A new border crossing called PedWest opened last year between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, in San Diego, California. To cross from Mexico to the United States by foot you walk through a gate, past a little gatehouse. Sometimes there are people just outside the barrier who have just been deported, carrying in hand a plastic bag of their belongings and some papers, looking disoriented. You walk up a long ramp, zigzagging a few times, and at the top pass Mexican federal police officers in camouflage and helmets, carrying machine guns. Then into a long glass passageway, decked with surveillance cameras and signs saying not to take pictures, skateboard, bike, or talk on your cellphone. To the left you can see the concrete trough of the Tijuana river, a mere dribble of water through piles of litter. In the distance a yellow line crosses it, demarcating the international boundary. It’s a long walk through the tunnel, descending in a spiral that’s been nicknamed el caracol, the snail. A façade imitating a rusted fence welcomes you to the entry to the U.S. inspection area, and security guards funnel you into line according to whether you have a commuter pass or other means of speeding through immigration. For thousands of people each day, this is a routine passage between two border cities linked by commercial and family relations.
But for someone fleeing violence, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, it is a gauntlet of possibility and fear. At the end of the line, they’ll approach a Customs and Border Protection officer in a booth and say that they are afraid to return to their home country.
Clara, a 28-year-old woman from Michoacán, a state in Central Mexico wracked by drug cartel violence, said she wasn’t nervous walking up the ramp and waiting in line with her three young children.
“I’m more afraid to go back to where I came from,” she said. In Michoacán, a man had followed her home and demanded money, saying he’d take her children if she didn’t pay up within eight days. The sum was about $150, but she knew he’d be back for more; cartel operatives had been going around the neighborhood. Clara lived alone with her 11-year-old son, 8-year-old daughter, and 6-month-old baby boy, and she called relatives in the United States for help. They wired her money for a plane ticket to Tijuana, and told her to try her luck asking for asylum; another relative in a similar situation had succeeded. (The Intercept is referring to Clara and other asylum seekers using pseudonyms to protect them from those they are fleeing and from possible retaliation by U.S. officials.)
By 8 a.m. the next morning, on June 13, she and her children were standing in front of a Customs and Border Protection officer at San Ysidro. When she said that she wanted to request asylum, she was taken into a separate room, asked some basic questions about who she was and why she was there, then made to wait nearly 24 hours, with a little food and no information. Near dawn the next morning, a U.S. official came in, repeated the same questions, and then told her that she did not qualify for asylum, because “the new government” had changed policy.
“It’s only for religious reasons, or if you’re gay, or if you’re fleeing the government. With the new government it’s changed,” Clara said the officer told her (she doesn’t know which agency the officer was from, but it was likely CBP.) She was given a document to sign indicating that she had agreed to go back to Mexico voluntarily. Two other Mexican women who were held with her that day were also denied entry, Clara told The Intercept in an interview at a women’s shelter in Tijuana, a few days after she tried to cross.
Even before “the new government,” Clara’s effort to obtain asylum may not have been successful. Mexicans historically have had a hard time showing that they fall into the right category of persecution, and aren’t just a victim of general violence. Clara might not have been able to convince a judge that she met the criteria or had proof that she and her children were in danger.
But the U.S. official was still not telling the truth: there’s been no official change of policy since Donald Trump took office, and her claim shouldn’t have been decided right then and there by CBP, whose officers do not have the authority to evaluate the validity of asylum claims.
Clara’s story is not unique. Legal and immigration advocacy groups today filed a class action lawsuit against CPB and the Department of Homeland Security alleging a pattern of misinformation, verbal and physical abuse, intimidation, and outright illegal turn-backs of people requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lawyers involved with the suit said they’ve seen “a drastic increase in illegal turn-backs since Trump was elected.”
