Exclusive-Canada taken to court over COVID policy that pushes asylum-seekers to U.S

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s pandemic-era policy of turning back asylum-seekers trying to enter between official border crossings is unlawful and violates their rights, a legal action filed on Tuesday alleges.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers filed the legal action in federal court claiming the policy is unlawful because it fails to consider the situation of asylum-seekers and whether they have reasonable alternatives available.

The policy also denies asylum-seekers their right to a hearing, according to a copy of the legal action seen by Reuters.

It is the first legal action against this policy since it was instituted in response to COVID-19 in March 2020.

Between March 21, 2020, and April 20, 2021, Canada turned back 387 asylum-seekers trying to cross between ports of entry, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Even though Canada said they could return at a later date to make refugee claims, the legal action argues Canada is not ensuring that the turning away of refugees is temporary.

Canada has previously said the turn-back policy, which it has been renewing monthly, is a necessary public health measure. Canada also says it has assurances from the United States that “most” asylum-seekers will be returned to Canada to pursue refugee claims.

But the United States deported at least one asylum-seeker turned back under this policy, according to the man’s lawyer and correspondence seen by Reuters. Others were held in a detention center.

Canada’s Public Safety Minister could not immediately be reached for comment.

Burundian Apollinaire Nduwimana tried to cross into Canada in October at Roxham Road, which has become a common destination for asylum-seekers skirting the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

Under the STCA, asylum-seekers crossing at a formal port of entry along the Canada-U.S. border are turned around and are often held in U.S. immigration detention. Last month, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the contested agreement after a lower court ruled the pact violated asylum-seekers’ fundamental rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nduwimana aimed to avoid being turned back under the STCA, only to be turned back under the new policy. Canadian border officers handed him to U.S. authorities, who, he says, brought him to the immigration detention center at Batavia, New York.

According to his lawyers, U.S. authorities tried multiple times to deport him to Burundi, to which Canada has deferred deportations for reasons of humanitarian crisis.

Nduwimana is not directly affected by this legal action. But his case demonstrates the potential repercussions of this policy, lawyers say.

He was allowed to enter Canada under an exemption to the turn-back policy after being detained for five months. He has now filed a refugee claim.

He was one of nine turned-back asylum-seekers granted a national interest exemption letter by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino. According to the government, seven have come to Canada.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

As Biden winds down Mexico program, many migrants on U.S. border left in limbo

By Mimi Dwyer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden has moved swiftly to start dismantling a cornerstone of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy, a program that sent thousands of asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings.

Biden’s focus on ending the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – under which 65,000 migrants were sent back to Mexico – fulfills a key election campaign promise, but it leaves thousands of migrants not in the program unsure of their fate, migrants, attorneys and activists told Reuters.

Some of those migrants not in the program have been waiting along the U.S.-Mexico border longer than those who were enrolled in MPP after they were caught crossing the border illegally. Now, migrants with active MPP cases are eligible to claim asylum in the United States. The exact number of non-MPP asylum seekers along the border is not clear because there is no single record of them, but advocates say there could be thousands.

The president’s focus on MPP is not surprising – it was one of Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, and Biden denounced it on the campaign trail.

Trump said the program aimed to curb the release of thousands of migrants who had entered the United States to claim asylum. But migrant groups said many of those people were forced to live in squalor in Mexico and were vulnerable to violence, including kidnappings and extortion.

In the rush to get rid of the program, attorneys and activists say one unintended effect is that non-MPP asylum seekers who have spent months and even years at the border have been left in limbo. Advocates are now pressing the U.S. government to allow these asylum seekers entry into the United States to make their claims.

The issue highlights the challenges facing the Biden administration as it seeks to reform immigration policies, while also emphasizing that not everyone who comes to the border will be granted asylum.

Republicans and critics have coalesced around the message that Biden has implemented an open-border policy. Biden officials, however, are discouraging migrants from making their way to the United States, stating that the majority of people who arrive will be turned away.

The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which said in a statement that the “system to process individuals with active MPP cases is the first phase of a program to restore safe and orderly processing at the southwest border.”

