For the first time, federal officials in Nogales, Arizona, are using the controversial program known as “Remain in Mexico” to discourage asylum-seekers from approaching the port in vehicles.
Nine Venezuelans who drove up to the port of entry on Wednesday were processed through the program, known formally as the Migrant Protection Protocols, and returned to Mexico through El Paso, according to a news release late Thursday from Customs and Border Protection. The group included three families and two single adults.
The decision to send them through the Migrant Protection Protocols came after several weeks of asylum-seekers trying to “jump the line” of people waiting lawfully for their turn to speak with U.S. officials, said Meredith Mingledorff, a spokeswoman for CBP in Arizona.
In some instances, asylum-seekers pooled their money, bought cheap cars in Nogales, Sonora, and then drove up to customs officers to ask for asylum, she said.
“They need to understand they are still going to have to wait and go through the process,” she said.
More than 3,000 people are waiting to present themselves for asylum in Nogales, Sonora, and the average wait time is more than three months, said Katie Sharar, a spokeswoman for the Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic organization that runs a dining hall for migrants in Nogales, Sonora.
The fact that asylum-seekers have used vehicle lanes to enter the United States is a “reflection of the desperate and untenable situation at the ports of entry,” Sharar said. Wait times at the port are growing, winter is approaching and “uncertainty and fear” about the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program is taking hold.
For a group of Cuban asylum-seekers in Nogales, Sonora, the program was their top concern Monday. They peppered an Arizona Daily Star reporter with questions about the program and crowded around to learn more.
Since the program began in California and Texas early this year, more than 55,000 asylum-seekers have been sent to Mexican border cities to await their hearings in U.S. immigration court. While waiting in those cities, numerous reports have emerged of asylum-seekers being victims of kidnapping, rape, extortion and other crimes.
Until recently, Arizona was the only border region without the program, although The Arizona Republic reported in October that some asylum-seekers near Yuma were bused to California and then sent to Mexico.
Instead, a CBP practice known as “metering” at ports of entry in Arizona and elsewhere kept the number of asylum-seekers who get a chance to speak with U.S. officials at the port to only a handful each day. Asylum-seekers often wait for months to get their chance to enter the port.
Last week, CBP implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector and started busing asylum-seekers who surrendered to agents at the Arizona-Mexico border to El Paso. From there, they would be taken to Ciudad Juarez to await their hearings.
In response to asylum-seekers driving up to the Nogales port or entering the vehicle lanes on foot, CBP closed off three vehicle lanes with metal barriers last week.
“CBP will not allow ports to be overrun, or unauthorized entry. Security measures will be increased as needed to ensure priorities are safely met,” the agency said in a statement earlier this week.
At the request of CBP, city police officers in Nogales, Sonora and Mexico’s newly formed National Guard are keeping a close eye on vehicles as they approach the port.
The Kino Border Initiative is “profoundly in opposition to the expansion of Remain in Mexico, as well as its practice anywhere,” Sharar said.
“It forces people into danger, without access to legal, humanitarian, and other essential services, and places them far from family and community support in Mexican cities that are already stretched thin in terms of resources and shelters,” Sharar said.
U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat whose district includes Nogales, said expansion of Remain in Mexico “will exacerbate the dire conditions of vulnerable asylum-seeking families fleeing violence in their home countries and place them in imminent danger in Mexico.”
“We have a legal obligation under both national and international law to allow asylum-seekers to pursue their cases in the United States,” Grijalva said. “The expansion of this policy exposes them to more violence and makes a mockery of the asylum process as we know it.”
Rather than return asylum-seekers quickly to Nogales, Sonora, CBP is busing them 300 miles to El Paso, he noted.
Immigration court cases for the Migrant Protection Protocols are heard in San Diego and El Paso, Mingledorff said. The lack of sufficient capacity and infrastructure “hinder efforts to further implement MPP,” she said.
“We are simply out of room to manage the influx of cases,” she said.
Plans are in the works to build “soft-sided structures” to serve as temporary hearing locations for MPP cases in the Texas border towns of Laredo and Brownsville, she said. New hearing locations will speed up the processing of asylum claims and cost less than building permanent immigration courts.
Those structures will have courtrooms where immigration judges and Department of Homeland Security attorneys can appear via videoconferencing, Mingledorff said.
The structures also will have rooms where migrants can meet with attorneys and U.S. officials can screen migrants to determine whether they have valid fears of violence or persecution if they are returned to their countries, she said. The structures will have areas that “allow for the comfort and needs of the migrants during the time they are there to attend their hearings.”
DHS is “evaluating options for additional locations along the southwest border where these temporary structures would provide immediate relief,” Mingledorff said.
Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar