EL PASO — Serbando Pineda Hernandez and his 15-year-old son, Riquelmer, were making their ninth attempt in as many days to reach the port of entry here and apply for asylum. As they approached U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers Sunday on the Paso del Norte Bridge, Pineda tried something new. He presented a handwritten sign saying they sought protection from dangerous gangs in their native Guatemala.
Joined by four immigration activists who helped create the sign, Pineda and his son straddled the boundary dividing Mexico and the United States. But their path was blocked by two officers who told them that the port of entry was at capacity and couldn’t handle asylum applicants. It was the immigration equivalent of a “no vacancy” light over the Rio Grande.
Trump administration officials have, in recent weeks, adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to asylum applicants. They have told those who cross the border illegally and make asylum requests that they will face criminal prosecution, but that if they go through the official border crossings, their applications will be processed. Yet in several cities along the border, asylum seekers who follow those instructions are turned away and told to return later. At some crossings, applicants camp out for days.
Ruben Garcia, one of the activists assisting Pineda, said his strategy is to help him exercise his legal rights as clearly as possible. “I wanted them to be face to face with someone who is categorically saying, ‘I am afraid and I’m asking for asylum.’ ”
Garcia is the founder and director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit organization in El Paso that has provided shelter and other services to immigrants and refugees for more than 40 years. He provided The Washington Post with an edited video showing Pineda’s encounter with customs officials.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have been turning back asylum seekers, most from Central America, for several weeks at El Paso and other ports of entry on the Mexican border. They don’t tell the migrants they can’t apply for asylum, just that they can’t apply right now because the port of entry is at capacity.
Migrant advocates and others have scrambled to respond to what they think are illegal attempts to block migrants from making asylum claims. CBP officials dispute that, saying they have a duty to operate the ports of entry in a safe, orderly fashion.
“When our ports of entry reach capacity, when their ability to manage all of their missions — counternarcotics, national security, facilitation of lawful trade — is challenged by the time and the space to process people that are arriving without documents, from time to time we have to manage the queues and address that processing based on that capacity,” a CBP spokesman said in a statement.
Applying for asylum at a port of entry is a legal means — for many Central Americans and others, it is the only means — of seeking entry into the United States. The Trump administration says the nation’s asylum laws are lax, and on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling limiting claims from those seeking protection from gang violence and abusive spouses. Asylum is for those fleeing persecution because of their religion, political beliefs or membership in a social group, Sessions said, not fleeing crime.
Still, immigration lawyers say CBP’s attempts to block applicants at border crossings are illegal because the agency is required by law to process anyone seeking asylum, not just when the agency finds it convenient. The agency has not responded to multiple requests to cite the legal authority that grants its officers the right to turn back people asking to apply for asylum.
Astrid Dominguez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Border Rights Center, said the ACLU has received reports all along the Texas-Mexico border of would-be asylum seekers being turned away after being told there’s no capacity. The American Immigration Council filed a lawsuit last year challenging alleged efforts by CBP in California to prevent asylum seekers from applying. She said this effort is tied to the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone entering the United States illegally.
“We have this administration that’s saying, ‘Come to the port of entry; we’re going to prosecute everybody who doesn’t come to the port of entry seeking asylum.’ And now we have CBP agents turning them away. So in reality, they don’t want anybody to come,” Dominguez said.
Officials at Annunciation House said they’ve been hearing stories for weeks about asylum seekers being turned away at international bridges, before they can reach the port. They’ve been able to help a few gain access to the El Paso port, but most are told to come back another time.
On Sunday, Garcia and three Annunciation House volunteers interviewed Pineda in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city adjoining El Paso, as he and his son prepared to cross the bridge. He told Garcia that they fled Guatemala because of violence and gang attempts to recruit Riquelmer and that they feared returning home. Those are the basic requirements for requesting asylum, a process that usually takes months or years to complete.
The vast majority of Central American applicants are denied asylum protections in the end, but once they are living and working in the United States they often disregard court orders to leave the country and remain illegally. That is the “loophole” the Trump administration says it is seeking to close by tightening asylum rules.
The volunteers working with Pineda helped him create a sign that made clear he was seeking asylum, and they accompanied him and Riquelmer to the top of the Paso del Norte Bridge. That’s where CBP officers intercepted them.
Garcia said he was struck by the CBP supervisor’s explanation of why they couldn’t take in Pineda and his son. “This supervisor started using the word ‘humane,’ ” Garcia said. “He said, ‘You know, we have space capacity, we want to treat the people humanely; it is not humane to simply pile people up on top of each other.’ ”
The decision meant that Pineda and Riquelmer have slept for days on the streets of Ciudad Juárez, a place they do not know, Garcia said.
Historically, people crossing into the United States from Mexico at ports of entry don’t encounter CBP officers until they reach port facilities, which generally are several hundred feet from the international boundary. In recent weeks, CBP has placed officers feet or inches away from the boundary at El Paso and other crossings.
Annunciation House plans to train volunteers to monitor CBP actions at international bridges and attempt to escort asylum seekers to the port of entry, Garcia said.
Two aides to Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) witnessed Pineda’s attempt to reach the port of entry Sunday. O’Rourke said CBP lacks the desire to find additional capacity to handle fluctuations in asylum applications. “It’s a matter of U.S. law and it’s a matter of international law, and it’s a matter of doing the right thing. And it’s also, in the long view, what’s made this country great in the first place,” said O’Rourke, who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the November election.
“So part of what I want to do is find out what additional resources or authorities or direction the Department of Homeland Security needs to ensure it is following the law,” he said.
CBP has refused to provide data on how many asylum applications it is processing at ports of entry in El Paso and elsewhere along the border, so it’s difficult to assess the agency’s claim that ports are at capacity.
New deportation cases in El Paso, which include asylum claims, are on pace to be the lowest in at least 27 years, according to numbers from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which compiles data on federal court filings. Apprehensions in the El Paso sector — which includes West Texas and all of New Mexico — are down 11 percent for the first eight months of the fiscal year compared with the same period a year ago, although there has been a spike this spring to levels not seen for more than a decade.
During the Obama administration, Customs and Border Protection officials responded to occasional surges in asylum requests by opening temporary processing facilities. The Trump administration has not taken such steps.
Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.