It declined to elaborate on when or if asylum seekers without active MPP cases would be allowed to claim asylum in the United States.

‘THE LIST’

Angeles, a Nicaraguan mother of two who asked that Reuters use her middle name for her safety, is one of the asylum seekers not in MPP.

She has been waiting with her family in the Mexican city of Tijuana for 15 months after fleeing her country for political persecution.

Afraid of kidnappings, the family rarely goes outside their home and struggles to buy basic necessities like food. Her husband works as a mechanic in exchange for a room for his family. Angeles’ children, aged 15 and 7, are not in school, and her eldest son is sleeping poorly.

Despite her family’s difficult situation, Angeles says she wants to enter the United States legally. In November 2019, she added her family to “La Lista,” – The List – an informal, handwritten book maintained by migrants on the Mexican side of the border. Administrators recorded the names of thousands of migrants and gave them numbers as they waited their turn to make asylum claims to U.S. officials.

She and her family got two numbers – 4,465 and 4,466 – on two scraps of paper. For more than a year, that has been their only clue about when they could enter the country.

La Lista was borne out of another policy embraced by Trump called “metering,” which limited how many migrants could seek asylum each day at U.S. ports of entry. The Strauss Center, a University of Texas research organization, estimates that 9,600 people were on La Lista in Tijuana alone up until it closed in March 2020, though it is not clear how many of those people are still at the border.

But Angeles’ family never got called. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States sealed the southern border to the vast majority of asylum seekers. Angeles doesn’t know whether her family’s numbers mean anything anymore.

“I just want an answer, for them to tell me, ‘Look, come present yourself on this day,’ even if they interviewed me and gave me a number and told me to come back,” Angeles said. “But I have nothing.”

“There’s basically almost no access to asylum for people who are not in the MPP program,” said Ginger Cline, a lawyer who represents migrants in Tijuana with Al Otro Lado, an immigration nonprofit group. “It’s an issue because there are now thousands of people who are waiting in dangerous border cities who don’t have access to basic needs.”

BLACK MIGRANTS FACE UNCERTAINTY

Tijuana also has a large population of Haitian migrants as well as migrants who traveled from Africa. They are particularly vulnerable to extortion and racism, migrants and advocates say. They, too, have been left in limbo as MPP was mostly limited to Spanish-speaking asylum seekers.

“The situation is really difficult for those of African descent,” said Katerine Giron, an organizer with Espacio Migrante, a migrant community organization in Tijuana.

The Biden administration “has not done anything for Black immigrants except continuing the cruel and inhumane system that existed before Trump but heightened under Trump,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an activist group which provides humanitarian assistance to migrants along the border and in the United States.

The group estimates there are about 5,000 Black immigrants in Tijuana, and 10,000-15,000 border-wide.

The White House and DHS did not respond to questions about how its approach to unwinding MPP is affecting Black migrants.

In the absence of clarity from the U.S. government, hundreds of asylum seekers have begun camping near the port of entry in Tijuana, hoping to make their asylum claims.

The camp has swelled to about 1,500 people since mid-February, said Alex Mensing, a Tijuana-based immigration advocate with Innovation Law Lab who is part of a coalition that has been trying to help migrants coming to the port of entry.

The expansion of the camp comes as U.S. officials have declared that the swift processing of MPP claimants has allowed Mexico to close the sprawling Matamoros camp on the border that was the most visible symbol of Trump’s crackdown on migration from Central America.

Mensing’s group had counted 241 tents at the port as of Tuesday. Many people camping out do not have active MPP cases but have spent more than a year at the border.

“There’s almost universally this idea that it doesn’t make sense to let some asylum seekers in and not others,” Mensing said. “They do not see that as fair.”

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer; editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)

First asylum-seekers from Mexico’s Matamoros border camp enter U.S.

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. officials on Thursday brought a first group of people from the Matamoros migrant camp at Mexico’s border with Texas into the United States, where they will be allowed to carry out their asylum applications, migrant rights organizations said.