The suit, filed in federal court in the Central District of California on behalf of six anonymous plaintiffs and Al Otro Lado, a non-profit that works in Tijuana, alleges that CBP has “coerced asylum seekers into signing forms abandoning their asylum claims by threatening to take their children away, threatened to deport asylum seekers back to their home countries,” and forcibly removed people from ports of entry. The six plaintiffs, from Mexico and Honduras, had been threatened or had family members killed by cartels and gangs members, and had been forced “to return to Mexico and other countries where they remain susceptible to serious harm such as kidnapping, rape, trafficking, torture or even death.”
A CBP spokesperson, Jakie Wasiluk, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the class action suit, but said in a statement that “CBP has not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures,” adding that the agency “adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.”
CBP also stated that according to U.S. and international law, anyone can request asylum if they are afraid to return to their home country, and that “CBP officers are not authorized to determine or evaluate the validity of the fear expressed.” Rather, CBP is expected to process asylum-seekers for an interview with a trained asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If that officer decides that the fear is credible, the petitioner can present their claim for asylum to an immigration judge.
Lawyers and charity groups working on the border documented an uptick in turn-backs and other irregularities with this process beginning in the summer of 2016, and it appeared to worsen after the election. A recent report by Human Rights First gathered over 125 cases of people being illegally turned back between November 2016 and April 2017. Over 32 Mexican nationals were refused by CBP at PedWest in November and December 2016 alone.
People have reported being told that the United States no longer has asylum, that Mexicans and mothers with children are ineligible, that they must go to the Mexican consulate, or already have a visa, among other false claims. In many instances, asylum-seekers were told that the refusal was the result of a change in policy because of Trump, as was the case with Clara and other individuals interviewed by The Intercept.
“There’s been no documentation of any centralized effort [by the U.S. government,] but the trickle-down effect of the rhetoric I think has opened up the floodgates of local officers who hold personal views that certain subgroups are taking advantage of the system,” said Shaw Drake, author of the Human Rights First report.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly promoted the idea that immigrants game the asylum process this spring, when he said that, “the vast majority of people who come up here…say the exact same words because they are schooled by traffickers to say certain words, to give certain scenarios.” Border patrol agents I met at a conference in April repeated the same charge, and previous investigations have found skepticism about asylum claims among U.S. border officials. Rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread fraud in asylum claims.
The class action suit asks that the six plaintiffs be granted emergency entry to the United States and immediate access to the asylum process, given the dangers they currently face. It also asks for court-ordered oversight and accountability measures to be put in place. Illegal turn-backs might be visible to outside observers, but once people pass into CBP custody, the process is behind closed doors.
“Ultimately our recommendation is that these proceedings be video-taped or recorded,” said Joanna Williams, of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona (which is not part of the suit.) “Because there usually isn’t any evidence. We need to be able to establish fact-patterns, to see if it’s always the same officers.”
Five of the six plaintiffs in the class action suit were turned away at a crossing with Tijuana. Local lawyers say the numbers of reported turn-backs have dipped in recent months, but they are still hearing of a few cases each week.
“They’re often told to go to a different port of entry,” said Elena Alderman, an attorney who has been working with the shelters in Tijuana. “The statement sounds like it’s official policy, to send them to some other port of entry that is accepting asylum-seekers. Reports are coming from both Otay Mesa and San Ysidro” (two entries for San Diego) that people are being told to go elsewhere.
Nicole Ramos, an attorney who works with Al Otro Lado, said “one woman tried three times here and eventually we just got her a bus ticket to Nogales, where she was able to enter.”
The impact of the rumor mill is hard to judge. After publicity and pressure from advocates this spring, local immigrants rights groups are reporting fewer reports of problems at some of the crossings, such as Nogales, Arizona. Other places, such as Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas, are so dangerous that it’s hard to reach would-be asylum-seekers there to evaluate the issue. (There have been reported cases of people being turned back at Reynosa only to be kidnapped. Cartel operatives have begun waiting near the international crossing and targeting people as they cross back.)
