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Mexico rebukes — but accepts — ‘unilateral’ U.S. move to return asylum seekers pending hearing

Starting on Friday, asylum seekers will be returned to Mexico to wait for their cases to make their way through the U.S. immigration courts. (Video: Reuters)
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TIJUANA, Mexico — Mexico’s government said Friday it would not impede U.S. plans to send ­asylum-seeking migrants back across the southern border while they await a hearing in U.S. courts.

Mexican authorities made it clear they did not support the Trump administration’s program, but they appeared reluctant to pick a new fight with the White House less than two months into the term of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The decision appeared to clear the way for U.S. agents to begin the new protocols even as many migrants remained bottlenecked in Tijuana — just steps from the border — and officials in the teeming border city said resources were strained to the limit.

“We are not saying we will open any kind of refugee camps or something like that,” Roberto Velasco, spokesman for the Mexican Foreign Ministry, told The Washington Post.

“We simply do not have the resources for that,” he added. “What we are saying is, we will open the door for the aid to come.”

The new policy could also face swift legal challenges in the United States.

Velasco told reporters in Mexico City that the United States was prepared to send back the first group: up to 20 migrants across the footbridge at the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego.

Velasco, however, also outlined some ground rules. He said Mexico would not accept migrants appealing a denial of asylum, unaccompanied children or people with serious health problems. The Department of Homeland Security said unaccompanied minors would be exempt from the U.S. policy.

“The Mexican government does not agree with the unilateral measure implemented by the U.S. government,” Velasco said. “Nonetheless, and in line with our new migration policy, we reiterate our commitment to migrants and to human rights. Migration should be a choice, not a necessity.”

The returned migrants would be the first group of people to have been affected by the U.S. policy, originally called “Remain in Mexico” and formally announced in December.

Immigrants in the United States currently wait months or years for their cases to be resolved, partly a result of an 800,000-plus-case backlog in the immigration courts. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said the asylum cases of those sent back to Mexico should be decided within a year, with an initial hearing within 45 days.

More than 10,000 migrants request visas as caravan hits Mexico

Critics say Trump’s new policy will have little impact unless Mexico agrees to extend it throughout the nearly 2,000-mile border, since the largest number of U.S. border apprehensions is in Texas. Yet it’s unclear whether Mexico will be willing to absorb tens of thousands of asylum seekers a year, and many migrants are wary of high-crime border cities there. Two Honduran teens traveling with a caravan were killed in Tijuana late last year.

On Friday, even municipal officials in Tijuana said they remained in the dark about the details.

Cesar Palencia, chief of migrant affairs in Tijuana, said he did not believe the city would be capable of attending to all of the asylum seekers, and that no new space had been set up to receive them.

“We don’t see a strategy to attend to them,” he said. “It’s not in keeping with the law, and I consider it a violation of migrants’ rights.”

Palencia was also concerned that the strategy would cause more people to be forced to remain in Mexico for the long term, and further limit their options to reenter the United States.

“What happens if someone from Honduras goes in front of a judge and says, ‘My life is at risk, but I’ve been living in Mexico for three years’?” he said. “It seems like a method of denying them.”

Leopoldo Guerrero Díaz, the secretary general of Tijuana, said that it was the responsibility of the Mexican government to prepare spaces for the migrants.

He said El Barretal — a shelter established for 6,000 migrants who arrived en masse in November — had the space for more migrants, but that other shelters in the city were already at capacity.

“Tijuana has traditionally received thousands of migrants, but not in the manner they’re arriving now. No city in the country has the capacity,” Guerrero Diaz said.

Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said it appears that the “various parts of the Mexican government aren’t on the same page” about cooperating with the United States.

“My sense is that this is still in negotiation,” Selee said. “You get the sense the Mexican government is making up its collective mind.”

“Since there’s nothing written down, there’s no actual formal agreement, all of this is going to be in flux for a while,” he said.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agency’s union, and a vocal Trump supporter, said the president’s initiative will work only if it is rolled out across the entire southern border. If it is limited to legal ports of entry, he said, the plan will only spur migrants to cross illegally.

“If it’s border-wide, it will be an absolute game changer,” Judd said. “It will drive illegal immigration down.”

The top Democrats on the Senate and House Judiciary panels said Friday that the program was evidence that “the Trump administration is on a mission to take apart the asylum system,” founded upon the principle “that people fleeing for their lives cannot be turned away without a chance to make their case.”

“Asylum seekers are easy prey for criminals and gangs in Mexico, but the Trump plan forces people to remain in harm’s way,” they wrote in a statement, accusing Trump of pursuing “nativist policies” that create “more chaos at the border, harming refugees instead of protecting them.”

On its southern border, meanwhile, Mexico has been dealing with a different immigration issue: 13,000 people who left in a new caravan from Honduras last week are in line to enter legally. Though authorities have promised them they can stay anywhere in the country for at least one year, it has encouraged them to seek jobs in the country’s southern states.

Yet many could attempt to make the trek north toward the U.S. border to request asylum.

Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s Office at the New York University School of Law, said the U.S. policy change is “intended to create a certain amount of order.”

But it could have the opposite result.

“You need the infrastructure in place to house and feed people,” he said. “If that’s not provided, it’s going to be a humanitarian crisis, or it’s going to be an incentive for people to give up entering at ports of entry.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit that has filed lawsuits against previous efforts by Trump to restrict migrants from seeking asylum, called the new policy “inhumane and unlawful.”

“Rates of violence in U.S.-Mexico border towns are often as high or higher than they are in the countries asylum seekers are fleeing,” the group said in a statement. “People will die. They will die on both sides of the border, whether in Mexico because of organized crime, en route because of increased trafficking, or, because they will be forced to cross ­between ports of entry, on the U.S. side from exposure to the ­elements.”

Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City and Maria Sacchetti and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.

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