Some camp residents have lived there for more than a year under former President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings.

President Joe Biden’s administration has said a new process will gradually allow thousands of MPP asylum seekers to await courts’ decisions within the United States, and some migrants last week were permitted to cross into San Ysidro, California.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 27 migrants crossed the bridge from Matamoros into Texas on Thursday morning.

Francisco Gallardo, who runs a migrant shelter in Matamoros and provides humanitarian aid at the camp, welcomed the news but said the transfer of asylum-seekers to the United States should have come sooner.

“It’s good that they are doing it, but unfortunately coming late,” he said.

Freezing temperatures at the U.S.-Mexico border had made the Matamoros camp a priority, the Department of Homeland Security said on Wednesday.

Mexico’s migration institute did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.S. begins admitting asylum seekers blocked by Trump, with thousands more waiting

By Mimi Dwyer and Ted Hesson

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Reuters) – The United States will on Friday begin rolling back one of former President Donald Trump’s strictest immigration policies, allowing in the first of thousands of asylum seekers who have been forced to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard.

President Joe Biden pledged while campaigning to immediately rescind the Trump policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Under the program more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers were denied entry and sent back across the border pending court hearings. Most returned home but some stayed in Mexico in sometimes squalid or dangerous conditions, vulnerable to kidnapping and other violence.

Now they will be allowed into the United States to wait for their applications to be heard in immigration courts. The effort will start slowly, with only limited numbers of people being admitted on Friday at the port of entry in San Ysidro, California.

It will expand to two additional ports of entry in Texas, including one near a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, in the coming week, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman.

The administration estimates that only 25,000 people out of the more than 65,000 enrolled in MPP still have active immigration court cases and is set to begin processing that group on Friday. But it has cautioned that the efforts will take time.

Biden officials say they expect eventually to process 300 people per day at two of the ports.

The Biden administration is treading carefully, wary that the policy shift could encourage more migrants to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials say anyone who seeks to enter and is not a member of the MPP program will be immediately expelled.

A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Biden on Feb. 10 that said allowing MPP migrants to enter the United States “sends the signal that our borders are open.”

The United States, Mexico and international organizations have scrambled in recent days to figure out how to register migrants online and by phone, transport them to the border, test them for COVID-19 and get them to their destinations in the United States, people familiar with the effort said.

The fast-moving process and lack of information from U.S. officials has frustrated some advocates eager to assist the effort.

The situation has taken on urgency as a winter storm has brought frigid temperatures to much of the southern United States and northern Mexico.

Migrants in the sprawling Matamoros encampment have reported children and families struggling to stay warm in makeshift tents lacking insulation or other protection from the cold. The camp has grown in recent weeks as migrants anticipate the end of the MPP program, but DHS has said that processing will not begin there until Feb. 22.

On Thursday, Honduran asylum seeker Antonia Maldonado served hot chocolate from a steaming pot on a stove made from the inside of a washing machine to other asylum seekers in Matamoros shivering in the near freezing weather.

She has been taking goodbye photographs and making plans to leave with her partner, Disón Valladares, a fellow asylum seeker she met on the journey to Matamoros.

“He wants me to go first, and I want him to go first,” she said. They are hopeful that once they enter the United States they will be able to marry.

Those seeking asylum may not have their cases resolved for years due to COVID-related immigration court closures and existing backlogs, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council.

The delay would give the Biden administration time to reverse some Trump policies that sought to make it harder to obtain asylum, he said.

In the meantime, migrants will be released to the United States and enrolled in so-called “alternatives to detention” while awaiting their hearings, a U.S. official said last week. Such programs can include check-ins with immigration authorities as well as ankle bracelet monitoring.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles, Ted Hesson in Washington and Laura Gottesdiener in Matamoros, Mexico; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. continues plan to keep Central American migrants at bay

By Laura Gottesdiener, Frank Jack Daniel and Ted Hesson

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (Reuters) – ​In the days before U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Mexican soldiers patrolling the banks of the wide Suchiate River found few migrants amid the flow of trade across the water from Guatemala.

The likely explanation lay hundreds of miles to the south, where baton-wielding Guatemalan security forces beat back one the largest U.S.-bound migrant caravans ever assembled, according to a Reuters photographer and other witnesses.

“We’re scared,” Honduran migrant Rosa Alvarez told a reporter by telephone as she fled with many others toward the nearby hills, two young children in tow.

The operation was part of a U.S.-led effort, pursued by past American administrations and accelerated under former President Donald Trump, to pressure first the Mexican and then the Central American governments to halt migration well short of the U.S. border.

Under the Biden administration, the same general strategy is likely to continue, at least for the near term, according to six U.S. and Mexican sources with knowledge of diplomatic discussions.

Biden has been gradually unraveling many Trump-era immigration policies. Yet the new administration has encouraged Mexico and Guatemala to keep up border enforcement in their countries to stem northward migration, according to two Mexican officials and a U.S official, all speaking on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats and experts at immigration think tanks told Reuters that it would be politically expedient for the Biden administration to keep asylum seekers and other migrants from trekking en masse to the country’s southern border, especially as Mexico and the United States are being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and seeking to contain its spread.

They also said any rush to the U.S border could hand Biden’s political opponents ammunition to sink the rest of his immigration agenda, which includes providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States and reducing asylum application backlogs.

The Biden administration has not specifically endorsed militarized action, however, and has vowed to treat migrants with dignity.

“They want the relevant countries to have appropriate border controls,” said one former U.S. official familiar with the matter, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “It doesn’t mean that they hold everyone back and beat back migrants. That’s not the objective here.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment, referring Reuters to recent public remarks by Roberta Jacobson, a special assistant to the president specializing on the southwest border.

Jacobson told reporters on a recent call that the administration had not talked with Mexico specifically about how it deploys its security forces on its own soil. She added, however, that the two countries’ diplomats, as well as Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had spoken about the need to jointly work on managing migration. She stressed the importance of addressing its root causes such as poverty and corruption.

Two other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, the president’s lead adviser on Latin American policy, recently underscored U.S. support for immigration enforcement well south of the U.S. border.

“I need to recognize here the work that (Guatemalan) President (Alejandro) Giammattei has done in managing the migration flows when the caravans started out,” Gonzalez told the El Salvadoran investigative website El Faro after the January crackdown.

The Mexican government has informed the new U.S. administration that it intends to keep current immigration enforcement measures in place because it is in Mexico’s sovereign interest to secure its own borders, one senior Mexican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden already faces pressure from leading Republican lawmakers who accuse his administration of undermining immigration enforcement.

The new administration has “sketched out a massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor after Biden’s first day in office.

Biden officials have repeatedly pleaded with asylum seekers not to migrate now, stressing that the administration needs time to enact its domestic immigration changes.

At the same time, human rights advocates say leaning on Mexico and Central America to halt mass migration violates people’s rights to seek asylum. It also potentially subjects them to further violence and abuse on their journeys north, they say.

“We’ve seen time and time again that militarized approaches don’t really stop people from leaving,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, an organization dedicated to influencing U.S. policy.

‘REGIONAL CONTAINMENT’

About 8,000 people, including many women and children, joined January’s migrant caravan shortly before Biden’s inauguration, aiming to arrive in the United States after he took office.

The Trump administration had all but locked down the U.S. southern border and forced some asylum applicants to wait for months in Mexico. It also had prodded Mexican and Central American governments, largely through threats, to confront migrant caravans.

For instance, Mexico in 2019 deployed 20,000 National Guard and soldiers to police its borders to stave off Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Mexican goods.

Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras coordinated a regional containment strategy ahead of the January caravan, Martin Alonso Borrego, director of Latin America and the Caribbean for Mexico’s foreign ministry, told Reuters.

After a Jan. 11 meeting among the countries, Guatemala declared emergency powers in nearly a third of its states and deployed up to 4,000 soldiers, police officers and air force personnel.