Advocates also say that a decrease in outright turn-backs could be due to fewer people trying to cross.
“When people hear the rumors that they can’t get in at one point of entry they shift to another or they try to cross the river,” said Melissa Crow, legal director for the American Immigration Council, and one of the attorneys on the suit. Advocates worry that people who decide not to try through official channels put themselves at risk of extortion and kidnapping by coyotes, and the physical perils of remote desert crossings.
If more people are making it past the gate in Tijuana, it’s certainly due to the response from Tijuana’s migrant shelters, activists, and lawyers. They’ve organized high-profile turn-in events accompanied by throngs of volunteers and news cameras.
Alex Mensing volunteered to accompany a caravan of more than 70 asylum-seekers who turned themselves in in Tijuana in May. “The goal was to have as many eyes and ears as possible, who understood what was happening, what was supposed to happen, preparing people before they get detained, and make it less likely that they get intimidated by an immigration officer to self-deport,” Mensing said.
“We thought this was a way to challenge what was happening in Tijuana specifically — it is a particularly important place for setting the tone and the standard for rejecting people at the border. The structure is new; the port of entry was just inaugurated last year. It’s got this long enclosed corridor that you have to go through, and there’s Mexican private security, Mexican authorities, U.S. private security, before you can even talk to U.S. authorities.”
Staff at several shelters told me that if someone plans to ask for asylum, they get in touch with a lawyer – and usually, that lawyer is Nicole Ramos. Originally from New Jersey, and a former federal defender in Alabama, Ramos moved to Tijuana and learned Spanish just three years ago. She recently gave up private practice to focus on assisting asylum-seekers.
In a tiny storefront office in a shopping center, she and her assistant were frantically handling phone calls from clients who had just launched a hunger strike to protest conditions at the Adelanto Detention Center outside Los Angeles, where they were being held before their asylum hearings. She had some 40 clients in detention in the United States, and was working with about eight who had yet to present at the border.
“We come in large groups and with the media,” Ramos said. “I always prepare [my clients] extensively, as though it’s going to be a hostile interrogation. Though sometimes CBP doesn’t like people to use the language of rights, like there’s something fake about it if they actually know their rights.”
Uriel González, director of a migrant youth shelter called Casa YMCA, said, “the presence of Nicole in the area has had a major impact. If people didn’t have her support and help they’d be returned immediately.”
Yet there is concern that the activist approach sets a bad precedent for CBP, and that CBP officers will now only accept people if they are in groups or accompanied by a lawyer and with documents in hand, stretching pro-bono attorneys thin and leaving refugees who don’t connect with shelters beforehand out in the cold.
“There’s that rumor mill especially in Tijuana that if you cross alone your chances are slim,” said Shaw Drake. “And so the shelters are helping people to put together documents and forms and packages – when they don’t have to do that at all, this level [of the process] doesn’t require evidence at all.”
Alderman, who also works with Ramos, said that, “Its been consistently reported that when people are presented by themselves without the support of a group turn-in, they are being told they cannot get asylum.”
Creating unrealistic expectations with CBP “is a huge concern,” Ramos admitted. “There’s such a tension with that and with wanting to help individuals.”
The situation for asylum-seekers in Tijuana was complicated by the arrival last summer of tens of thousands of Haitians seeking special status in the United States. Faced with long lines and overnight camps clogging up the entries to pedestrian crossings, Grupos Beta, the humanitarian wing of Mexico’s immigration authority, created a system of giving out numbers so that the Haitian asylum-seekers could hold their place in line and go to a shelter while they waited to be able to present themselves to the U.S. authorities, who claimed to be swamped by the surge in requests.
Rodulfo Figueroa Pacheco, the representative for Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) in the state of Baja California, said that “we weren’t managing CBP’s appointments, we were simply getting people off the street” and that “we were never in coordination [with CBP] in the sense that either they were doing our bidding or we were doing their bidding.” He said that the system was intended as a response to an “extraordinary migration event” and that it had been phased out by last November as the number of Haitians in Tijuana diminished.
