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In 2019, US Immigration Policies Closed The Southern Border To Many Asylum Seekers

In this Sept. 17, 2019 photo, a U.S. border patrol officer directs a Nicaraguan migrant family, who is applying for asylum in the U.S., over International Bridge 1 from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico into Laredo, Texas, for an interview with immigration officials.
Fernando Llano
Associated Press
In this Sept. 17, 2019 photo, a U.S. border patrol officer directs a Nicaraguan migrant family, who is applying for asylum in the U.S., over International Bridge 1 from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico into Laredo, Texas, for an interview with immigration officials.

Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has worked to dramatically reshape the country’s immigration system and curb migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. This year, his administration implemented sweeping changes that experts say effectively seal off the southern border to most asylum seekers. 

After reaching a peak in April, the number of migrants who were apprehended or turned themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border has declined. The Trump administration credits the new policies, along with measures taken by the Mexican government, including stationing troops at its borders to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S.

Here are some of the most substantial changes to U.S. immigration policy in 2019. Many of these policies are currently being challenged in court.  

Also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program this policy requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases play out in U.S. immigration court. The Department of Homeland Security says MPP is meant to “help restore a safe and orderly immigration process,” prevent people with weak or fraudulent asylum claims from being released in the country and protect “vulnerable populations” from being exploited by smugglers and traffickers.

Tens of thousands of migrants have been placed in the program. Some are staying in shelters or renting rooms in cities like Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. Others are living in a large refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville.

Critics say the policy places asylum seekers in grave danger. They’re forced to wait months or more in Mexican border cities with high levels of violence, where they can be targeted for kidnapping, rape and extortion. A recent report from Human Rights First found more than 600 cases of violent crime against migrants in MPP.

This rule, also known as the asylum ban, requires migrants to apply for asylum in one of the countries they traveled through on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. It effectively bars all migrants — except for Mexicans — from claiming asylum at the southern border unless they’ve sought protection and been denied somewhere else.

The Trump administration says this rule will dissuade migrants from making a potentially treacherous journey to the U.S., and will encourage them to seek protection “closer to home.”

Migrants can still apply for two other forms of relief, called withholding of removal and Convention Against Torture. However, these protections are more difficult to win, and unlike asylum, do not provide a path to citizenship.

The Trump administration has reached agreements to send asylum seekers from the U.S. border to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Many experts say these countries can’t truly offer protection. They have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, along with high levels of poverty, and do not have well-established asylum programs. Many migrants are fleeing these very countries.

In late November, the U.S. government began sending some asylum seekers directly to Guatemala. The first migrant placed in the program was flown from El Paso to Guatemala City.

Only migrants from El Salvador and Honduras are currently being sent to Guatemala, but the administration may begin diverting other groups there, including Mexicans — who did not pass through Guatemala on their way to the U.S.

In early December, Reuters reported that of the 24 migrants who had been sent to Guatemala at that point, only two chose to apply for asylum there. The others preferred to return to their home countries.

Migrants are held in Customs and Border Protection facilities and given a short amount of time to contact a lawyer before they are screened to determine if they fear persecution in their home countries. If the interview determines they don’t fear persecution, they can be quickly deported. Though the two programs are very similar, PACR generally applies to non-Mexicans, while HARP applies to Mexican asylum seekers.

Lawyers have denounced PACR and HARP, calling them expedited removal programs that rush migrants through the asylum screening process without access to legal counsel — lawyers aren’t allowed into Border Patrol facilities. They say migrants who might otherwise meet the government standards for credible fear are at risk of being sent back into danger.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Mallory Falk was WWNO's first Education Reporter. Her four-part series on school closures received an Edward R. Murrow award. Prior to joining WWNO, Mallory worked as Communications Director for the youth leadership non-profit Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. She fell in love with audio storytelling as a Middlebury College Narrative Journalism Fellow and studied radio production at the Transom Story Workshop.
Mallory Falk
Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for the Texas news hub, the prototype for NPR's new system of regional journalism hubs. Previously she worked as a reporter at KRWG in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Her reporting has aired nationally on programs including Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Here & Now. A winner of multiple regional Edward R. Murrow awards, Mallory is based in El Paso, and is part of the national Report for America project, which aims to support journalists in underserved areas of America.