As Biden’s inauguration approached, rumors that a large migrant group was forming in Honduras prompted Mexico to beef up its military presence at its own southern border and send buses to Guatemala to aid in the return of caravan members.

The crackdown in mid-January provided some respite to Mexican troops on the Suchiate River. It also inspired fear among migrants.

Honduran migrant Alvarez and her family spent days in Guatemala’s hills trying to make their way toward the Mexican border. “We’re without money and food,” she said, before Reuters lost touch with her.

In the mid-January confrontation in Guatemala, the Reuters photographer and other witnesses saw a wall of security forces confront hundreds of migrants, beating some and deploying tear gas. Some migrants threw rocks. Guatemalan immigration authorities reported an unspecified number of injuries.

Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas said “it was outrageous to see the scenes of how the military brutally received our Honduran brothers and sisters.”

Immigration experts and people familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking say Washington may try to exercise more oversight down the line over how Mexican and Central American authorities conduct border containment operations.

Proponents of greater U.S. immigration control say it would be a mistake to pull back on the Trump-era pressure.

“It’s not clear how effectively Guatemala and Mexico can block them, especially if the numbers get bigger and especially if they are not pressured to do so by Biden,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

(Laura Gottesdiener reported from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, and Mexico City; Frank Jack Daniel from Mexico City, and Ted Hesson from Washington, D.C. Additional reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Guatemala; Sofía Menchu in Guatemala City, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles. Editing by Julie Marquis)

Mexico’s president disputes rights concerns over trapped asylum seekers

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador brushed away concerns on Friday about the living conditions of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a U.S. program that President Joe Biden is scrambling to unravel.

Humanitarian organizations have documented cases of attacks, extortion, kidnapping, and sexual violence against those in the program. Most are from Central America and many live in shelters and cramped apartments in dangerous border towns or in a squalid tent city in Mexico’s far northeast.

Lopez Obrador disputed the accounts, saying he had “other data” and that his government would release a report on the migrants next week.

“We have been taking care of the migrants and we have been careful that their human rights are not affected,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.

“…It’s nothing like it was before, when they were kidnapped and disappeared. We have been attentive and we have protected them.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under Biden’s new administration, said on Wednesday it would end all new enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which since 2019 has forced more than 65,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings, sometimes for months or even years.

The announcement did not specify what will happen to the tens of thousands currently waiting in Mexico under the program, saying only that they “should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. consulate warns employees as gun battles rock Mexican border city

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States consulate in Mexico’s border city of Nuevo Laredo issued a security alert on Wednesday, warning against gun battles and urging government employees to take precautions.

Gun battles have killed at least three people this week in the northern city bordering the Texas city of Laredo, media have said. It one of the Mexican cities where the U.S. government has sent asylum seekers to wait as their cases are decided.

“The consulate has received reports of multiple gunfights throughout the city of Nuevo Laredo,” it said in a Twitter post. “U.S. government personnel are advised to shelter in place.”

On Twitter, users purportedly from Laredo reported hearing gunfire ringing out from the neighboring Mexican city.

In a Twitter post late on Wednesday, Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, the governor of Tamaulipas, the state home to Nuevo Laredo, blamed the attacks on its Cartel of the Northeast.

“After the cowardly attacks on the part of the Cartel of the Northeast in Nuevo Laredo, the (government of Tamaulipas) will not let down its guard and will continue acting with strength against criminals,” he wrote.

Tension over the cartels intensified in November when suspected cartel members massacred three women and six children of U.S.-Mexican origin in northern Mexico.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to designate the groups as terrorist organizations in response to a series of bloody security breaches triggered by cartel gunmen.

(Reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala preferring to return to home countries

U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala preferring to return to home countries
By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala under a new Trump administration program have mostly preferred to return to their country of origin instead of staying in the Central American nation, Guatemala’s Interior Minister said on Thursday.

The new effort began after the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump brokered an agreement with the Guatemalan government in July. The deal will allow U.S. immigration officials to force migrants requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border to apply for asylum in Guatemala first.

The program initially will be applied at a U.S. Border Patrol station in El Paso, Texas. The first phase will target adults from Honduras and El Salvador.

Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said that a total of 24 people have been sent to Guatemala under the program.

Of those “only two have requested asylum (in Guatemala),” Degenhart said during a visit by Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

While the asylum agreement with Guatemala will start slowly, the Trump administration intends to make few exceptions. Federal immigration officials have been instructed not to apply the program to unaccompanied children, migrants with valid U.S. travel documents, or cases of public interest, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials and documents.

“For those in the region who may be weighing the option of taking the dangerous journey north, I’d strongly urge you against it,” said Wolf, in prepared remarks. “Simply requesting asylum at the Southwest border no longer guarantees release into the interior like it once did. We have ended catch and release,” Wolf added.

(Reporting by Sofia Menhu; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Sandra Maler)

U.S. agents at Guatemala checkpoints see holes in border security

U.S. agents at Guatemala checkpoints see holes in border security
By Sofia Menchu

EL PROGRESO, Guatemala (Reuters) – At a highway checkpoint in central Guatemala, 10 U.S. officers in caps and sunglasses and packing concealed weapons watched as local border agents flagged down vehicles, inspected documents and prepared to fingerprint any undocumented migrants.

On a recent visit, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents observed from a few feet as Guatemalans stopped all vehicles carrying more than five people.

The U.S. training mission for Guatemalan security forces, which includes instruction in using biometric devices, stems from the first of two accords aimed at making the Central American country halt flows of asylum-seekers heading north.

“The operations are being carried out at strategic points,” said Keneth Morales, a Guatemalan agent. “We have detected migratory flows and illegal traffic.”

However, U.S. agents taking part in the program told Reuters they found shortcomings in their counterparts from the country’s Division of Ports, Airports and Border Posts (Dipafront).

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the agents said many of the Guatemalan officials were unaware of their own immigration laws or lacked basic knowledge about detention techniques, weapons handling and interrogation of undocumented immigrants.

At another checkpoint in Chiquimula, near the border with El Salvador, “people ask us if we are from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) … nobody has explained to them what we are doing here,” said one U.S. official.

The training program aims to instruct an expected 200 Guatemalan police in performing stricter border checks for suspected people-smugglers and in handling detentions and repatriations.

TRAINING MISSION

U.S. agents are also training police and anti-narcotics agents in first aid, among other courses.

The U.S. Department Of Homeland Security did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the U.S. trainers’ observations.

Rights groups have argued in recent months that Guatemala, and its neighbors El Salvador and Honduras do not have the institutional capacity to carry out enforcement and asylum work demanded by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The May security deal, which is initially for two years, was followed by a July agreement to take in more asylum seekers. Honduras and El Salvador later struck similar asylum accords.

The three troubled countries send the highest number of migrants north seeking asylum in the United States, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Enforcement. Asylum applications at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a decade-long high in 2018, according to U.S. government data.

Under U.S. supervision, Dipafront officers have installed checkpoints along roads that were last year traveled by thousands of Central American migrants in caravans.

Trump repeatedly lashed out at the caravans and earlier this year, the U.S. government cut aid to Central America after he said the region needed to do more to stop citizens leaving.

Pablo Castillo, a spokesman for Guatemala’s national police, said the agents’ comments presented a “false impression” of Guatemalan officers and put down the U.S. interpretation to differences in procedures and training methods between the two countries.

Still, Castillo conceded that Guatemala could improve the scope of its weapons training and better equip the police.

Luis Enrique Arevalo, Guatemala’s deputy security minister, also pushed back against the criticism, saying officers received thorough training at the national police college.

“No national police leave the academy without being able to handle techniques of arrest and firearms well,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; additional reporting and writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

An ever-expanding job for border agents: sensitive decisions on migrants’ fates

FILE PHOTO: Men are crowded in a room at a Border Patrol station in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, U.S. on June 10, 2019 and released as part of a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General on July 2, 2019. Picture pixelated at source. Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – In a U.S. border patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, labels on holding cells indicate whether migrants have been selected – “yes” or “no” – for a new Trump administration program that sends asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

Democratic Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, who saw the signs on Monday during a tour of the station, said a cell labeled yes was filled; there was nobody in a cell labeled no.

