By Joel Preston Smith
They’re easy prey, because they don’t look like locals. For one, their shoes have no laces. Then there’s the plastic sleeves in their hands, stuffed with immigration documents, or sometimes a small bag slung over a shoulder, like a cheap carry-on, stamped DHS—Department of Homeland Security. And so, when they’re deported, ordered south on foot across the Americas International Bridge from Laredo, Texas, across the invisible border bisecting the Rio Grande, on to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it’s as if each asylum seeker had been handed a bullseye to hold over her heart.
What Donald M. Kerwin Jr. calls the “incompetent and cruel practice” of placing asylum seekers at elevated risk of kidnapping and murder is, in part, the subject of a U.S. Senate report released Nov. 7: “Shattered Refuge: A U.S. Senate Investigation into the Trump’s Administration’s Gutting of Asylum.”
Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York City, argues that the Trump’s attacks on Dreamers, his travel bans targeting Muslims, his blanket characterization of Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” gang members and drug smugglers, his expanded detention camps and other anti-immigrant programs and pogroms are intended “to act as a deterrent to all immigration, to make the system so harsh and so cruel that people won’t come here.”
The Senate report, released Nov. 14, echos Kerwin’s concerns. Also called The Merkley Report after its principal author, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, the document notes that the Trump administration has undertaken “extensive efforts” since January 2017 “to deter and prevent asylum seekers from legally claiming asylum.” It goes on to argue that Trump’s immigration policies have: attempted to “choke off access to the asylum system;” violated U.S. law by purposefully endangering the lives of applicants; intentionally inflicted trauma on asylum seekers; used family separation as a fear tactic to discourage immigration; operated detention facilities beyond 500 percent of their maximum capacity, leading to further trauma to applicants, leading to “medical breakdowns” within those facilities, which “likely contributed” to the deaths of seven children; medicated a woman in labor in order to stop her contractions so she could be deported to Mexico; and is holding more than 4,000 children with no identified sponsors, who may, consequently, be confined in detention camps “for years on end” while their cases wend through the U.S. legal system. At least one U.S. official has been fired for “applying asylum law as written,” rather than bending or breaking laws to meet Trump’s political objectives.
Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights for the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington, D.C. think tank, says it’s particularly egregious for immigration officials to deport asylum seekers to towns such as Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, after the U.S. State Department issued travel advisories ranking those Mexican cities as “level 4” areas, where “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common.” The State Department goes on to define these two deportation sites as cities where significant “gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread” and, “armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.”
The State Department considers the two cities so dangerous that it imposes a curfew from midnight to 6 a.m. for U.S. government employees traveling between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros (directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas), and forbids such employees from “using interior Mexican highways” at any time.
Meyer notes, “Anyone that’s not Mexican, but speaks Spanish is sent back through a port of entry, across a bridge into those towns.” Each is infamous territory for drug cartels. When Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo head up the rankings of notable Mexican destinations, it’s usually for their high kidnapping and murder rates. Once they’ve crossed the Rio Grande, asylum seekers are taken into custody by Mexican police, and eventually released to await a court appearance in the U.S. While waiting for an asylum hearing, Meyers says, would-be immigrants sleep on the streets or in random ‘tent cities,’ where it’s “easy for persecutors to find them.”
Under Title 8 of U.S. Federal Code, “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival)” has a legal right to apply for asylum. The code provides for several exceptions, allowing the U.S. attorney general to bar applications from asylum seekers (no particular grounds are given), and return the applicant to her or his country of origin or last residence, but the attorney general may only do so if the “alien’s life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion …” The Code also prohibits the U.S. from deporting applicants to the country from which they seek asylum.
Trump and immigration officials have violated Title 8 through two consistent practices, critics argue, by preventing asylum seekers from even attempting to apply for refuge, and by deporting migrants to extremely dangerous areas where they fall prey to kidnappers and other opportunists working with drug cartels.
Emily Green, a reporter for This American Life, recently interviewed a man she calls ‘David’ less than half a day before he was kidnapped with his son in Nuevo Laredo. In her story, called “The Long Way Home,” Green says kidnapping in Mexico “is a volume business” and has been for quite some time. “What’s different now,” she explains, “is that the U.S. is making it especially easy for the cartels to identify and snatch victims. They’re sending asylum seekers back in big groups, all at once, same time of day.”
But, Kerwin notes, U.S. officials began constructing barriers for asylum seekers long before deporting them in violation of Title 8—intentionally or not— into the hands of kidnappers. “You could almost go back to even before he [Trump] was elected, and look at the rhetoric and see that for him it’s been nothing but decimation of these [immigration] programs.” Kerwin says he’s heard anecdotal reports of border agents blocking asylum seekers from crossing into legal ports of entry, telling them, “‘The U.S. is full,’ or ‘We’re only accepting Christians today.’ I’m not saying there’s a systematic script these people are reading from. It’s just a way of deterring people from applying.”
The Merkley report also documents the administration’s efforts to replace trained asylum officers—particularly those who conduct ‘credible fear’ interviews designed to weed out fraudulent asylum claims—with untrained Border Patrol agents in an “apparent strategy to cut the number of asylum applicants who pass the credible fear screening …” Immigration officials, the report states, terminated standardized training in August for new asylum agents. “Without standardized trainings,” according to the report, “new asylum officers are likely to be trained by politically-installed leaders and more vulnerable to pressure from supervisors to deny as many asylum claims as possible.”
Despite a litany of offenses and abrogations of law documented in the report, it does offer a series of remedies, including (among others):
– Establishing “a $10,000 civil claim against the U.S. government for delaying or preventing asylum seekers from crossing the U.S. border
– Prohibiting Border Patrol officers from acting as asylum officials
– Providing the right to counsel for all unaccompanied children
– Requiring daily monitoring of all immigration detention facilities.
Kerwin describes the Trump Administration’s conduct toward asylum seekers as “the most hostile to humanitarian programs any of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, or our careers.” A “reasonable, sane” remedy, he concludes, “would be to at least provide asylum seekers with access to the system. They’re doing nothing illegal. All the administration’s really done so far is to demonstrate how totally inept they’ve been with border control.”
Most efforts to rectify the current prohibitive and predatory actions of the administration, he argues, would be unnecessary if the U.S. simply “followed the law, and the spirit of the law.”
Joel Preston Smith is a writer, editor, and artist. He’s the author of “Night of a Thousand Stars & Other Portraits of Iraq” (Nazraeli Press, 2006).
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 40 No. 10. December/January, 2019/2020. All rights reserved.