The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I became an asylum officer to help people. Now I put them back in harm’s way.

New restrictions make the process feel like a sick joke.

Lucia Ascencio, of Venezuela, carries a suitcase after she and her husband and two sons were returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on July 9, 2019, as part of a group of migrants sent back to Mexico's Tamaulipas state under the so-called Remain in Mexico program. (AP Photo/Salvador Gonzalez)
Lucia Ascencio, of Venezuela, carries a suitcase after she and her husband and two sons were returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on July 9, 2019, as part of a group of migrants sent back to Mexico's Tamaulipas state under the so-called Remain in Mexico program. (AP Photo/Salvador Gonzalez)
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For asylum officers like me, this spring was a demoralizing time. The Trump administration was rolling out the Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy that allowed immigrants to wait in the United States while we processed their cases — provided that they were likely to be harmed in Mexico. But the standards for demonstrating this are almost impossibly tough. When I went to San Ysidro, Calif., to conduct interviews for this program, I spoke with people whose heartbreaking stories, I knew, wouldn’t be good enough.

I met a man who looked so hungry and miserable that I gave him half my lunch as he told me about being kidnapped on his way north. He didn’t qualify. I met a woman who had been forced into prostitution by a cartel in the red-light district in Tijuana; she had to go back to Mexico, too. A family who’d been pulled off a train and robbed was allowed to stay, but only because the husband remembered that the perpetrators had been wearing police uniforms. Overall, the proceedings felt like a sick joke.

When I started working as an asylum officer more than 26 years ago, it seemed like a dream job. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were fleeing horrific political repression by their governments, which had the backing of the United States. I was a law student in Washington, working at an aid center for recent immigrants. Most of my friends and colleagues were pretty skeptical of the federal government. But I thought that this could be a way to help people, while fighting for what I thought America should be: a beacon of freedom, offering refuge to those in need.

As Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to round up migrants with deportation orders, an immigration debate ignited on July 14. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration’s policies have turned the process into a Kafkaesque nightmare. My colleagues and I have interviewed thousands of asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and told them that they had to return to Mexico while their cases were processed — knowing all the while that they might be kidnapped, assaulted or killed. Under MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” we’re not allowed to let them stay here. We’re forced to put them back in danger.

This is how the system was designed to work: When people encounter immigration authorities at the southern border and ask for asylum, they’re supposed to be interviewed by an asylum officer like me, who assesses whether their case should get a full hearing. Before turning someone away, we’re meant to ensure that we’re not sending them someplace where they’ll be persecuted.

Since January, the process instead goes like this: After a cursory interview by Border Patrol agents (who have not been trained to elicit or assess testimony), migrants are issued a slip of paper with the date of their next appointment and told to go back to the other side of the border until then. After weeks of being on the road, exhausted, maybe sick, maybe traveling with their children, they’re so dazed and bewildered that they comply without protest.

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

Some people are asked if they fear returning to Mexico and answer yes, or they speak up of their own accord. (Border Patrol does not always ask.) Technically, there is a path to obtain temporary protection in the United States. First, though, they must pass the MPP interview. This is nothing like the due process that they’d ordinarily receive. In a normal asylum hearing, we determine if there’s a “reasonable possibility” or a “well-founded fear” of harm in their country of origin. Usually, the applicants have had some time to learn about the proceedings and collect their thoughts; they have an attorney present and the ability to appeal a negative decision. In MPP interviews, though, people rarely have a lawyer, and we use a “clear probability of harm” standard, which is much higher. The criteria are ridiculously narrow, and harm has to be on “protected grounds.” Being threatened or robbed or beaten up isn’t enough — the persecution would have to occur on the grounds of their country of origin, sexuality or religion, for example, or at the hands of state actors. Positive determinations in the MPP process amount to only a few percent, at most.

It’s awful to try to conduct these interviews with people who don’t know what’s happening to them. Often, they’ve already been waiting for weeks to be processed by immigration authorities, preparing to explain their situation in their home country — and suddenly, they’re being questioned about their time in Mexico. They have no idea what to say or how to articulate their fear in a way that will pass muster. Some of them have yet to learn what we already know: that the shelters are overcrowded, with little access to medical care or legal services, and are frequently targeted by thieves and kidnappers. There’s no way asylum seekers could feel safe in Mexico: According to the State Department, Central American gangs have spread deeper into the country, threatening the people who’d fled them. In 2017, 5,824 crimes were reported against migrants in just five of Mexico’s 31 states, and of these, only 1 percent were resolved by the Mexican authorities.

Colleagues of mine have reported feeling pressured by supervisors to say it is safe for migrants to return to Mexico. I had to fight on behalf of a man and his teenage son who’d been attacked at knifepoint. The son recognized their assailants: Days earlier, they’d been standing across the street, watching the migrant shelter. At the time, the strangers had asked him and his father where they were from, and when they answered that they were Honduran, told them to “Get out of here.” My supervisors claimed that it wasn’t certain they were assaulted because they were Honduran. “There aren’t magic words,” I argued. “The circumstantial evidence is clear.” An asylum system that was originally designed to ensure migrants are safe from harm now seems set up to turn away as many people as possible. The Trump administration regards the asylum process as a “loophole” in our country’s immigration system — as itself illegitimate.

As of late June, more than 15,000 people, nearly a third of them children, have been sent back to Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Mexicali. That number is expected to grow to 60,000 by the end of next month. Meanwhile, Mexico is turning back thousands of people approaching its southern border with Guatemala, and the Trump administration wants to impose even more restrictions: Under a new “third country rule,” people crossing through another country en route to the United States must apply for protection there first. Otherwise, they will be ineligible for asylum here.

These new policies make a mockery of our mission. The roughly 600-strong asylum officer corps was founded to identify bona fide refugees and protect them, and to combat any fraud and abuse of the system. We exist to ensure that the United States doesn’t renege on its international treaty obligations or commit a grievous human rights abuse by returning people to places where their freedom or lives are in jeopardy. For decades, one principle has been drummed into us: People have basic human rights, and when they come to our borders, they deserve due process and to be treated with dignity and respect. The things we’re being asked to do today fly in the face of everything we stand for.

People don’t have a right to asylum, sight unseen, but under international human rights law and our own immigration laws, they have the right to seek it. They have the right to knock on the door and say, “Help, a wolf is chasing me, let me in!” When that happens, we’re supposed to give them food and drink, and to let them sit by the fire and tell their story — and if it’s true that they’re in danger, we are supposed to give them shelter. It’s wrong to block their way and force them to wait on the front step, while we decide if we’re ready to listen.

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.

Read more from Outlook:

Trump’s new asylum rule will guarantee more separated families

Trump’s ‘Migrant Protection Protocols’ hurt the people they’re supposed to help

Seeking asylum isn’t a crime. Why do Trump and Sessions act like it is?

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