Daily life already was frustrating for a Cuban couple seeking asylum in Nogales, Sonora. Then they took a grueling 300-mile bus ride to El Paso that turned out to be both risky and unnecessary.
Yarlenis Viltres, a pregnant 22-year-old, and her husband, Yosbel Lingueño, 32, rode in a packed bus for 10 hours in mid-May, five months after they arrived in Nogales to ask for asylum.
They were on their way to get a piece of paper, known as a tear sheet, from U.S. officials that would tell them when they would get a chance to explain the political persecution they faced in Cuba.
Unbeknownst to them, U.S. officials announced a few hours before they got on the bus in Nogales that all proceedings in the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as MPP or “Remain in Mexico,” were postponed due to the coronavirus. With the postponement, federal officials were “alleviating the need for aliens to travel within Mexico to a U.S. port of entry,” according to a May 10 news release.
That was cold comfort to Viltres and Lingueño. By the time they arrived in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border city just south of El Paso, Viltres’s feet were severely swollen, she had a fever, and she was discharging fluids that she and her husband could not identify.
She worried yet another pregnancy would end in disappointment — the result, she said, of damage done by a Cuban police officer who struck her in the abdomen two years earlier and caused a miscarriage.
Viltres went with U.S. officials to see a doctor and Lingueño waited on the bridge between Juárez and El Paso, unsure what to make of a U.S. official saying they might have to start their asylum claim from scratch. He watched asylum seekers walk up to U.S. officials one after another, only to be turned away.
“They didn’t give them a paper notifying them of anything,” Lingueño said. “They just told them, ‘Come back next month.’”
A doctor told Viltres she likely was dehydrated and released her after a negative test result for the coronavirus. She and Lingueño returned to Nogales and now are waiting for a hearing scheduled for mid-July in El Paso.
“We’ll be there, if they maintain the court date,” Viltres said, even though her due date falls within a few days of their court hearing.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say communication between federal agencies and asylum seekers already was unreliable before the pandemic. Now, they face confusing instructions as officials abruptly postpone hearings and use the authority of a federal public health order to rapidly “expel” thousands of migrants to Mexico.
Last week, federal officials announced plans to overhaul the asylum system even further, raising questions that lawyers and advocates are now racing to sort out.
The problems arising with the program during the pandemic, “just further exposes the inherent problems with the program that were there from the start,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Federal agencies have done a “notoriously bad job” notifying asylum seekers, many of whom live in precarious conditions in Mexican border cities, that their hearings were delayed or suspended, Pierce said.
“They’re choosing to treat them as frivolous applicants, rather than people who are seeking refuge from persecution,” Pierce said.
The experience of Lingueño and Viltres in El Paso was “not an isolated incident,” said Luis Guerra, a legal advocate for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
Asylum seekers in Nogales are making the trek to El Paso to get a “piece of paper saying they have a hearing in a month or two,” which ideally would be easy to obtain online, Guerra said.
“This false concept of the court process going forward as if the person has actual communication with the court is ridiculous,” Guerra said. “There’s really no two-way communication here that’s built into this program.”
The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which sent hundreds of asylum seekers to Nogales, did not respond to an inquiry from the Star.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts under the umbrella of the Department of Justice, has an automated system accessible online or by phone.
Guerra said the information in the automated system is often outdated and the system won’t function if an asylum seeker loses their government identification number.
The automated system “will not reflect a new hearing date until a new date has been set,” according to a statement from the EOIR public affairs office in response to an inquiry from the Star.
“As always, court documents such as hearing notices are the official source of information,” according to EOIR. Updates on whether immigration courts are open or closed will be announced on Twitter and the EOIR website.
Individuals in immigration proceedings “have the responsibility of updating the immigration court with their address within five days of moving,” according to the statement from EOIR.
Hearings in the Migrant Protection Protocols are scheduled to restart June 22. If they are postponed again, “we’ll find out June 21 late at night and we’ll be scrambling to tell people who are already on their way to turn around,” Guerra said.
Since the Migrant Protection Protocols program began in early 2019 the U.S. government sent about 65,000 asylum seekers to Mexican border cities to wait for immigration court hearings, according to federal data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Federal officials say the program is designed to quickly process asylum claims. The program was created in early 2019 when thousands of families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador crossed the U.S.-Mexico border each month. Far fewer families from Central America crossed the border in recent months.
They generally surrendered to Border Patrol agents and asked for asylum from corruption and violence. Tucson volunteers cared for more than 20,000 of them at local shelters before CBP partially installed the Migrant Protection Protocols in Nogales in January.
Unlike other cities, CBP does not send asylum seekers in Nogales to nearby immigration courts, such as the one in Tucson. The agency has been vague as to why, citing unspecified “logistics” issues. Instead, asylum seekers like Viltres and Lingueño are told to show up at the immigration court in El Paso.
Viltres and Lingueño went back to Nogales, where they live with their doors closed all day. They were forced to move from one neighborhood due to threats from local residents. They now face threats from smugglers in a new neighborhood. Still, they say it’s safer than Juárez. Lingueño said about 1,000 asylum seekers are still waiting in Nogales, more than half of them Cuban.
They spoke to the Star by phone from Nogales, Sonora, alongside Alex Miller, a lawyer with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a pro bono legal aid group.
Lawyers with the Florence project help some asylum seekers in Nogales prepare paperwork, but generally do not represent them at court hearings in El Paso. The vast majority of asylum seekers navigate the U.S. immigration system without lawyers, according to data from Syracuse University.
Without legal guidance, asylum seekers are terrified of making a misstep and missing their hearings, Miller said.
“It’s a trade-off, they think, between their physical health and safety today and the future of their case,” she said.
Last weekend, Miller accompanied Viltres and Lingueño to the port of entry in Nogales with a packet of information about their asylum claim. She told an officer at the port about Viltres’s risky pregnancy and asked that they be allowed to enter the United States on humanitarian parole or granted an interview about their fear of remaining in Mexico.
The officer refused to take the packet and said they were making no exceptions to an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to largely close the border, according to Miller.
Caseworkers in the office of U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat whose district includes much of the Arizona-Mexico border, tried to intervene on their behalf with CBP. The request was denied due to the coronavirus emergency and presidential proclamation, according to Grijalva’s office.
“The case of Yarlenis and Yosbel is emblematic of the callous disregard for the unique situations asylum seekers face when attempting to enter the safety of the United States under the Trump Administration’s policies,” Grijalva said in a statement.
“President Trump is using the cover of a pandemic to implement his cruel immigration agenda with innocent people caught in the crosshairs,” Grijalva said. “MPP is inhumane, unlawful, and should end immediately.”
Going forward, Miller said a doctor will write up an evaluation about the medical care Viltres needs and describe what kind of care is available in Nogales. If they do not get some kind of humanitarian relief, they will have to make the rough bus ride to El Paso again.
When they get to El Paso, they might see Taylor Levy, a pro bono immigration lawyer who started waiting with asylum seekers on the Mexico side of the bridge in March.
Levy said asylum seekers, including some from Nogales, line up in the early morning hours to wait for their turn to speak with U.S. officials. On Friday, about 150 showed up at the bridge to make appointments that were originally scheduled for a date in May. On a typical day, about 50 asylum seekers line up at the bridge, she said.
Some asylum seekers return to Nogales, while others relocate to Juárez, despite the risk of kidnapping and extortion, she said.
When she talks to asylum seekers, one of her biggest challenges is correcting misinformation they get from friends, Facebook, and U.S. officials.
As the asylum process stalled in recent months, some asylum seekers say they feel “tricked,” Levy said.
“These are people who say to me over and over again that they tried to do everything the right way and that they feel stupid now,” Levy said.
She spoke with a Cuban man last week who has spent more than a year waiting in Juárez. Many of his friends grew impatient and crossed the border clandestinely. They now live with their families and work in the United States, she said.
“He’s still waiting around in Mexico for a court hearing that never seems to happen,” Levy said.
Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or email@example.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar
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