By Lizbeth Diaz and Jose Gallego Espina
TIJUANA, Mexico/SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Three asylum seekers due to be returned to Mexico after appearing in U.S. immigration court on Tuesday asked officials to let them stay in the United States because they feared for their safety while waiting out the process in Mexico.
The requests are a new approach by migrants in response to President Donald Trump’s recent policy that requires people seeking protection in the United States to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexican border towns, part of his hard line stance to halt migration.
Some 240 people – including families – have been returned to Mexico since late January under the program, dubbed Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), according to U.S. officials.
Six Central American migrants who crossed from Tijuana through the San Ysidro port of entry had their cases heard at a San Diego courthouse in the program’s first day of hearings on Tuesday. All were told to return to Mexico.
Robyn Barnard, a lawyer from the nonprofit group Human Rights First, said she asked officials to let her two Honduran clients stay in the United States. Both are afraid of returning to Tijuana to wait for their next hearings in early August.
Tijuana, like much of Mexico’s northern border zone, has seen extensive bloodshed since the federal government began using the military against drug cartels over a decade ago.
“Mexico is not a safe place for all people, and there are vulnerable groups at risk,” Barnard told reporters after the hearing.
Her clients would remain at a U.S. Port of Entry on Tuesday night, ahead of interviews with asylum officers, likely the next day, Barnard’s assistant said.
One client, 19-year-old Ariel, said he left Honduras because of gang threats and gave only his middle name because he feared reprisals. He was among the first group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.
“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” he said prior to the hearing.
Mariel Villarreal, an immigration lawyer with San Francisco-based Pangea Legal Services, said she asked that her client from Guatemala be allowed to stay in the United States.
“They are just being sent back to homelessness in Tijuana,” she said, adding that Mexican officials are not explaining how returnees can earn work permits.
U.S. officials have said they are working with the Mexican government to ensure migrants are safe while they wait in Mexico. But some Mexican officials have warned the country’s border cities would struggle to look after asylum seekers for long periods.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the Trump administration has taken to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.
The administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are rejected, but because of immigration court backlogs people are often released and live in the United States for years waiting for their cases to be resolved.
The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”
Critics say the program violates U.S. law and international norms because migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico where it is difficult to keep track of their U.S. court dates and to find legal help.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.
“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.
Immigration advocates are watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union Tribune.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Jose Gallego Espina in San Diego; writing and additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Bill Trott and Darren Schuettler)