National News

No Clear End to Chaos as Migrants Confront U.S. Border

Posted November 26, 2018 11:31 p.m. EST

Tear gas and the temporary closing of the San Ysidro border crossing in Southern California marked an early confrontation between a caravan of migrants desperate to enter the United States and the governments of America and Mexico trying to hold them back.

And as more members of migrant caravans arrive just south of the border in Tijuana each day, neither side of the conflict appears willing to back down.

The discord at San Ysidro stems, in part, from confusion over what kind of legal status, if any, the migrants are entitled to from an administration moving quickly to limit options.

The caravan from Central America rushed the border after President Donald Trump vowed to make asylum applicants wait in Mexico while their cases are considered to prevent what he called a “costly and dangerous situation.”

But applying for asylum is often a yearslong process. And the administration’s plan to require people seeking asylum to first enter the United States through “ports of entry” has been blocked in federal court.

The result is a state of chaos with no clear end in sight.

Why is this standoff happening?

The first members of the caravan arrived at the southwestern border this month to find about 3,000 people already waiting to be processed into the United States — the product of a Trump administration initiative known as “metering.” The policy limits the number of people who can apply for asylum in a single day.

As a result, newcomers are finding that they will have to wait up to months before they can even begin the lengthy asylum process. That has led to rising tensions among the many people who are holed up.

Additionally, the port of entry at San Ysidro has been shut down at least twice in the past week after members of the caravan tried to approach the crossing anyway, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

How many caravans are coming?

Four distinct caravans, with as many as 10,000 total members, have set out for the United States, according to Alex Mensing, a project coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transnational group that organized the migrant caravan that captured Trump’s attention in the spring.

But the groups have splintered and shape-shifted in the face of grueling travel, government opposition and the opportunity to seek asylum in places other than the United States.

Mensing said the majority of the caravan members were from Honduras, with others coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He also said new caravans were beginning to form as recently as a few days ago, originating in El Salvador.

What authority do U.S. border agents have to forcefully block the migrants?

A Customs and Border Protection manual makes clear the officers have authority “to use force, up to and including the use of deadly force.” At San Ysidro, the border officers have deployed tear gas as a “less-lethal force” to control crowds. The manual allows less-lethal devices — including pepper spray — to be “used in situations where empty-handed techniques are not sufficient to control disorderly or violent subjects.”

Are the military troops there? Will they shoot anybody?

The Pentagon has sent 1,300 U.S. troops to California out of about 5,900 military forces deployed to support Border Patrol operations. But the military is legally forbidden from taking part in law enforcement activities within the United States, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that most troops on the border would not be carrying guns.

Some of the U.S. troops are undergoing riot training and may defend border officials against migrants throwing rocks. Mattis also said troops might detain migrants throwing rocks. But the troops won’t be armed.

What happens when somebody applies for asylum?

Encounters between border agents and border crossers, regardless of where they take place, always involve a version of the same question: “Are you afraid to return to your country?”

When the answer is yes, the border crosser is referred for a “credible fear interview,” where an asylum officer asks for details and evidence to assess whether the claim is likely to be approved by an immigration judge.

If the crosser passes the interview successfully, he or she is given a court date. Crossers are then either held in detention, or released with a bond or on their own recognizance, sometimes with a GPS ankle bracelet to track their whereabouts. If they fail the test, they are deported.

Are there more people seeking asylum now than in years past?

Yes. Data from the Department of Homeland Security show a sharp increase in the number of people fleeing to the United States for asylum, particularly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In 2008, just less than 5,000 applicants claimed they had a credible fear to their lives to prevent them from returning to their homeland. By last year, the number had jumped to nearly 80,000.

The Trump administration contends that the acceleration accounts for people “gaming” the system by falsely claiming need for asylum. Immigration officials reported a spike in people fleeing violence in Central America.

Is it true that bunches of asylum-seekers have disappeared in the United States after applying?

In the 2017 fiscal year, about 28 percent of immigrants failed to attend their court hearings — not the 97 percent Trump has estimated in the past.

Among asylum-seekers, only 11 percent did not show up for legal proceedings. Of the asylum-seekers who participated in a pilot program that was tested as an alternative to detention, 99 percent attended Immigration and Custom Enforcement check-ins and appointments. And 100 percent turned up for court hearings.

How does the Trump administration want to limit the number of asylum-seekers?

The administration has floated a number of policy changes and proposals to stem the flow of asylum-seekers. It has placed caps on the number of people who can apply each day and raised the burden of proof that is required to pass a credible fear interview. In June, Jeff Sessions, who was then the attorney general, disqualified victims of gang and domestic violence from the status.

Two more plans — to block people from applying for asylum between ports of entry, and to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico while their cases are heard — could also limit cases, but their futures remain in limbo.

How has the Mexican government responded to the caravans?

Mexico has taken a mixed approach to the caravans. It has allowed several across its southern border — including the largest one — because it was overwhelmed by the number of people. It also has returned about 11,000 migrants to their home countries, although some were voluntary.

The Mexican government has invited some caravan migrants to apply for asylum and has also promised them work visas. It even set up a job fair in Tijuana, which has a labor shortage. But it lacks the resources to fill all its promises. The Tijuana city government has asked the federal government and international organizations to come to its aid in caring for the migrants.

So will the Mexican government let the migrants remain in Mexico until they are granted asylum, as Trump wants?

Members of Mexico’s incoming government, which will take office Saturday, have confirmed that they are in talks with the Trump administration but say they have yet to come to any agreement. Mexico is unlikely to host the migrants who are seeking asylum without some kind of guarantees from the United States because it does not want refugee camps on its northern border.