Canadian court rules invalid ‘Safe Third Country’ with the U.S.

By Steve Scherer and Moira Warburton

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) – A Canadian court on Wednesday ruled invalid a pact that compels asylum seekers trying to enter Canada via the American border to seek sanctuary first in the United States, saying their detention there violates their human rights.

Under the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement between the two neighbors, asylum seekers at a formal border crossing traveling in either direction are turned back and told to apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrived.

Lawyers for refugees who had been turned away at the Canadian border challenged the agreement, saying the United States does not qualify as a “safe” country under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Nedira Jemal Mustefa, one of the refugees turned back, described her time in solitary confinement in the United States as “a terrifying, isolating and psychologically traumatic experience,” according to the court ruling.

“We’re all too familiar with the treatment that the U.S. metes out to asylum seekers,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “This case highlights the conditions that people face when Canadian officials turn them around at the U.S. border.”

More than 50,000 people have illegally crossed the Canada-U.S. border to file refugee claims over the past four years, walking over ditches and on empty roads along the world’s longest undefended border.

Canada has sought to stem the human tide of asylum seekers that flowed into the country starting in 2016, after Trump promised to crack down on illegal immigration. Experts have said suspending the agreement would have huge implications for the Canada-U.S. relationship.

Federal court judge Ann Marie McDonald ruled that the agreement was in violation of a section of Canada’s Charter of Rights that says laws or state actions that interfere with life, liberty and security must conform to the principles of fundamental justice.

She suspended her decision for six months to give Parliament a chance to respond to the ruling, which is not final and can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court if necessary.

Canada’s justice ministry and immigration ministry had no immediate comment, nor did officials in the U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Die in detention or at home? U.S. pandemic forces cruel choice on asylum seekers

By Laura Gottesdiener

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – In early June, asylum seeker Jose Munoz decided it was time to flee for his life – by getting deported from a Texas immigration detention center where coronavirus was sweeping through the population and going home to El Salvador.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in the Houston Contract Detention Facility – it has had at least 105, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data – Munoz said he had few ways to protect himself from exposure except for a cloth face mask. On June 1, there were 375 detainees housed in the facility, according ICE data.

Although at 19 he would not normally be at risk from complications from the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Munoz worried his high cholesterol, a comorbidity found in some patients who died, made him vulnerable.

Months earlier, the Salvadoran student had sought asylum in the United States after he says he was attacked for refusing to transport drugs for a gang, which he declined to name, citing concerns for his safety. His lawyer and an affidavit signed by Munoz and reviewed by Reuters were consistent with his account. But by June, he feared his life was hanging in the balance, knowing that the next ruling in his asylum case would be months away if he chose to keep fighting.

“I felt like it was more dangerous than back in my country,” he said in a telephone interview last month from El Salvador.

Reuters spoke to more than 30 lawyers, immigration advocates, detainees and their family members who said the risks of contracting COVID-19 inside detention facilities have driven people to seek deportation.

Fifteen immigration lawyers and advocates, who together say they have received hundreds of requests from detainees seeking to leave facilities in eight U.S. states for health reasons, told Reuters they are seeing increases in the number of people considering abandoning their cases. Reuters found 12 cases of detainees who stopped fighting their cases and instead agreed to deportation or voluntary departure due to the pandemic.

An ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency respects migrants’ rights to make decisions regarding whether to pursue or forego their cases.

Reuters couldn’t determine if the total number of people voluntarily seeking deportation is on the rise.

Samuel Cole, a U.S. immigration judge who spoke to Reuters as communications director for the National Association of Immigration Judges, said he saw an increase in migrants seeking to leave detention in the early months of the pandemic – even if it meant abandoning their cases.

“There were definitely respondents who expressed fear of getting sick in detention and wanted to get out as fear of COVID was sweeping the country,” Cole said.

ACCESS TO MASKS, HAND SANITIZER

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dialed back arrests and released some immigrants on parole, but has come under fire for shifting detainees between facilities during the pandemic, which ICE has said is part of its effort to stem the spread of the virus and to promote social distancing. The agency has also been criticized for deporting more than a hundred infected people to their home countries.

ICE data shows 2,742 people in ICE detention centers, and 45 ICE employees, have tested positive for COVID-19. Two migrants with the disease have died. Thousands of others who could be more vulnerable if they get infected remain in custody, according to ICE data included in a June 24 court filing as part of a class-action lawsuit over medical care in ICE facilities.

The ICE spokeswoman said the agency weighs a person’s criminal record, potential threat to public safety and flight risk, as well as any national security concerns, when evaluating whether to grant discretionary release.

One migrant interviewed for this story tested positive for COVID-19 while in detention at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, according to ICE. A second migrant tested positive on May 14, according to El Rio Health in Arizona, the same day U.S. documents show he was released from ICE custody.

Many of the 14 current and former detainees interviewed by Reuters said they did not have access to hygiene products such as hand soap and disinfectants. Six detainees said they were exposed to other detainees who had fevers, persistent coughs, or body aches, which can be symptoms of the virus.

One current detainee said those who voiced health concerns were punished with solitary confinement, a claim echoed by lawyers and advocates working in detention centers in four different states.

“ICE fully respects the rights of detainees to voice their concerns without interference and does not retaliate in any way,” the ICE spokeswoman told Reuters.

A second ICE spokeswoman said the agency provided soap in washing areas and sanitizer throughout the centers “whenever possible,” adding that ICE had taken steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to “safeguard the health and well-being of detainees, staff, and others at our detention facilities.”

Several lawyers told Reuters they see the agency’s handling of the pandemic inside its detention centers as part of the U.S. government’s broader effort to limit immigration.

“I’ve come to think it’s a strategy to get people to say: ‘I’m scared to death, I can’t stand it anymore, just deport me,'” said Margo Cowan, supervisor at the Pima County Public Defender’s Office in Arizona, who has practiced immigration law for more than three decades.

The first ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency fully respects immigrants’ rights to due process.

“Any alien who has a claim to relief, protection under the law, or basis to remain in the United States is allowed to remain in the U.S. legally,” she said.

A DHS internal watchdog report based on a survey of 188 ICE detention centers shows that about 90% of ICE detention centers said they had enough masks and liquid soap for detainees. More than a third reported not having enough hand sanitizer for detainees. Twelve percent of facilities said they did not have the capacity to isolate or quarantine a detainee who tested positive for COVID-19. A number of facilities said social distancing was a challenge given space restrictions.

‘JUST SIGN’

Patricia Jimenez, a Mexican asylum seeker who said she fled to the United States after being kidnapped by unknown gunmen, decided to drop her case and seek deportation as the coronavirus swept through the Eloy Federal Contract Facility in Arizona, which has reported 222 COVID-19 cases, the second-largest outbreak in an ICE detention center. Her account was confirmed by her lawyer and her aunt.

“I’m really scared that I might get sick and never see my son again,” she told Reuters in a call in late June from the center, where she’s awaiting deportation.

Jimenez said she fears returning to Mexico.

“But at this moment, I’m more afraid of being here,” she said, citing the death of a guard who she says she had contact within the facility’s kitchen, where she had worked. CoreCivic, the company that operates the center, said the death was from “potential COVID-19-related issues.”

In a statement, a representative of CoreCivic said the company is committed to the safety of its detainees and employees, adding that Jimenez’s claims “do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 our facility has been taking for months.”

Lucas Castro, a Mexican asylum seeker with diabetes, which makes people vulnerable to complications from the virus, said he also requested deportation after fearing for his life more in detention than back home, where he said he was brutally beaten by a drug gang last year. His account was supported by his wife and the transcript of his “credible-fear” interview, which is part of the asylum process and was reviewed by Reuters.

Eight migrants, including Castro, told Reuters that officials tried to use detainees’ health concerns to push them into agreeing to their deportation.

At Arizona’s La Palma Correctional Facility, where Castro was held, he said detainees frequently requested information about the pandemic and whether they could be granted humanitarian parole or other forms of release.

“Instead, a deportation officer always arrived and told us that if we were genuinely afraid then we should just sign for our deportation,” Castro said. Two other former detainees in the same facility echoed Castro’s account. Castro said his fear of the virus prompted him to ask a judge for deportation, which U.S. records show was ordered in late May.

The second ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not have a policy of encouraging detainees who raise health concerns related to COVID-19 to sign for deportation. She added that La Palma Correctional Facility does not have a record of a complaint lodged by Castro regarding the alleged staff comments.

Pandemic-related logjams within the immigration system have also delayed the repatriation of some migrants.

Guatemalan asylum-seeker Timoteo Vicente said he chose not to appeal a negative ruling in his case in March in part because he deemed the medical care inside the Tacoma ICE Processing Center in Washington State inadequate, leading him to worry about its ability to respond to the pandemic.

In a statement, a representative for GEO Group, the company that contracts with ICE to run the facility, said: “We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness.”

Three months later, Vicente is still stranded in detention, awaiting his deportation.

“I’m in an abyss,” Vicente told Reuters in a call from the detention center. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Additional reporting by Reade Levinson; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Paul Simao)

Greece speeds up creation of migrant holding centers to ease tension

By Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece plans to accelerate the creation of detention centers on its outlying islands in the Aegean Sea after a backlash against overcrowded camps by some migrants and nearby residents.

Authorities said on Monday they would proceed with the purchase of land on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, and press ahead with plans to create holding facilities on state-owned land on Kos and Leros.

Thousands of migrants are waiting on the islands for their asylum applications to be processed, most of them in overcrowded camps known as reception centers.

Migrants on Lesbos protested last week against poor living conditions and residents of the island took to the streets demanding the reception facilities close.

“The government has decided to close today’s anarchic facilities and create controlled, closed facilities,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece in 2015 and 2016 before a deal brokered by the European Union limited the flow. There has been a resurgence in arrivals since around September 2019.

Last year, more than 74,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, according to the United Nations refugees agency UNHCR. Most of them arrived on Lesbos, Chios and Samos after crossing from Turkey and about 40,000 are now in effect trapped on the islands.

AID GROUPS SAY ACTION NEEDED

Aid groups have described living conditions in some of the island camps as appalling.

“We need 20,000 people to be transferred from the islands to the mainland in the next weeks and months to come,” Philippe Leclerc, UNCHR’s head in Greece, told journalists after a meeting with Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi.

Greece’s conservative New Democracy government, elected last July, has taken a tougher stance toward migration than Syriza, the leftist party that led the previous government.

The government has introduced new regulations which it says will simplify the asylum process and launched a tender for a floating fence in the Aegean which it hopes will deter migrants arriving from Turkey on rafts.

The new detention centers would house new arrivals until their asylum processes were underway, as well as others showing “delinquent behavior” or not entitled to asylum, Petsas said.

Entering and leaving the facilities would be strictly regulated and they would be closed at night, he added.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico
By Monica Machicao and Stefanie Eschenbacher

LA PAZ/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales landed in Mexico on Tuesday pledging to stay in politics as security forces back home quelled unrest over the long-serving leftist’s resignation and opponents sought an interim replacement to fill a power vacuum.

Thanking Mexico’s government for “saving his life,” Morales arrived to take up asylum in the country and repeated his accusation that his rivals had ousted him in a coup after violence broke out following a disputed election last month.

“As long as I am alive, we will remain in politics,” Morales told reporters in brief comments after disembarking the plane to be met by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

Dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt, Morales defended his time in government and said that if he were guilty any crime, it was to be indigenous and “anti-imperalist.”

Morales was then whisked away in a military helicopter, television footage showed. Mexican officials have not said where he will stay, citing security concerns.

Morales arrived in a Mexican Air Force plane from the central Bolivian town of Chimore, a stronghold of Morales supporters where the country’s first indigenous president retreated as his 14-year rule imploded.

The departure of Morales, the last of a wave of leftists who dominated Latin American politics at the start of the century, came after the Organization of American States declared on Sunday that there were serious irregularities during the Oct. 20 vote, prompting ruling party allies to quit and the army to urge him to step down.

Opposition lawmakers wanted to formally accept Morales’ resignation and start planning for a temporary leader ahead of a new vote. But their plans looked at risk as Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) said it would boycott the meeting.

Residents of the highland capital La Paz, rocked by protests and looting since last month’s election, said they hoped politicians would succeed in finally restoring order.

“Democracy has been at risk and hopefully it will be resolved today,” said resident Isabel Nadia.

