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U.S. sending asylum seekers to Mexico while awaiting court ruling, in some cases ignoring own protocols

The experimental U.S. policy requires migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

EL PASO — While a federal appeals court weighs the Trump administration’s policy of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico to await court hearings in the United States, the government appears to be ignoring its own protocols for who it should send back across the border.

The guidelines for the Migrant Protection Protocols program — also known as Remain in Mexico — preclude government officials from sending people with “known physical/mental health issues” back to Mexico. But at least two pregnant women and a Honduran family that includes a 4-year-old girl with a neurological disorder were sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, under the MPP program, according to court proceedings in recent weeks. It is difficult for the girl to take in food, she is nonverbal and unable to walk, and her family argues that waiting in Mexico was a dangerous proposition.

The girl’s mother told Border Patrol agents about her condition, and she said they were unsympathetic: “They told me that if I knew that she was this way, why did I even come?” she said in an interview.

The 31-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears for her safety, said the family fled Honduras because criminals who had killed two of her husband’s cousins threatened to kill her family to keep them from going to police.

Department of Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the case.

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The Trump administration began the MPP program in January in the San Diego area, hoping in part that having asylum seekers remain in Mexico while awaiting hearings in the United States could be a deterrent to migrants, while shifting responsibility for their temporary housing outside of the United States. The government then expanded the program to Calexico, Calif., and El Paso, with plans to implement it across the border.

Approximately 1,600 people have been sent back to Mexico while U.S. immigration courts consider their cases, DHS officials have said, and there are more than 1,500 MPP cases docketed in the El Paso court, a significant rise from just a few weeks ago, when there were an estimated 300 to 400 cases there.

A federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction on April 8 that temporarily blocked the MPP program, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit stayed the injunction four days later. The appeals court heard arguments last week on whether to reinstate the injunction but has not yet issued a ruling.

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The Honduran woman and her two daughters, ages 14 and 4, crossed the border into El Paso on March 29 with plans to join her husband and 11-year-old son in Florida, where they landed after fleeing Honduras last year. The mother and 14-year-old girl took turns carrying the 4-year-old during a month-long journey northward through Mexico. Like tens of thousands of other Central American families crossing into the United States, they requested asylum after surrendering to Border Patrol agents in El Paso.

The mother and daughters spent seven days in Border Patrol custody, including two nights under an international bridge in El Paso, where they slept outdoors. One day after being told her husband could pay for bus tickets to get them to Florida, Border Patrol agents told the mother they would instead be sent to Ciudad Juarez.

“They said that I needed to return because when I crossed, the law had changed,” she said.

She again raised her daughter’s condition — diagnosed in Honduras as Guillain-Barré syndrome when she was 11 months old — and asked Border Patrol agents to call her husband in Florida. “They told my husband there was nothing they could do,” she said.

The family spent almost three weeks at Casa del Migrante, the main migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez. She said they were treated well but were warned not to venture outside the shelter.

“It is very dangerous,” the woman said. “They don’t let anybody go out.”

Ciudad Juarez, a city that has seen battles between rival drug cartels for more than a decade, averaged five homicides each day in April, officials said.

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Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to a question about why a 4-year-old with special needs was placed in the MPP program despite guidelines that exempt people with medical conditions.

“What happened to her and her daughters is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is an example of DHS ignoring policies that are supposed to protect vulnerable populations,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who has been following the case. “The Migrant Protection Protocols program, like many other Trump administration policies, does not deter asylum seekers, and instead only promotes cruelty and, in some cases, outright human rights violations.”

The family came back to El Paso last week for an initial appearance in immigration court, where they were represented by Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. Rivas said shelter officials alerted her to the family out of concern for the girl’s condition, and she agreed to represent them.

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In the hearing, the mother asked immigration judge Nathan Herbert, “Are they going to send us back to Mexico? I wouldn’t want to go back to Mexico.” Herbert told her that would be decided by Customs and Border Protection officials, but he said she would get an interview with an asylum officer first because she had expressed a fear of being returned.

The interview with the asylum officer took place Friday morning. Later that day a doctor asked the mother about her daughter’s condition but did not examine the girl, the Honduran woman said. That afternoon, the mother was told they would not be sent back across the border.

The Honduran family was released by CBP on Saturday to the custody of an El Paso migrant shelter. The family flew to Florida on Wednesday with tickets purchased by the Miles 4 Migrants program.

“I don’t want to return to the dangers of Honduras,” the mother said. “Even if we’re not rich, I want us to be together. And I want my daughters to have opportunities such as an education and possibly getting the right medical care from my daughter.”

Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.