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)

U.S. ramps up returns of asylum seekers to Mexico, adding Cubans

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Cuba are seen on the banks of the Rio Bravo river as they cross illegally into the United States to turn themselves in to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay

EL PASO, TEXAS/TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – The United States is more than doubling the number of asylum seekers it returns to Mexico in one city and adding groups like Cubans as it rapidly expands a policy to make migrants wait out claims south of the border, Mexican and U.S. officials said.

The policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), is being applied to all Spanish-speaking asylum seekers, other than Mexicans, at three U.S.-Mexico border crossings, said a U.S. government official familiar with the program, who asked not to be named.

The Trump administration plans to expand the program, which faces court challenges, across the border to act as a deterrent to frivolous asylum claims during a surge in Central American migrant families.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said the administration was considering building temporary immigration courts along the border to process MPP returnees.

The MPP expansion follows Mexico’s agreement earlier this month to receive thousands more migrants under the program.

As of June 19, according to Mexican officials, 13,987 people had been returned to Mexico under MPP.

In its first months, the policy primarily applied to Central American migrants, but as of Monday the United States began applying it to Spanish speakers more broadly, including Cubans, said Rogelio Pinal, a municipal official in Juarez, Mexico.

Cubans, a political force in U.S. election swing state Florida, have a history of being welcomed in the United States.

Pinal said his office was told returns from El Paso to Juarez would increase to 500 per day from around 200.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the government was “actively pursuing expansion plans across the board to include all individuals unless specifically exempted,” in MPP returns.

The U.S. official said MPP would be expanded to cities in Arizona and south Texas. Mexican official confirmed new locations would include Brownsville.

Migrant advocates have raised concerns that asylum seekers have little access to legal counsel and are vulnerable in Mexican border cities, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Ruben Garcia, who runs El Paso’s largest migrant shelter, said there had been a sharp fall in the number of migrants released into the United States by U.S. authorities.

Garcia said reduced migration during summer heat played a role, but tighter immigration enforcement in Mexico and the MPP program were driving forces in the drop to around 125 releases per day from up to 700 three weeks ago.

(Reportting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Mexico says no unlimited asylum, Trump confirms safe third country plan

Asylum seekers pass the time in a makeshift tent camp near the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge where they wait in hopes of soon being granted entry into the U.S. in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott - RC1B49E881D0

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico has not accepted that the United States send it an unlimited number of asylum seekers, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said, ahead of meetings with U.S. officials on Friday to determine the expansion of a controversial program.

Under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexico agreed last week to expand the program, which forces mostly Central American asylum seekers to return to Mexico to await the outcome of their U.S. asylum claims.

Ebrard said officials would discuss which cities the program, known as Remain in Mexico, would expand to, as well as how to measure the number of people and which nationalities Mexico would accept.

Currently the program operates in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ciudad Juarez. Close to 12,000 people have been returned to Mexico since January.

In the deal reached a week ago, Mexico also agreed to a plan that could make it a “safe third country” in which asylum seekers would have to seek refuge instead of in the United States, if Mexico does not bring down immigration flows within 45 days through enforcement measures.

Trump on Friday confirmed that the deal struck in return for not imposing threatened tariffs on Mexico included a plan for safe third country.

Asked in a Fox News interview if the plan included the option if Mexico cannot stem the flow of Central American migrants headed for the United States, Trump said “It’s exactly right, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City and Makini Brice and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Susan Thomas)

Trump says U.S. likely to go ahead with tariffs on Mexico over immigration

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (not pictured) in Downing Street, as part of Trump's state visit in London, Britain, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/Pool

By Steve Holland and Dave Graham

LONDON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he would probably order new tariffs on all Mexican goods imported to the United States next week despite a diplomatic push to avoid the levies, citing high flows of migrants entering the United States from Mexico.

Trump said last week Mexican goods would pay new tariffs beginning June 10 if Mexico did not halt a surge in the U.S-bound immigrants, mostly from Central America.

Mexico was preparing a proposal on immigration to present to U.S. officials at a meeting in Washington on Wednesday but Trump said the talks might not be enough.

“We’re going to see if we can do something, but I think it’s more likely that the tariffs go on,” Trump said at a news conference in London, describing large flows of migrants into America as an “invasion.”

“Mexico should step up and stop this onslaught, this invasion into our country,” Trump said, also calling on the U.S. Congress to pass immigration laws to address the situation and blaming Democrats for stalling any such effort.

Asked to comment on Trump’s remarks, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told his regular morning news conference he was optimistic that a deal could be reached.

“The most important thing now is to reach an agreement,” Lopez Obrador said, indicating that he would continue to negotiate even if Trump did go ahead with the tariffs.

Before Trump spoke, Lopez Obrador told the two-hour news conference he expected Mexico to reach a deal with the United States over immigration ahead of the June 10 deadline.

“There are signs that it matters to the U.S. officials that there’s a deal,” he told his regular morning news conference.

The inflow of migrants, many asylum seekers escaping criminal violence in Central America, have long sparked Trump’s ire and helped fuel his successful bid for White House amid a campaign promise that he would make Mexico pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border. Efforts to get Mexico or U.S. lawmakers in Congress to fund the barrier have failed.

Trump’s tariff threat last week was aimed at pressuring Mexico, but it also spooked global markets and put a joint trade pact between the two countries and Canada further in doubt.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, Mexico is now detaining double the number of migrants per day than a year ago, and three times as many as in January, when Lopez Obrador’s new government opted instead to give visas to Central Americans, hoping they would stay in Mexico.

Instead, most of them made their way to the border, contributing to the recent surge. Under pressure from the United States, the Mexican government changed strategy, and in May detentions surged past 20,000.

Lawmakers from Trump’s Republican Party have begun discussing whether they may have to vote to block the tariffs, according to a report by the Washington Post that cited people familiar with talks in Congress.

Trump said that sort of congressional action was unlikely. “I think if they do, it’s foolish.”  

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, in Washington for the talks with U.S. officials, said he hoped Wednesday’s meeting could be a starting point for negotiations. Mexican lawmakers and private sector officials will also be visiting Washington this week to press Mexico’s case, he added.

Mexican officials on Monday vowed to reject a U.S. idea to take in all Central American asylum seekers if it was raised at talks this week with the Trump administration.

“We’re going to find common ground, I think,” Ebrard said at a news conference.

(Reporting by Steve Holland In London and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Makini Brice in Washington and by Stefanie Eschenbacher in Mexico City; Writing by Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell)

New Mexico counties revolt against migrant releases

FILE PHOTO: New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., March 5, 2019. Picture taken March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC1FD8531B60/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Two more New Mexico counties have declared their opposition to taking in migrants in a growing revolt against federal authorities dropping off a surge in Central American families in the state’s rural, southern communities.

The record influx of asylum seekers has overwhelmed border detention facilities and shelters, forcing U.S. immigration authorities to bus migrants to nearby cities and even fly them to California.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, has received over 6,000 migrants since April 12. Deming, population 14,183, gets 300 to 500 a day, according to City Administrator Aaron Sera.

Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of a border security crisis and advocated a humanitarian response. She is in Washington seeking federal funds to reimburse cities that give support.

But some New Mexico counties say they want nothing to do with sheltering migrants, with officials saying the governor’s approach may worsen the border crisis.

Sierra County, population 11,116, was one of two Republican-controlled New Mexico counties to pass resolutions on Tuesday evening opposing the relocation of migrants to their communities.

Sierra County also called on Trump to close the border to immigration to end the crisis.

“We have to take care of our veterans, our seniors, our residents, first and foremost,” said County Manager Bruce Swingle. “We’re a very impoverished county.”

Sierra County has a median annual household income of $29,690 and a 21 percent poverty rate, according to Data USA.

‘FEEDING PIGEONS’

To the east, Lincoln County passed a resolution that it was not prepared to spend taxpayer dollars on housing “illegal immigrants,” said Commissioner Tom Stewart.

“We have a tight budget and need to focus on a new hospital that we are building,” Stewart said. “As long as we continue to extend citizen benefits to unregistered aliens the flows will continue.”

The moves followed a similar May 2 resolution by neighboring Otero County.

County Commission Chairman Couy Griffin said sheltering migrants sent the wrong message to other Central Americans thinking of leaving their homes and would deepen the border crisis.

“If you begin to feed pigeons in the parking lot, pretty soon you have every pigeon in town,” Griffin said.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said there was no evidence humanitarian aid encouraged people to leave their homes.

“They are moving because they have no other choice and its frankly un-American to suggest we close our doors to people in need,” he said.

The border situation is taking a tragic toll on the migrants themselves. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees unaccompanied child migrants, said a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in its custody in September, bringing to six the number of children who have died in U.S. custody, or shortly after release, in the last eight months.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Appeals court allows U.S. to keep sending asylum seekers to Mexico

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows a temporary facility for processing migrants requesting asylum, at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in El Paso, Texas, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the Trump administration may continue sending asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico while the government appeals a lower court ruling that found the policy violated U.S. immigration law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found that a preliminary injunction barring the government from returning asylum seekers to Mexico was “unlikely to be sustained” on appeal in its present form and stayed the lower court ruling.

The Department of Homeland Security “is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a stay because the preliminary injunction takes off the table one of the few congressionally authorized measures available to process the approximately 2,000 migrants who are currently arriving at the nation’s southern border on a daily basis,” the judges said in issuing the stay.

While asylum seekers may fear substantial injury upon being returned to Mexico, the judges said, “the likelihood of harm is reduced somewhat by the Mexican government’s commitment to honor its international law obligations and to grant humanitarian status and work permits to individuals returned.”

The U.S. government was appealing an order by a U.S. District Court in early April that enjoined the policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

The program, launched in January, was one of many policies aimed at slowing rising numbers of immigrants arriving at the border, many of them families from Central America, that has swelled to the highest in a decade.

Since the policy went into effect on Jan. 29, through May 1 more than 3,000 Central Americans have been sent back to Mexico, according to Mexican officials.

The government argues that the MPP is needed because so many asylum seekers spend years living in the United States and never appear for their court hearings before their claim is denied and an immigration judge orders them to be deported.

Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, criticized the ruling. “Asylum seekers are being put at serious risk of harm every day that the forced return policy continues,” he said.

Jadwat noted that two of the three judges who heard the appeal found “serious legal problems with what the government is doing, so there is good reason to believe that ultimately this policy will be put to a halt.”

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by G Crosse and Leslie Adler)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

Trump administration seeks emergency court order to continue asylum policy

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers exit the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The Trump administration rushed to save its program of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico by filing an emergency motion with a U.S. Court of Appeals, asking it to block an injunction that is set to shut down the policy on Friday afternoon.

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco the United States faced “a humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and needed immediate intervention to deal with the surging number of refugees.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled the policy was contrary to U.S. immigration law. He issued a nationwide injunction blocking the program and ordered it to take effect at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT).

Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that brought the case, said the stay should be denied to prevent irreparable harm to asylum seekers who could be unlawfully forced to return to Mexico.

Since January, the administration has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to wait the months or years it can take to process claims through an overloaded immigration system.

Seeborg’s ruling also ordered the 11 plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to be brought back to the United States.

Although it is appealing and the lower court order had yet to take effect, Reuters reporters confirmed that the Trump administration was allowing some asylum seekers from Mexico to return to the United States.

President Donald Trump has bristled at limits on his administration’s ability to detain asylum seekers while they fight deportation, and the administration was in the midst of expanding the program when Seeborg blocked it.

The government’s filing on Thursday night with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for two stays: a brief administrative stay, which would remain in place until the parties had argued the issue of a longer stay that would block the injunction during the months-long appeals process.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said there did not appear to be any justification for the request for the administrative stay since asylum seekers were already returning to the United States.

“There’s no urgency,” she said. “They are already complying with the court order.”

The 9th Circuit Court has been a frequent target for Trump’s criticisms of the judicial system, which has blocked his immigration policies on numerous occasions.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Tom Brown)

Trump seen leaning hard on new Homeland Security chief over border

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan speaks about the impact of the dramatic increase in illegal crossings that continue to occur along the Southwest during a news conference, in El Paso, Texas March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new acting chief of Homeland Security will be under pressure to implement legally dubious solutions to an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border – policies that his predecessor either could not, or would not, deliver.

Kevin McAleenan, presently commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will be the fourth person to helm the agency under Trump. He takes over as U.S. border officials estimated that 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border in March, the highest level in a decade.

The president, who made immigration a key campaign theme, has grown increasingly frustrated with his officials, even as they have implemented aggressive policies to limit immigration.

Immigration experts say Trump lately has called for policies that would violate U.S. laws, international agreements and court settlements or require U.S. Congress to pass major legislation.

On Friday, he called for Congress to “get rid of the whole asylum system” and get rid of immigration judges, and criticized a long-standing federal court decree mandating certain standards of care for migrant children.

A congressional official familiar with the matter said some in Congress believe Trump forced out Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned as secretary on Sunday, in part because she was trying to obey laws on treatment of refugees, granting of amnesty and separation of families.

A source close to Nielsen said Trump was convinced to oust her by his senior aide Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner.

Nielsen did not respond to a request for comment.

It was not immediately clear what strategies McAleenan could implement to achieve Trump’s objective of limiting migrant crossings at the southern border, especially as they are expected to reach their yearly peak in the coming months, experts said.

A U.S. judge on Monday halted the administration’s policy of sending some asylum seekers back across the border to wait out their cases in Mexico, a policy it said last week it planned to expand. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

“So much of what the president put out there isn’t really legally feasible,” said Sarah Pierce, an immigration policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. “I, like many, and maybe Nielsen herself are kind of puzzled as to what could happen.”

A CBP spokesman declined to comment and directed questions to the White House.

McAleenan follows Nielsen and Elaine Duke, who led the DHS on an acting basis after John Kelly, Trump’s first DHS secretary, became White House chief of staff in 2017. Trump took office in January that year.

‘ZERO TOLERANCE’

Nielsen oversaw a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that led to the separation of thousands of parents and children, and launched a policy to return asylum seekers to Mexico until their claims are heard. Both policies garnered legal challenges, and both required extensive implementation by McAleenan and his agency.

Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Democratic President Barack Obama, said McAleenan likely will not have much freedom to pursue policies opposed by Trump or Miller.

“Whoever is put in that position in this administration is going to have a very hard time resisting the philosophy of the White House,” Legomsky said.

John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama administration, said the Trump administration’s focus on deterring migrants at the expense of other policies had hamstrung Nielsen and would likely hobble McAleenan.

“There’s nothing we can do that’s worse than what people are facing in Central America,” he said. “If we’re going to work our way through this problem, being tough is not a strategy, it’s a soundbite.”

NOT RADIOACTIVE

White House officials said Trump wanted someone at DHS who would focus on the border as the top priority. McAleenan is seen as having a good relationship with Trump and 20 years of experience, so the president felt he would be a good choice to handle the influx at the border, officials said.

The White House envisions McAleenan working more with Congress, one official said, though the official declined to be specific about policy details.

McAleenan is a rare Trump appointee with cordial relations with Democrats in Congress. After testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December, McAleenan chatted afterward for close to 15 minutes with Senator Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats on the committee.

“He’s not considered to be radioactive,” said a congressional Democratic aide on condition of anonymity.

Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro demanded McAleenan resign in December, after a Guatemalan migrant girl died in federal custody and McAleenan failed to report it to Congress within 24 hours, as required.

On Sunday, he said McAleenan’s appointment as acting secretary was “deeply disturbing.”

Trump further reshuffled the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday by replacing the director of the Secret Service – which does not have immigration responsibilities – with a career agent.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Susan Thomas and Sonya Hepinstall)

First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)