Morales’ flight out was far from simple.

Takeoff was delayed, with supporters surrounding the airport, then the plane was denied permission to fuel in Peru, Ebrard said. So it stopped instead in Paraguay before arriving in Mexico City just after 11 a.m. local time (1700 GMT).

“His life and integrity are safe,” Ebrard said, tweeting a photo of Morales alone in the jet with a downcast expression, displaying Mexico’s red, white and green flag across his lap.

In a region divided along ideological lines over Morales’ fall, Mexico’s leftist government has supported his accusations of a coup.

In La Paz, roadblocks were in place after soldiers and police patrolled into the night to stop fighting between rival political groups and looting that erupted after Morales’ resignation.

The charismatic 60-year-old former coca leaf farmer was beloved by the poor when he won power in 2006.

But he alienated some by insisting on seeking a fourth term, in defiance of term limits and a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians voted against him being allowed to do that.

(For graphic on timeline, see https://graphics.reuters.com/BOLIVIA-ELECTION/0100B30L25D/bolivia.jpg)

(Reporting by Monica Machicao, Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Daina Beth Solomon, Julia Love and Diego Ore in Mexico City, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. judge declines to block Trump’s new asylum border rule

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers make an arrest after carrying out a raid in San Francisco, California, U.S. in this July 7, 2019 handout photo. Ron Rogers/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A U.S. district judge on Wednesday declined to block a new rule that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border, handing a victory to U.S. President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration.

Judge Timothy Kelly in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied a temporary restraining order that would have blocked a rule the Trump administration implemented on July 16 that requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they had traveled on their way to the United States, according to a court filing.

Oral arguments took place on Monday.

The ruling was issued in a lawsuit filed by the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

The suit is similar to an action led by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged the Trump administration rule in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. That case is due for a hearing on Wednesday.

Trump’s rule to restrict asylum-seekers was his latest anti-immigration measure ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The Trump administration has issued a rapid-fire series of anti-immigration edicts recently, the latest coming on Monday with a new rule to expedite deportations for immigrants who have crossed illegally and are caught anywhere in the United States, expanding a program typically applied only along the southern border with Mexico.

Democrats have blasted the policies as cruel, faulting the Trump administration for warehousing migrants in crowded detention facilities along the border and separating immigrant children from the adults they have traveled with.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump says U.S. agency will begin removing millions of illegal immigrants

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees arrive at FCI Victorville federal prison in Victorville, California, U.S. June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday that U.S. authorities would begin next week removing millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “They will be removed as fast as they come in,” he said. He did not offer specifics.

There are an estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, mainly from Mexico and Central America.

Under a deal reached earlier this month, Mexico has agreed to take Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the United States until their cases are heard in U.S. courts.

The agreement, which included Mexico pledging to deploy National Guard troops to stop Central American immigrants from reaching the U.S. border, averted a Trump threat to hit Mexican imports with tariffs.

Trump also said in the tweet that Guatemala “is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence suggested last week that Guatemala could receive asylum seekers from its neighbors as a so-called safe third country.

Details of the plan have not been made public, and Guatemala has not publicly confirmed talks that the U.S. State Department said were taking place in Guatemala on Friday.

U.S. rights group Human Rights First said, however, it was “simply ludicrous” for the United States to assert that Guatemala was capable of protecting refugees when its own citizens are fleeing violence.

Mexico has agreed that if its measures to stem the flow of migrants are unsuccessful, it will discuss signing a safe third country agreement with the United States.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

Trump attorney general’s ruling expands indefinite detention for asylum seekers

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, U.S. April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The U.S. Attorney General on Tuesday struck down a decision that had allowed some asylum seekers to ask for bond in front of an immigration judge, in a ruling that expands indefinite detention for some migrants who must wait months or years for their cases to be heard.

The first immigration court ruling from President Donald Trump’s newly appointed Attorney General William Barr is in keeping with the administration’s moves to clamp down on the asylum process as tens of thousands of mostly Central Americans cross into the United States asking for refuge. U.S. immigration courts are overseen by the Justice Department and the Attorney General can rule in cases to set legal precedent.

