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For First Time In Rio Grande Valley, Officials Enforce Trump's 'Safe 3rd Country' Rule

A sick 18-month-old girl (center) was sent to Guatemala along with her mom and sister after being denied asylum into the U.S.
A sick 18-month-old girl (center) was sent to Guatemala along with her mom and sister after being denied asylum into the U.S.

A Honduran mother and her two young daughters reached the Texas-Mexico border in December — and just this week — were deported to Guatemala.

The Trump administration announced last July that Guatemala would sign what their government calls a “safe third country agreement” with the U.S. 

The agreement would require migrants who cross through Guatemala from countries like El Salvador and Honduras to first apply for asylum in Guatemala.

Migrants who reached El Paso started being sent to Guatemala in November, but the new program hadn’t expanded to the Rio Grande Valley, until now.

Laura Peña is with ProBAR, a pro bono organization that serves adults and unaccompanied children in immigration detention in the Rio Grande Valley. She said they received a phone call from a law firm who had received a call from another organization.

“A father called and he knew his family was in CBP custody in Donna,” Peña said. “This father knew that his 18-month-old baby was sick and I received a phone call here at the office and we immediately moved into action to try and visit our clients.”

Peña said she was told the baby had a fever and diarrhea and that getting access to her clients at the tent-like facility in Donna, which opened last May and has expanded, wasn’t easy. 

When she drove to the facility parking lot she saw a contract security guard. She said the guard told her to leave “immediately,” even after she identified herself as an attorney with clients inside.

The next step for Peña was stopping by the nearby Port of Entry to speak with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, but she was told they had nothing to do with the CBP facility next door.

Erin Thorn Vela is a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. She said CBP facilities are like a blackbox and it’s difficult for advocates and families member to reach people on the inside.

“Anybody who is in CBP custody is essentially sort of incommunicado while they’re there,” said Thorn Vela.

Peña said eventually CBP allowed her client to call her.

“I think it was two days later when I received a phone call from the mother who was extremely distraught,” Peña said. “At that point they had been in CBP custody for 13 days.”

A request for humanitarian parole was filed on behalf of her clients, but it was denied. A few days later Peña and her team filed a habeas petition in federal court and a request for a temporary restraining order. Meanwhile Pena said CBP informed her that the family was transferred to a local hospital and was able to meet up with her clients.

“It wasn’t clear to us if our clients were going to be removed to Guatemala,” Peña said. “It was clear to me based off of our initial conversations with the mother that she had been asked where she wanted to go, Honduras or Guatemala, and she just said she couldn’t go back to Honduras because she was afraid of returning.”

Peña said at that point she knew the Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement had expanded to the Rio Grande Valley. A few days before their removal, Pena learned an “expedited order of removal” was approved.  

“I was immediately concerned that the normal due process protections, which are provided in the regular expedited removal process, were not afforded to my clients,” Peña said. “I was also concerned about, ‘How do I represent a family if they’re removed to a third country under this new rule and they don’t know anybody there and their children are sick?’”

Dr. Amy Cohen is the executive director of Every Last One, an organization which advocates for and assists immigrant children in government detention. Cohen played a role in helping the family before and after the family was sent to Guatemala.

“I spent about 14 hours searching for support for these children, this family, on the ground in Guatemala because I was very fearful this child could very well be the next child to die from her treatment in CBP custody,” Cohen said.

Cohen was able to connect with humanitarian organizations in Guatemala who waited for the family to arrive to take them to a shelter, get them fed and have the children examined. She said when the family landed they were on the runway for five hours and once inside, the mother was interviewed and processed and asked if she wanted to remain in Guatemala and seek asylum there, or be sent back to Honduras.

“You can understand since these are the conditions in which many of these people [experience] when they arrive in Guatemala, that they have no capacity to cognitively think through what their choices are,” Cohen said. “All they want is to go home, even if home is a place where they’ll get killed… initially this was the response of this mom as well.”

Both children were determined to be sick after they were examined. Cohen said this family was lucky to have someone to arrange for that kind of care in a country with very limited resources for migrants.

“The policies of the American government when it comes to responding to those who are fleeing violence and coming to seek lawful asylum, this response, is second to only slavery, as the ugliest moral stain on the character of this nation,” Cohen said. “We have a choice, we either collude with that, or look the other way, or we fight back.”

In addition to the third country rule, the Trump administration has strictly enforced its Remain in Mexico Policy, which requires asylum seekers who reach the U.S.-Mexico border to wait in Mexico for months as their asylum claims make their way through U.S. immigration courts. 

“What it looks like is that individuals are now being held for prolonged periods in CBP custody and that is because the administration is now implementing other programs, including the Guatemalan Asylum Cooperation Agreement,” Peña said.

Peña said it is unclear how many other families might be on track to be sent to Guatemala from the Rio Grande Valley, but she and other immigrant rights activists and attorneys like Thorn Vela suspect there are more families being affected by the new policy.

More than 200 asylum seekers have been sent back to Guatemala, according to CBS, who first reported on this family being sent to Guatemala.

The Department of Homeland Security and CBP did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Clarification: Every Last One is an organization which advocates for and assists immigrant children in government detention.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos