Nonprofits helping refugees, asylum seekers already seeing removals at US-Mexico border

One organization says they're closely monitoring the impact of Biden's new order - ABC7 explores impact from Tijuana.

Nonprofits helping asylum seekers already seeing removals at border
One organization says they're closely monitoring the impact of Biden's new order - ABC7 explores impact from Tijuana.
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Thursday, June 13, 2024

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Organizations that help support refugees and asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, are closely monitoring the impact of President Joe Biden's recent directive that restricts access to asylum between ports of entry.

The order Biden issued last week would limit asylum processing between ports of entry once those encounters reach 2,500 per day. It went into effect immediately because the latest figures were far higher, at about 4,000 daily.

"It's very obvious that this executive order was put into place because it's an election year," said Erika Pinheiro, the executive director of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit that provides legal and humanitarian services. "We've seen averages of over 2,500 regularly," added Pinheiro. "As long as I can remember, it's been above that number, or at least close to it."

This executive order really punishes people who had no other choice but to cross between ports of entry to seek asylum, especially if they were at risk of imminent harm in Mexico.
Erika Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado nonprofit

The restrictions would be in effect until two weeks after the daily encounter numbers are at or below 1,500 per day between ports of entry, under a seven-day average. Those working in Tijuana say they're already seeing the removal of large numbers of people, including children. However, it seems they are being flown to southern Mexico, where they will likely begin their journeys to Tijuana again.

"This executive order really punishes people who had no other choice but to cross between ports of entry to seek asylum, especially if they were at risk of imminent harm in Mexico," said Pinheiro.

She said the order heavily impacts people from certain nationalities.

"I'd say Mexicans and people from countries that Mexico accepts as removals are really the most disadvantaged because they only have four hours to find an attorney," said Pinheiro. "If they are going through that fear screening and then they are very quickly returned to Mexico."

Pinheiro said the organization has been unable to confirm if individuals are getting a fear screening.

During the 2024 fiscal year from October through January, the highest number of citizenships encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection were from Mexico. Encounters are when U.S. officials encounter non-citizens attempting to cross the southwest border of the country without authorization.

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Some exceptions include unaccompanied children.

"We are also seeing an increase of people sending their children alone," said Pinheiro. "So over the past week, we've seen an increase in unaccompanied children and open-air detention sites in San Diego, because as you can see, the conditions here are very poor."

The alternative is waiting for an appointment through CBP One, a mobile app that serves as a single portal to a variety of CBP services.

A closer look at the impact

Cristina from Guatemala helps prepare breakfast at the Embajadores De Jesús church and shelter. She and her 7-year-old have waited for an appointment for nearly nine months in Tijuana.

I'm just really scared that (under) this new policy, we're going to see more death.
Erika Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado nonprofit

Pastor Gustavo Banda said they house roughly 1,500 people - and their space includes a school. He said they've have had guests from all over the world, including asylum seekers from Haiti, Afghanistan, and countries in Asia.

Cristina admits the wait can be hard, but believes it will happen in God's timing. Pinheiro expresses deep concern for those who may not have a safe shelter and protection.

"We have families all the time that are forced to stay in the streets, and we have buried a lot of people who didn't survive while they were waiting to seek asylum," she said. "So I'm just really scared that like this new policy, we're going to see more of that."

Biden faces first lawsuit over new asylum crackdown at the border

A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over the president's recent directive, saying it differs little from a similar move during the Trump administration that was blocked by the courts.

The lawsuit - filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and RAICES - is the first test of the legality of Biden's sweeping crackdown on the border, which came after months of internal White House deliberations and is designed in part to deflect political attacks against the president on his handling of immigration.

"By enacting an asylum ban that is legally indistinguishable from the Trump ban we successfully blocked, we were left with no choice but to file this lawsuit," said Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the ACLU.

The order went into effect June 5, and Biden administration officials have said they expected record levels of deportations.

But advocates argue that suspending asylum for migrants who don't arrive at a designated port of entry - which the Biden administration is trying to push migrants to do -- violates existing federal immigration law, among other concerns.

Biden invoked the same legal authority used by the Trump administration for its asylum ban, which comes under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That provision allows a president to limit entries for certain migrants if their entry is deemed "detrimental" to the national interest.

Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump's immigration policies as he campaigns, and his administration argues that his directive is different because it includes several exemptions for humanitarian reasons. For example, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors and those with severe medical emergencies would not be subject to the limits.

"We stand by the legality of what we have done," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on ABC's "This Week" before the lawsuit was filed, saying he anticipated legal challenges. "We stand by the value proposition."

Under Biden's directive, migrants who arrive at the border but do not express a fear of returning to their home countries will be subject to immediate removal from the United States, within a matter of days or even hours. Those migrants could face punishments that could include a five-year bar from reentering the U.S. or even criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, those who express fear or an intention to seek asylum should be screened by a U.S. asylum officer but at a higher standard than currently used. If they pass the screening, they can pursue more limited forms of humanitarian protection, including the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits returning people to a country where they're likely to face torture.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.