Barr’s ruling is the latest instance of the Trump administration taking a hard line on immigration. This year the administration implemented a policy to return some asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases work their way through backlogged courts, a policy which has been challenged with a lawsuit.

Several top officials at the Department of Homeland Security were forced out this month over Trump’s frustrations with an influx of migrants seeking refuge at the U.S. southern border.

Barr’s decision applies to migrants who crossed illegally into the United States.

Typically, those migrants are placed in “expedited removal” proceedings – a faster form of deportation reserved for people who illegally entered the country within the last two weeks and are detained within 100 miles (160 km) of a land border. Migrants who present themselves at ports of entry and ask for asylum are not eligible for bond.

But before Barr’s ruling, those who had crossed the border between official entry points and asked for asylum were eligible for bond, once they had proven to asylum officers they had a credible fear of persecution.

“I conclude that such aliens remain ineligible for bond, whether they are arriving at the border or are apprehended in the United States,” Barr wrote.

Barr said such people can be held in immigration detention until their cases conclude, or if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decides to release them by granting them “parole.”DHS has the discretion to parole people who are not eligible for bond and frequently does so due to insufficient detention space or other humanitarian reasons.

Barr said he was delaying the effective date by 90 days “so that DHS may conduct the necessary operational planning for additional detention and parole decisions.”

The decision’s full impact is not yet clear, because it will in large part depend on DHS’ ability to expand detention,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“The number of asylum seekers who will remain in potentially indefinite detention pending disposition of their cases will be almost entirely a question of DHS’s detention capacity, and not whether the individual circumstances of individual cases warrant release or detention,” Vladeck said.

DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision. The agency had written in a brief in the case arguing that eliminating bond hearings for the asylum seekers would have “an immediate and significant impact on…detention operations.”

In early March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants in the country illegally, said the average daily population of immigrants in detention topped 46,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, the highest level since the agency was created in 2003. Last year, Reuters reported that ICE had
“modified a tool officers have been using since 2013 when deciding whether an immigrant should be detained or released on bond, making the process more restrictive.”

The decision will have no impact on unaccompanied migrant children, who are exempt from expedited removal. Most families are also paroled because of a lack of facilities to hold parents and children together. 

Michael Tan, from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the rights group intended to sue the Trump administration over the decision, and immigrant advocates decried the decision.

Barr’s decision came after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to review the case in October. Sessions resigned from his position in November, leaving the case to Barr to decide.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Inspired by migrant caravans, new wave of Cubans seek U.S. asylum

Cuban migrants, waiting for their appointment to request asylum in the U.S., receive food at a church being used as a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 6, 2019. Picture taken April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Isel Rojas put his dream of leaving Cuba on hold when the United States ended a generous immigration policy for island residents. But watching coverage of migrant caravans heading from Central America toward the United States on Cuban television last year, he began to see a new path.

One morning in January, he woke up and told his wife he was finally ready. Fifteen days later, he was gone.

“If they can do it, why can’t we?” said Rojas, a 48-year-old who worked in agriculture in the eastern city of Holguin, recalling the images of young men and families traveling en masse to the Mexico-U.S. border.

Rojas is now waiting to apply for U.S. asylum in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, which has become a magnet for Cuban migrants.

Political repression and bleak economic prospects remain the primary reasons cited by Cubans for migrating from the Communist-ruled island, a Cold War foe of the United States. But some in Ciudad Juarez say news of the caravans also motivated them, giving them the impression the United States was accepting migrants.

Since early last year, the caravans have been a frequent target of U.S. President Donald Trump as he advocates for stricter immigration policies. Critics say the president’s statements about the caravans, including a series of angry tweets, have ironically enlarged the groups and publicized asylum as a possible avenue to legal status.

“The person who created the media coverage and who drove the issue of the caravans has been President Trump,” Tonatiuh Guillen, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said on local radio last week.

The addition of Cubans to those flows is adding to the pressure on already overwhelmed shelters and border authorities in Mexico and the United States. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to authorities in March, the White House said on Friday, calling it the highest number in a decade. Trump has threatened a border shutdown or tariffs on Mexico in retaliation.

What’s more, some say Trump’s harder line on Cuban relations has contributed to a sense of gloom on the economically weak and tightly controlled island.

The White House and the Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mexico’s migration institute declined to comment.