Still, according to Human Rights First, CBP has allegedly told asylum-seekers that they could not request asylum without making an appointment through Grupos Beta. (Figueroa said, “I don’t doubt that there may have been some agents at CBP who asked that, but I know for sure that there was no policy from CBP to do that.” CBP did not respond to questions about the ticket system.)
Refugees from Central America in particular often have no legal status in Mexico and risk deportation if they approach Mexican authorities. Grupos Beta is not an enforcement agency, but there are reports that they have turned people over to Mexican immigration. “Grupos Beta will give them humanitarian aid and orientation,” said Figueroa. “If it’s an enforcement position, which would be similar to ICE, we follow the law. If you qualify for refuge, you may apply for it and if you don’t, you are returned to your country of origin.”
Daniella Burgi-Palomino, a senior associate with the Latin America Working Group, said that she was “very concerned” with how Mexican immigration authorities handled Central American migrants in particular. “INM has been responsible for handing migrants off to cartels, for kidnappings themselves, and excessive use of force. By the time [refugees] reach the U.S.-Mexico border the likelihood that they’ve experienced some sort of abuse from Mexican authorities is very high, and so they also have fear when they are told to go to INM.”
Being turned away by the United States could have deadly consequences for refugees stranded in lawless Mexican border regions, Burgi-Palomino said. In March, she testified before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, highlighting disappearances and kidnappings of migrants along Mexico’s northern border. The most dangerous border cities, she said, don’t have the network of shelters that exist in Tijuana, and “there’s no capacity for Mexican police to be defenders of migrants. People really have nowhere to go.”
Gathered around a picnic table and sagging couch beneath a fig tree in the courtyard of a woman’s shelter called Casa Madre Assunta, women from El Salvador and Honduras breastfed their babies and traded stories of how they fled and strategies for getting to the United States. Many didn’t want to apply for asylum in Mexico because they thought it would diminish their chances for the United States, or because they didn’t feel safe. But without status in Mexico, they could be to be deported to Central America — the worst possible outcome.
Elisa, a thin young woman from Honduras, 6 months pregnant and with two toddlers, said that her mother and three brothers had been killed by gangs. No matter what happened, she said, she wouldn’t let her children be sent back.
Clara was waiting in the shelter to talk to a lawyer, and didn’t know what she would do next. She wouldn’t go back to Michoacán, but said “I don’t know Tijuana, I’m afraid to go out with the kids to look for work.”
Erika Pinheiro, policy director for Al Otro Lado, said her organization has clients that “are being chased through Mexico, all the way to the border.” A family whose teenage son was murdered by gang members in El Salvador had been turned away by CBP and later “learned the man who had killed their child was looking for them in Tijuana.”
But for some, rebuffed by the United States, Tijuana offered relative safety.
Eduardo, a young El Salvadoran man who fled to Mexico after gang members tried to extort fees from him for his small clothing shop, was denied entry by U.S. border officials in early January. They told him that “it was Trump’s orders not to receive” asylum-seekers. He carried proof of the gang threats against him, and he tried twice, at different ports in Tijuana. Each time he was told “that they couldn’t accept us, on the order of the higher-ups. That they weren’t giving asylum to anyone.”
Eduardo decided to not to try again or to cross illegally; he was afraid of being deported to El Salvador. He obtained a humanitarian permit from Mexico and can work legally, and lives on the outskirts of Tijuana in an apartment with his pet chihuahua and a community of other El Salvadoran expats.
“A friend told me to try somewhere else on the border, to go maybe to Tamaulipas,” in the Northeast of Mexico, he said. “The cartels are there, and if they catch me they might kill me. So I said, ‘it’s OK, here I’m doing fine.’”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported this project as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative. Gabriela Martínez contributed reporting.