EL PASO — A Salvadoran man who had been ordered to wait in Mexico while a U.S. immigration judge decided his asylum claim will be allowed to stay in the United States, one of the first people to gain entry after the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program was blocked earlier this week.
A lawyer representing the Department of Homeland Security said at a court hearing here Wednesday that the agency would not be returning the asylum seeker to Mexico. The man had been returned to Ciudad Juárez on March 25, three days after he crossed into the United States and requested asylum, and had been there since, awaiting his initial hearing.
Wednesday marked the first time that someone removed from El Paso under the MPP program — also known as “Remain in Mexico” — had returned for a court hearing. The Trump administration was experimenting with the program at a crossing in California and had expanded it to other ports of entry, including El Paso; the government had ordered hundreds of asylum seekers to cross back into Mexico, part of a strategy aimed at keeping migrants from reaching U.S. soil.
A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the program Monday, ordering the administration to stop returning asylum seekers to Mexico and forcing the government to allow plaintiffs to cross into the United States for their claims to be heard. The judge set a deadline of Friday, but government officials seem to have immediately accepted that the program can’t continue — at least for now.
The ruling paralyzed one of the Trump administration’s last remaining tools to stem the flow of Central American families trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, an influx that has hit decade-long highs.
The Trump administration filed notice Wednesday that it will appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals but in the meantime signaled that it would abide by the decision.
“In light of the injunction, we can say that he’s not going to be returned to Mexico,” Jose Tavares, assistant chief counsel for DHS, said at the brief hearing Wednesday.
DHS authorities have told Mexican officials that they plan not to return asylum seekers to Mexico while the court injunction is in place, according to Taylor Levy, legal coordinator for the nonprofit Annunciation House, which helped facilitate the Salvadoran man’s court appearance. She said colleagues in San Diego reported similarly that DHS is allowing those affected by the return program to stay in the United States after court hearings.
It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday what would happen to the asylum seeker in El Paso, a 32-year-old whom attorneys asked to not identify because he fears reprisals in El Salvador.
“We were actually quite frankly pleasantly surprised that they on the record made a commitment that they weren’t to go return to Mexico,” said Nicholas Palazzo of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, who represents the man.
He could be sent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility while his case goes through the courts, or he could be released on bond. That determination will be made by DHS, but Palazzo said he hopes the man could be released because he has family in the United States and a sponsor willing to accept him.
The asylum seeker said that shortly after arriving in the United States, he learned from U.S. immigration officials in El Paso that he would have to return to Mexico while his legal case was decided in Texas.
“It was a surprise,” he said in an interview in Mexico before crossing the Paso Del Norte Bridge into El Paso. “They told me there was a new law that had been passed and that I had to wait for my process in Mexico.”
So he spent 15 days in a Juárez migrant shelter, where he was taunted by locals, he said, because they knew he was an outsider. He said he was once approached by a group of men in a truck who said they knew he wasn’t Mexican and who tried to lure him into the vehicle. He worried he could have been assaulted or kidnapped. Opponents of the U.S. return program have said it exposes asylum seekers to dangers in Mexico.