Such determinations, highly important in the lives of migrants who may face violence across the border, are made on a daily basis by frontline uniformed officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

Under new Trump administration policies, CBP officers increasingly are tasked with making sensitive decisions about the fate of migrants even as they struggle with the pressures of increased arrivals and heightened – and sometimes highly critical – public scrutiny.

Tensions boiled over this week, as visiting legislators including Barragan and U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly denounced the conditions and practices in Texas border patrol detention facilities.

“I have never been a supporter of having CBP agents be the judge and jury for these migrants,” Barragan said in an interview, referring to the decisions on who will wait in Mexico under the new Trump administration policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). “The same people are apprehending them and judging whether they are eligible for a program.”

Adding to critics’ concerns about officers’ sensitivity, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported Monday (https://www.propublica.org/article/secret-border-patrol-facebook-group-agents-joke-about-migrant-deaths-post-sexist-memes) that a private Facebook group for current and former officers mocked migrant deaths and posted other derogatory comments.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, ordered an investigation into the group and said the social media activity was “disturbing & inexcusable.”

Some former CPB officials questioned the weight of responsibility placed on employees’ shoulders amid a growing crisis at the southwest border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former policy advisor in CBP’s office of the commissioner said CBP officers and border agents are primarily law enforcement personnel. “Why are we asking border patrol to do more?” she said, adding that the strains on the agency are lowering morale. “This is not what they signed up for.”

Border apprehensions topped 132,000 in May, their highest levels in more than a decade, but declined last month as Mexico cracks down people heading north through their country.

Changing demographics are stretching resources. Instead of mostly single Mexican men trying to evade capture, officers are increasingly dealing with a surging number of Central American families – many with very young children – turning themselves in to seek asylum in the United States.

CBP said in a statement that the El Paso sector, where lawmakers visited this week, has seen a massive increase in apprehensions and that facilities there “were not designed for long-term holding.” Officers are facing “critical challenges” moving migrants out of border patrol custody quickly, the agency said.

Some Border Patrol officers complain their duties increasingly fall outside the bounds of their training – like tending to sick children and adults in their custody.

“People are coming in unvaccinated, there are outbreaks of mumps, flu, measles, we have had flesh-eating bacteria, all these various strains of diseases,” which is putting agents themselves at risk, said Joshua Wilson, a spokesman for the San Diego border patrol union.

HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS

In late January, the Trump administration began implementing the controversial MPP program in which asylum applicants can be forced to wait for their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

As of the end of June, 16,714 migrants had been sent back to Mexico under the MPP program according to Mexican government data, often to border cities where crime rates are high and local officials say they don’t have the capacity to handle the influx. The program is expected to be extended across the entire southwest border.

Unaccompanied minors, Mexicans and people with known physical or mental health issues are supposed to be exempt. Migrants who express fear of staying in Mexico are referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer who decides if they can be taken out of the program and allowed to wait in the United States. But many do not know they can make such a claim and success is rare

Some border patrol officers also are beginning to have increased authority in a separate, high-stakes decision-making process for asylum seekers.

Migrants who are allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum claims are supposed to first go through a “credible fear” screening process, to determine whether their concerns about threats in their home countries are believable.

Typically that interview is conducted by specially trained USCIS asylum officers. If they pass, they can go on to fight their case in U.S. immigration court.

Under a new pilot program, 35 U.S. border patrol officers have been trained to conduct those “credible fear” interviews as well, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of USCIS told reporters last week. He said early signs from the pilot were “positive” and that officers who have conducted the interviews – under the supervision of senior asylum officers – were handling them “capably.”

Cuccinelli said the credible fear training the officers were receiving was more extensive and thorough than any other training border patrol officers have received in their careers, including active shooter drills.

Still, it adds to the crush of other duties agents and officers handle.

“Right now we are at a critical breaking point,” said Wilson from the border patrol union.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)