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Entire families of asylum seekers are being returned to Mexico, leaving them in limbo

Migrants spend time at Instituto Madre Asunta shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 15. The first group of families returned to Mexico after crossing the border and asking for asylum in the United States await their asylum hearings in the shelter. They were returned to Tijuana on Wednesday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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TIJUANA, Mexico — When the United States sent a handful of families seeking asylum back to Mexico on Wednesday, it marked a new chapter in America’s changing asylum policy. For the first time, parents with children will have to wait in border cities like this while their claims are processed.

For the Trump administration, it was a major step in an effort to roll back the so-called “catch-and-release” policy that allows migrant families to wait with relatives in the United States until their court dates. But for the families, who are now waiting in Tijuana shelters, it presents an enormous challenge. Many have no plan for where to live, let alone access to lawyers.

“During the interview, when the [asylum] officer said I had to wait in Mexico, I started crying. My youngest son said, ‘Mama, don’t cry’, but I couldn’t stop,” said a woman who identified herself only by her middle name, Esmerelda. She was one of the mothers who was turned back Wednesday as a part of the new policy.

She said she and her three children fled El Salvador after the country’s powerful 18th Street gang tried to recruit her 11-year-old son.

“It was too much. I told [the officer] I had nowhere to go, and he just shrugged and looked at me like I was crazy,” she said.

Many asylum seekers, like Esmerelda, have relatives they could stay with in the United States but don’t know anyone in northern Mexico, leaving them with few options.

The Mexican government has repeatedly said it lacks the resources to provide food, shelter and medical care to the families who are sent back across the border, potentially for months, until their first asylum hearing. Initially, in January, Mexican officials said they would not accept children sent back as a part of what are known as “Migration Protection Protocols.” For the first few weeks of the program, only individual adults were sent back.

But the Mexican government appears to have capitulated to U.S. demands, allowing families to return as a part of the program. So far, 73 people have been sent back to Mexico under the program, according to Mexican authorities, including 13 minors.

Now, the question is how families will deal with the new policy, which they worry will put them at risk.

Isabel, 31, arrived at the border with her three children from Guatemala, after traveling with a migrant caravan. She said she was fleeing two former partners who had beaten and threatened her. The most recent one was involved with the MS-13 gang and nearly killed her, she said.

Isabel said she had an interview with a U.S. asylum officer after turning herself in at the Tijuana port of entry on Feb. 9.

The officer “told me I would have to wait in Mexico for my court date on March 27,” she said. “She said that I’d have to find a lawyer and then they let us go.

“I’m confused. I don’t know what to do. I guess I’ll just wait,” Isabel said, and began to cry. “I can’t go home to my country. I don’t want riches, I just want to live in peace. I want a little store to sell things. My dream is to live quietly and raise my children.”

The Tijuana shelter where the families are staying is packed with women and children, mostly from Central America but also from Mexico and Africa. There were clothes strung up inside. Women were lined up for a lunch of beef stew and rice.

The American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. government, alleging the policy endangers migrants and violates U.S. law. The ACLU is asking a judge to allow the migrants to return to the United States while their cases are processed.

The lawsuit has 11 plaintiffs, all asylum seekers from Central America who were returned to Mexico since Jan. 30 to wait out their asylum cases. One is a lesbian who said she was assaulted because of her sexual orientation and fled Honduras after her partner’s family threatened to kill her.

Steven Stafford, a Justice Department spokesman, said the U.S. government was planning to defend the policy, which it believes was authorized by Congress.

“Congress has explicitly authorized the Department of Homeland Security to return aliens arriving from a contiguous foreign territory to that territory during that alien’s immigration court proceedings,” Stafford said.

Analysts and immigration advocates have raised concerns about the effect the new U.S. policy will have on migrants — and especially on families.

“Mexico has never done enough to protect the safety of migrants or to investigate crimes committed against them,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “The U.S. doesn’t appear to care how these asylum seekers will be put in greater risk by staying in Mexico.”

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