‘TREATED LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’

Like Rojas, many Cubans who reached northern Mexico in recent months ultimately traveled with a smaller group, and caravans were not a factor for all who left. But a caravan of 2,600 migrants currently contained by authorities in southern Mexico, the largest this year, includes dozens from the island. Mexican immigration officials said they flew some 60 Cubans home on Friday.

In Ciudad Juarez, Cubans represent 75 to 80 percent of some 3,600 migrants in town, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the state commission for population. The wait to apply for asylum is about two months, shelter directors say.

The bottleneck highlights a new reality: Cubans do not enjoy the same advantages they once did in the U.S. immigration system.

“For the first time this year, Cubans are being treated like everyone else,” said Wilfredo Allen, a Miami-based lawyer who works with Cuban migrants. “The special door for the Cubans has already closed.”

In 2017, U.S. President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any intercepted at sea, triggering a decline in immigration from the island.

In the first five months of fiscal-year 2019, 6,289 Cubans turned up at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border without papers. That number is on track to nearly double the total for the whole of fiscal-year 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While Cubans generally face slightly better chances of receiving asylum than Central Americans because their tales of political persecution are often more clear-cut, success is anything but assured, Allen said.

Allen estimates only 20 to 30 percent of his Cuban clients will win their cases.

That message has not reached those in Ciudad Juarez, many of whom sold their vehicles, businesses or homes to finance the trip. Some have literally bet the farm.

“They say that we have priority, that (the United States) will accept us in one form or another,” said Rojas, who sold almost half his cattle. “They always accept us.”

A NEW ROUTE

Cubans lucky enough to get a U.S. visa, to visit family for example, can fly there legally and are eligible to apply for residency after a year in the United States. For most though, reaching the United States is no easy feat.

Even before “wet foot, dry foot” ended, Cubans began forging new routes, flying into countries in Central and South America with loose visa requirements and then heading north. Only a few countries, such as Guyana, do not require visas for Cubans.

Last year, Panama made it easier for Cubans to come to the country to shop, creating another opening for some from the island to reach Central America.

Arasay Sanchez, 33, said she was browsing the internet in a park one day when she saw a story about the caravans.

After selling her house and most of her belongings, Sanchez flew into Panama on Jan. 25, she said.

She relied on a seven-page guide she inherited from Cubans who had traveled to the United States, detailing everything from where to sleep to where to buy a phone. On the trail, it was among her most valuable possessions – she carried it in her clothes.

The route ended in Ciudad Juarez, regarded by many Cubans as a safer and more orderly place to seek asylum than other more crowded Mexican border crossings, despite its reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities. Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas, received relatively few asylum seekers until late last year.

Many are dismayed by the long wait they find, shelter directors say, and they are increasingly concerned about safety after reports of Cubans going missing in Mexico. Few leave the shelters, 10 migrants said in interviews.

Sanchez and her partner arrived in Ciudad Juarez in late February, moving from shelter to shelter and struggling with spicy Mexican food.

“Even the candy” has chile, she said, clutching the extra folds of fabric in her jeans to show she had lost weight.

Experts do not expect the flow of Cuban migrants to ebb anytime soon. Obama made it easier for Americans to travel to the island, generating new business. But that money dried up after Trump tightened the rules, said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer who studies the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

What is more, a gradual opening of the island’s private sector triggered a backlash from conservatives, creating headaches for small businesses, Freyre said.

Reaching the United States would end a long quest for Reinaldo Ramirez, a 51-year-old construction contractor from the western town of Jaguey Grande. Starting in 2006, he tried and failed to reach Florida seven times by boat – including the day Obama canceled “wet foot, dry foot.”

The new route has been just as arduous. After flying into Guyana in September, Ramirez and his wife had to hike across the Darien Gap, a remote stretch of jungle straddling Panama and Colombia. After they crossed the first time, Panamanian authorities deported them to Colombia, forcing them to repeat the trek.

Ramirez arrived in Ciudad Juarez about three weeks ago, and hundreds of asylum seekers are ahead of him in line. But he cannot help but feel that he is close.

“I’ve almost achieved my objective, my American dream,” he said.

(Reporting by Julia Love; additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Sarah Marsh in Havana, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)