The Trump administration will compel certain asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico during the course of their asylum hearings, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said today.
Nielsen said in a written statement that migrants who arrive at the border “illegally or without proper documentation” could be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings.
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“Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates,” she said in the statement. “Instead, they will wait for an immigration court decision while they are in Mexico.“
The announcement came as the secretary was set to testify at an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Democrats were expected to grill Nielsen over the death of a 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody last week.
Congress is also grappling with the possibility of a partial government shutdown if it can’t pass a spending bill by midnight Friday. President Donald Trump has pressed Congress to provide $5 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, but a measure passed in the Senate Wednesday keeps funding flat and only devotes $1.3 billion to barriers.
At a noon meeting with House Republicans, Trump said “he will not sign the bill that came from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters. “So what we’re going to do is go back to the House and work with our members.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, according to a pool report, that “border security” means “steel slats or a wall.”
The Mexican government will temporarily authorize migrants who have received a notice to attend a hearing before a U.S. immigration judge to wait in Mexico, according to an announcement on the Mexican Foreign Ministry website.
The new policy will almost certainly be subjected to legal challenges. The Trump administration has experimented with a range of strategies to discourage illegal immigration and asylum-seekers, only to see the plans derailed by federal courts.
A San Francisco-based federal judge on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction against a November Trump proclamation that sought to bar migrants who cross between ports of entry from seeking asylum. Earlier in the day, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., struck down administration policies that blocked victims of domestic violence and gang violence from seeking asylum.
Mexico said Thursday that it will allow migrants to be returned to its territory “for humanitarian reasons and in a temporary fashion.” The country’s foreign ministry said the setup adhered to Mexican law and international refugee commitments.
During a press conference at the Mexican embassy in Washington, Jose Antonio Zabalgoitia, a Mexican diplomat, affirmed that Mexico will accept migrants with pending asylum applications. However, he said the U.S. must return rejected applicants to their home countries, not to Mexico.
“Let’s not make migrants a ping-pong ball,” he said.
Human rights groups blasted the decision. Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International, called it a “stark violation of international law“ and said asylum-seekers would be vulnerable in Mexico.
“Make no mistake — Mexico is not a safe country for all people seeking protection,” she said in a written statement. “Many people seeking asylum in the United States face discrimination, exploitation, sexual assault, murder, or the possibility of being disappeared while traveling through Mexico or while forced to wait for extraordinarily long times in Mexican border towns.“
The State Department announced Tuesday that the U.S. will commit $5.8 billion to support development in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as part of a broader plan to address regional migration.
The deal came just weeks into the new administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has pressed for the U.S. to invest at least $20 billion to address the forces propelling people to the U.S. from Central America.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were not informed of the new policy to keep asylum-seekers in Mexico before the DHS announcement, an aide told POLITICO.
“We were [definitely] blindsided,” the aide said.
The push to keep third-country migrants in Mexico will not apply to unaccompanied minors, Nielsen said during the congressional committee hearing Thursday.
Despite the announcement of the new policy, Nielsen faced a broad range of questions during the hearing Thursday.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) grilled the secretary about Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in Border Patrol custody on Dec. 8. “Jacky did not have to die,” Jackson Lee said.
Nielsen defended her department’s response to the situation. She said the girl was provided medical care as soon as U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel were alerted to the problem.
“This is exactly why we try to encourage migrants to go to a port of entry,” Nielsen said. “Unfortunately, they arrived in the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere.”
Trump administration officials grappled in recent weeks with legal and logistical questions around keeping migrants in Mexico during asylum proceedings, according to an internal planning document obtained by POLITICO earlier this month.
The hurdles included a range of due process concerns, such as ensuring migrants have access to counsel while they wait on the Mexican side of the border as well as devising a system for them to receive updates on their cases.
The undated document outlined a “remain in Mexico” pilot program at the San Ysidro port of entry in Southern California and nearby Border Patrol areas of operation. Whether the pilot proceeded remains unclear.
The planning document doesn’t delve into any standards for housing or safety conditions in Mexico — what could emerge as an issue as more migrants begin to amass at the border.
The arrival of thousands of Central Americans in Tijuana last month illustrated how quickly conditions could deteriorate in Mexico. An open-air migrant encampment turned into a squalid mess in late November when rain storms swept through the area.
The DHS planning document called for the construction of courtrooms with video conference capability in the San Diego area, among other resources.
Officials also weighed the possibility that migrants could use legal maneuvers to remain in the United States.
Among the concerns raised was what might happen if a migrant files a petition challenging his or her detention while in the United States for a hearing, which could potentially lead to a release.
Sabrina Rodríguez contributed to this report.
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