSE: Gabi was scheduled for her final asylum hearing yesterday, but she didn't go. Gabi and her daughter took a bus back home to Honduras. She thinks it's the best place for her daughter to get healthy. She doesn't know when she'll see her son or her husband again.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
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