Immigration Law

Wait in Mexico Policy, Access to Counsel, & Crime

Jeffrey S. Chase, Feb. 10, 2019

"A February 1, 2019 article in the L.A. Times reported that two American attorneys who work for the immigrant rights organization Al Otro Lado, which has sent attorneys to Tijuana to offer advice to Central American refugees seeking to apply for asylum in the U.S., were stopped by Mexican immigration officials while attempting to enter that country.  The attorneys were detained and questioned, and eventually denied entry because their passports had been “flagged.” One of the lawyers was actually traveling to Mexico on a family vacation, and was separated from her husband and 7-year-old daughter at the airport and taken to a separate room where she was interrogated.  Her crying daughter was eventually allowed to join her; the two were held for 9 hours and forced to sleep on a cold floor without food or water before being sent back to the U.S. Two journalists who had been covering the issue of refugees seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border suffered the same experience. The Mexican government denied responsibility for the “flagging;” one of the journalists was told “the Americans” were responsible.

One of my first reactions to the remain in Mexico policy was the impact it would have on access to counsel.  I have heard disturbing first-hand reports from individuals who have traveled to Tijuana to provide legal assistance to refugees there.  When crossing back to the U.S., American citizens identified by Customs and Border Patrol officers as “activists” have been harassed by being sent to secondary inspection, where they have been questioned and, remarkably, have had the contents of their electronic devices accessed by DHS agents.  A means of avoiding such treatment was to fly directly to Mexico. However, the reported policy of flagging the passports of attorneys engaged in such work has undermined that route as well. Thus, attorneys are being treated like criminals for the “crime” of doing their job of providing legal assistance to asylum seekers.

While DHS focuses on such imaginary “crime,” it willfully ignores the actual crime to which those asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico are exposed.  In a letter to DHS Secretary Kirsjen M. Nielsen, the American Immigration Council, American Immigration Lawyers Association, and Catholic Legal Immigration Network reported that 90.3% of asylum seekers surveyed said that do not feel safe in Mexico; 46% stated that either themself or their child had suffered harm in Mexico, and 38.1% reported mistreatment at the hands of the Mexican police.  Female asylum seekers accompanied by their minor children reported suffering crimes in Mexico including rape, sexual assault, kidnaping, extortion, and death threats.

Keep in mind that the Administration has shamelessly named its wait-in-Mexico policy the “Migrant Protection Protocols.”  Instead, the policy exposes asylum seekers (including vulnerable unaccompanied children and families) to crime and police harassment, while restricting their access to counsel.

Access to counsel is increasingly critical to Central American asylum seekers, many of whose claims require proving that their fear is on account of their membership in a particular social group.  Where fear is of non-governmental persecutors, applicants must further establish that the government is unable or unwilling to control such actors, and that internal relocation to another part of the country was not reasonable.  Meeting these criteria requires an applicant to offer complex legal theories, and to support such claims with affidavits, reports, and articles from one or more experts. Without legal assistance, this is a daunting task for refugees (some of whom are families or children) living under difficult conditions (including the above-mentioned exposure to crime and government harassment) on the Mexico side of the border.  Under present BIA precedent, an asylum seeker who is just a little off in formulating their particular social group (even if they included one word too many or too few) is stuck with such formulation, and may not amend it should they be fortunate enough to obtain counsel to assist them with their appeal. See Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 189 (BIA 2018).

The Trump Administration’s policies towards Central American asylum seekers has consistently run counter to our country’s international treaty obligations.  The Administration has tried to argue that those fleeing to our country are not truly refugees, falsely painting them (in the words of a Human Rights First release) as “frauds, security threats, and dangerous criminals.”

By undertaking efforts on so many fronts to make it increasingly more difficult for such claimants to succeed in their asylum applications, the Administration seeks to paint the resulting drop in grant rates as “proof” that such claims are “fraudulent.”  In criminally prosecuting those who eventually try to cross the border when they are no longer to endure the conditions under which refugees are forced to wait in Mexico, the Administration cites such convictions as “proof” that the refugees are “criminals.”  The Administration seems to view the flight to the U.S. as a choice, and believes that its deterrence policies might convince refugees to simply return to their home countries.

Such view is at odds with reality.  This December article by Prof. Karen Musalo in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism adds further corroboration to the many reports detailing the horrible violence Central American refugees are fleeing.   And the World Migration Project at the Columbia Univ. School of Journalism continues to track those who have suffered harm (including death) following their deportation from the U.S.; its findings also counter the Administration’s position that those fleeing are not truly refugees, and that repatriation is a viable option.

As the late Arthur Helton wrote more than 25 years ago, “A basic measure of a civilized society is the way it treats strangers.”  Similarly, Jorge Ramos recently wrote in Time magazine that “countries are judged by the way they treat the most vulnerable, not the rich and powerful.”  Our government’s policies towards asylum seekers (including its most recent efforts to interfere with that population’s ability to retain counsel), and its willingness to expose such a vulnerable population to harm (including murder and rape)  shames us all."

Copyright 2019 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City.  Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge, senior legal advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals, and volunteer staff attorney at Human Rights First.  He is a past recipient of AILA's annual Pro Bono Award, and previously chaired AILA's Asylum Reform Task Force.