Asylum rule change worries migrants, advocates

Border Report

Cubans say many peers already en route to U.S. border will be left out; activists say lawsuits coming

JUAREZ, Mexico — A new U.S. rule directing asylum seekers to file applications on the first foreign country they set foot on took Juarez officials and Cuban migrants by surprise on Monday.

Woman: It’s mean to decrease political asylum, and not give people entry. Because if you’re granted asylum in another country, they’re going to deny yours.

Man: Because the promise of the United States is that it’s a free country, a safe country and a country that supports you. There are benefits and the U.S. is not violent, there are laws.

Previously, migrants arriving to the border were given a number in Juarez and told to wait in Mexico to be called up to initial appointments in U.S. immigration court. On Monday, the U.S. government announced the policy change.

“They are doing this with no advance notice. They are not giving people time to prepare, to alter their travel plans. If they had announced this at least a month in advance, people could have put off the trip,” said Pedro Pablos, a Cuban migrant waiting in Mexico for his asylum interview in El Paso.

Pablos and others visiting the Migrant Assistance Center on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte Bridge expressed concern about peers who already left Cuba or Central America and could be turned back upon arriving at the border.

According to advocates’ interpretation of the new rule, if a Honduran sets off to seek asylum in the United States and the first foreign country he or she set foot on is Guatemala, they should apply for asylum in Guatemala. In the case of Cubans — and a majority of migrants waiting for asylum hearings in Juarez are Cuban — if the first country they flew in is Venezuela or Nicaragua, that’s where their application should be filed.

“It’s unfair. How can you send people to apply in places like Guatemala? A lot of people are leaving Guatemala because it is not a safe country,” said a Cuban woman who only identified herself as Lizbeth.

Mexican officials who have been managing the asylum waiting list on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said they had not been notified of any changes on Monday.

“Today, we continue to work as usual. We are still registering migrants for appointments, and this morning CBP called up 10 people for interviews,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Chihuahua State Population Council, which runs the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez.

Valenzuela declined to speculate on the possible impact of the rule change and said he didn’t know if the new rule would cut off those migrants who already have a number for an upcoming initial appointment. “We will wait to hear from the (Mexican) National Immigration Institute. I’m sure the two federal governments are in direct communication,” he said.

Valenzuela says more than 5,000 migrants are still on a waiting list for initial appointments in El Paso.

‘It’s going to be challenged in court’

In El Paso, migrant advocates were also trying to get their questions answered before making any recommendations to the community.

“We are still trying to figure out what this means, but this change is not something we support. … This is just another barrier for folks seeking asylum here,” said Marissa Limon, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, echoed the Cubans’ concerns about retracing their steps to Latin American countries gripped by violent crime.

“It is a terrible idea. People come to seek asylum to the United States because it is a safe country. Mexico is not safe, other countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are not safe; people there are fleeing regional violence,” he said. “This shows the intent of the Trump administration to do whatever is possible to keep people from applying for asylum. It is part of their agenda of rejection of immigrants.”

Garcia said the Trump administration can expect lawsuits. “I’m don’t think this decision is going to stand because it is fundamentally in violation of international law. It’s going to be challenged in court,” he said.

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