APTOPIX US Mexico Asylum

SEEKING A NEW HOME — Ruth Aracely Monroy (center) looks out of the family’s tent alongside her 10-month-old son, Joshua, as her husband, Juan Carlos Perla (left) passes inside a shelter for migrants earlier this month in Tijuana, Mexico. After fleeing violence in El Salvador and requesting asylum in the United States, the family was returned to Tijuana to await their hearing in San Diego.

TIJUANA, Mexico — Juan Carlos Perla says he spent his first night in the U.S. in a cold immigration cell with 21 others at the nation’s busiest border cross­ing. Fluorescent lights were always on in the basement holding area. Space was so tight that he laid his sleeping mat next to a toilet.

The 36-year-old from El Salvador soon reunited with his wife and three sons, ages six, four and 10 months, who were in anoth­er cell, and the fam­ily returned to Tijuana, Mex­ico, to await asylum hear­ings in San Diego. They were one of the first fam­il­ies to contend with a radical U.S. policy shift that makes asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their cases wind through im­mig­ration courts. Looking ratt­led hours later, Perla said he would skip his court date and instead settle in Mexico.

“Our fear is that we lose our case and get deported” back to El Salvador, Perla said. “That’s suicide for me, my wife and my children.”

Perla told a U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion officer that he and his family abandoned their small bakery in the Sal­va­dor­an capital after he missed a monthly extortion pay­ment to the 18th Street gang. They beat him and threatened to kill him and his family if he failed to pay the next installment, ac­cord­ing to an interview trans­cript.

If his family’s experience is a sign, the policy may be hav­ing its intended effect of discouraging asylum claims, which have helped fuel a court backlog of more than 800,000 cases and forced people to wait years for a ruling. Trump ad­min­istration officials say they want to deter weak claims, freeing up judges to consider more deserving cases.

A federal judge in San Fran­cisco has scheduled a March 22 hearing to con­sider a request by advocacy groups to halt the practice.

Change is being in­tro­duced slowly — 240 peop­le were returned to Ti­ju­ana from San Diego in the first six weeks. The ad­min­is­tra­tion expanded its “Mi­grant Protection Pro­to­cols” strat­egy on Monday to a sec­ond border crossing, in Calexico, and officials say the practice will grow along the entire border.

The shift comes as more asylum-seeking fam­il­ies from Guatemala, Hon­dur­as and El Salvador arrive at the U.S. border with Mex­ico.

Border Patrol agents in San Diego have been told to target people who speak Span­ish and come from Latin America, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. The memo says pregnant women and LGBT mi­grants are to be spared. The ad­min­istration has said all along that Mexicans are ex­empt, as are children traveling alone.

Waiting in Tijuana is an unanticipated setback for asy­lum seekers who had hoped to be released in the U.S. while awaiting a judge’s ruling. In Mexico, they lack the family con­nec­tions they have in the U.S, and some say they feel unsafe.

Selvin Alvarado, his part­ner and their chil­dren from previous re­la­tion­ships stayed at a Tijuana shelter for about six weeks while waiting to be called on an informal list of asylum seekers seeking to enter the U.S. at the San Diego crossing. To earn money, Alvarado unloaded ceramic tiles from delivery trucks in Tijuana while his partner watched their boys, ages 10 and seven.

After claiming asylum, Alvarado was separated from his family and put in an all-male cell with fluo­res­cent lights that were al­ways on and made him lose track of night and day. He told a CBP officer the next day that he was “afraid of paramilitary groups in Honduras” and that he fled with his fam­ily after he discovered the head of his farming col­lec­tive was stealing money and someone threatened to kill one of his children, ac­cording to an interview transcript.

Alvarado, 29, who came with a police report and other documents ex­plain­ing work-related threats, was sent back to Tijuana with his 10-year-old, while his wife and her son were released in the U.S. and sett­led with Alvarado’s cous­in in Houston. He says he cannot work in Tijuana because he has no one to care for his son.

Many immigrants’ strug­gles are compounded by the scarcity of legal ad­vice. Customs officials offer a list of potential legal aid pro­vi­ders, but Alvarado said his calls to those groups elicited no response. Al Otro Lado, a Los An­gel­es-based legal group work­ing out of a building in downtown Tijuana, gave him an overview of U.S. asylum procedures but no individual advice.

For immigration at­tor­neys, it can be difficult to ex­­tend help to people who are on the other side of the border.

The American Bar As­so­ci­ation’s Immigration Jus­tice Project of San Diego cannot afford to go to Tijuana and will not pur­sue grants without in­sur­ance and license to prac­tice in Mexico, said Adela Mason, the group’s director.

Catholic Charities of the San Diego Diocese had to overcome worries about safety and not having license.

“It’s a fine line between going down there and pro­vi­ding assistance in a way that is legal but not prac­ticing law in Mexico,” said Nadine Toppozada, the group’s director of refugee and immigrant services.

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