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It was never easy for migrants to win asylum in U.S. immigration courts, but now it's nearly impossible. Out of tens of thousands of migrants who've arrived at the southern border in recent months, just over 100 people have been granted protection. Immigrant advocates say this is what the Trump administration wanted when it implemented the Remain in Mexico program. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This is how the asylum system works on the border now. Migrants who've been forced to wait in Mexico are stressed by the time they're allowed into the U.S. for court. Attorney Lynn Stopher describes seeing her client at a hearing last week.
LYNN STOPHER: She's had nothing to eat. She's also exhausted physically and emotionally, and she's expected to testify about the most traumatic experiences of her life to a video camera.
ROSE: Stopher's client and young daughter spent the night on the International Bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the night before. They had no choice. The migrant shelters in town refuse to unlock their doors until the light of day because it's notoriously dangerous outside, and the family had to report to U.S. authorities on the bridge by 4:30 in the morning. From there, they were escorted to temporary tent courts just across the border, where judges preside by video link from hundreds of miles away in San Antonio.
ILYCE SHUGALL: They appear very overwhelmed.
ROSE: Ilyce Shugall is a former immigration judge and one of a small band of observers who are watching in San Antonio. Shugall says judges are also stressed. They're doing their best to juggle a flurry of new Trump administration policies, court rulings and a huge volume of cases. But she says they're making mistakes.
SHUGALL: The judges are just trying to get through their dockets. They just don't have time to think, and that's a problem.
ROSE: The U.S. asylum system has been upended by Remain in Mexico, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. More than 55,000 migrants have been told to wait in Mexico under the program. According to the latest data, more than 40% of their cases have been decided, and the success rate is less than 1%. Jodi Goodwin is a longtime immigration lawyer in Harlingen, Texas.
JODI GOODWIN: It's very clear at this point that the design of the program is to basically eviscerate asylum law as we know it.
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MARK MORGAN: The message is clear. They will no longer be allowed to exploit our laws and to be allowed into our country based on fraudulent claims. Those loopholes have been closed.
ROSE: That's Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington earlier this month. He says the Remain in Mexico program discourages asylum seekers with dubious claims and that the administration is working with the Mexican government to ensure a, quote, "safe, secure environment," unquote, for migrants. But he also says...
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MORGAN: If somebody is abused, if somebody is exploited, there's only one individual who is to blame for that, and that's the smuggling organizations. The cartels are doing the exploitation and abusing these people.
ROSE: Immigrant advocates say this lack of security in Mexico is a big reason Remain in Mexico is making it harder to get asylum in the U.S. Advocates say the one individual to blame for that is President Trump for sending migrants back to some of the most dangerous cities in the world.
REBECCA GENDELMAN: They are kidnapped. They are attacked. They are raped.
ROSE: Rebecca Gendelman is an advocate with Human Rights First, which has documented more than 600 violent crimes against migrants in the Remain in Mexico program, including at least one murder. Thousands of asylum seekers aren't showing up for court. Immigrant advocates say some of them have been kidnapped. Others are so scared, they've gone home. Gendelman recalled one asylum case she observed - a migrant from Honduras who said she'd already been kidnapped once and then begged the judge to deport her.
GENDELMAN: She said, both my life and my son's life are in danger. I want to go back to Honduras because if something happens to me there, at least I have my family. But here, it's just myself and my son and God.
ROSE: The second reason it's so hard to get asylum under Remain in Mexico has to do with judges. The program funnels these asylum cases to some of the toughest judges in the country. Immigration courts near the border grant far fewer asylum claims than other courts like San Francisco or New York. The third reason - limited access to legal counsel. Few lawyers are willing to travel to Mexico to take on these cases, and those who are willing say the administration has made it difficult to meet with their clients.
GOODWIN: They don't want lawyers to talk to people. They don't want lawyers to be present.
ROSE: Attorney Jodi Goodwin represents more than 40 migrants in the Remain in Mexico program. Goodwin describes a chaotic legal system on the border. Only lawyers are allowed into the tent courts, and they have to meet with their clients in converted storage containers.
GOODWIN: I usually only have, like, maybe 15 or 20 minutes to be able to talk to my clients before court, and in addition, they don't allow you to see your clients after court. They really don't want lawyers to be in that facility.
ROSE: The Justice Department, which runs the immigration courts, declined to comment for this story except to say that a new wrinkle is coming next month. A group of immigration judges in Fort Worth, Texas, will begin hearing Remain in Mexico cases from the tent courts via video, and like the tent courts, these proceedings will be closed to outside observers.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.
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