Border Agents Are Wrongly Telling Asylum-Seekers The U.S. Won't Take Them, Report Alleges

Customs and Border Protection said its policies haven't changed and it's adhering to the law.

WASHINGTON ― More than 100 individuals and families seeking safety in the U.S. were turned away by border agents from November to April, a new report alleges, some of them after being told the country no longer accepts asylum-seekers.

In one case documented by Human Rights First, a nonprofit advocacy group, a Customs and Border Protection agent allegedly told an asylum-seeker that things were different under President Donald Trump.

“Trump says we don’t have to let you in,” the officer said, according to an attorney cited in the report.

In another example, a Mexican woman said CBP told her the U.S. is granting asylum only to people who are killed for being Christians in other countries, “not people like you.”

CBP has been accused for years of failing to live up to its obligations toward asylum-seekers, who have the right under law to ask for relief in the U.S. if they fear returning home. But immigrant advocates and attorneys fear things have gotten worse since Trump’s election. Immigrant advocates say that as the Trump administration boasts of lower apprehension numbers, a contributing factor could be the vulnerable individuals and families who have legitimate asylum claims but are being turned away before they get the chance to express them.

Human Rights First’s Shaw Drake, the primary author of the report, said he has seen more cases of border agents and security guards turning away asylum-seekers without any type of processing. Some aren’t even able to get inside the building where they should get to explain their situation, he found, based on interviews with asylum-seekers, attorneys and advocates.

The report is based on 125 cases, but Drake said he suspects it’s the “tip of the iceberg,” since they likely didn’t find all of the people in a similar situation.

CBP, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and includes the Border Patrol, is not supposed to have an extensive role in determining asylum claims; agents are supposed to admit people if they express fear of returning to their native country, and then an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is supposed to assess their claim in what’s called a credible fear interview before they continue the process.

CBP has not changed any of its policies regarding asylum procedures, which are based on international law with the goal of “protecting vulnerable and persecuted persons,” agency spokesman Carlos Díaz said in a statement.

“CBP officers do not determine or evaluate the validity of the fear expressed,” he said. “As an agency, CBP adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.”

Some asylum-seekers seek to enter the U.S. at the pedestrian port of entry from Mexico to the United States in San Ysidro, California.
Some asylum-seekers seek to enter the U.S. at the pedestrian port of entry from Mexico to the United States in San Ysidro, California.
Mike Blake/Reuters

Attorneys and advocates said that in practice, however, agents and officers don’t always transfer people who express fear to asylum officers for evaluation. In April, Mexico-based attorney Nicole Ramos said she went with a Honduran client to the U.S. border and the officer wouldn’t even let them past the first gate.

The woman fled Honduras a few years ago and had refugee status in Mexico, but then wanted to seek asylum in the U.S. after she was raped in Mexico by a man who then stalked her around the country, Ramos said. CBP directed her to Grupos Beta, a branch of the Mexican government that sets appointments with CBP for certain asylum-seekers ― but one that has refused to set appointments for people with legal status in Mexico, such as Ramos’ client.

Ramos said she told the CBP officer and a supervisor that that wasn’t what the law said and read it to them, but they were dismissive and didn’t let the woman proceed to additional screening.

“He literally said to me, ‘I don’t care what that says,’” Ramos said of the supervisor.

Human Rights First’s report documents some of the problems with the Grupos Beta process, which was initially created to deal with an influx in Haitians coming through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. CBP often refers non-Haitians there, even though the Mexican government says that’s not what it’s designed for.

Advocates in Mexico said Grupos Beta officials have told them, “stop lying to people, CBP told us they are not giving asylum in the United States anymore,” according to the Human Rights First report.

The organization calls in its report for the U.S. to immediately end the appointment system with Grupos Beta and give training and clear instructions to the field about how to handle asylum-seekers, including the fact that they are not required to have an appointment. Human Rights First also calls for the DHS inspector general and Congress to look into the matter.

Shaw said the anecdotes he and other researchers collected for the report were disturbing and must be addressed, even if not reflective of every CBP agent and officer.

“The U.S. has always in my mind stood as a leader globally on human rights,” Drake told HuffPost. “To have U.S. agents directly violating U.S. law and international treaty obligations in turning people away is both shocking and disturbing to me as an American.”

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