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Migrant Mother And Her Lawyer Refused To Take 'No' For An Answer From U.S. Border Agents

U.S. officials have sent back to Mexico more than 30,000 asylum-seeking migrants to wait for their immigration court dates. This is part of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico program. Pregnant women are among some of the people sent back. But one attorney from the Rio Grande Valley pushed back at the policy. She tried to get her client paroled and back into Texas.

Last month, Jodi Goodwin, a local immigration attorney, was in Matamoros, a Mexican city across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, to represent an asylum seeker named Yulisa, who was about seven and a half months pregnant. Yulisa declined to provide her last name to Texas Public Radio.

Goodwin was there to try to convince officials and agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to allow Yulisa into the U.S. and remove her from the Remain in Mexico program, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.

She warned Yulisa that their determination would cause tension with the immigration officials.

“There’s been a trend, at least along the southwest border. They have not been subjecting pregnant women to MPP,” Goodwin explained. “And we’re going to make a request for her to be paroled in today based on her pregnancy.”

Goodwin and Yulisa spoke, gathered her sonogram and other documents, and stepped onto the international bridge. They made it to the halfway point that divides Mexico and the U.S., where CBP agents stood guard.

Goodwin told one of the officers she wanted her client paroled into the U.S.

“One of the officers was just shaking his head,” Goodwin said afterward. “The other one -- I just asked him to see a supervisor because they’re not going to be able to make a decision on the bridge.”

Credit Reynaldo Leanos Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin explains to asylum seekers in Matamoros how she and other lawyers can help them before their MPP hearings.

The CBP officer asked to see Yulisa’s documents, then signaled that he wanted to speak with Yulisa. She crossed over the international boundary line into the U.S.

A couple of minutes later, the officers sent her back, and she explained to Goodwin what happened.

She said they told her that, “I already have my court date and that I need to wait.”

Goodwin asked one of the agents if he was a supervisor. The man signaled to Goodwin to cross over into the U.S.

As they spoke, Yulisa leaned up against a fence to rest. She placed her hands over her belly. She said she was nervous.

After several minutes, Goodwin returned. No luck.

“They took me inside and let me wait for the chief,” Goodwin explained. “The chief wasn’t there so they called him on the phone, and he said that given that she was medically cleared, supposedly, when she was processed that they were going to keep her in MPP, and she has to wait for her court date.”

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Migrants' clothing dry at a camp near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros.

Goodwin said after that phone call, a CBP officer escorted her back to the international crossover point on the bridge. She said she told him he had the discretion to allow Yulisa into the U.S. Her advice was ignored.

Yulisa was not the only member of a vulnerable population refused entry into the U.S.

Dani Marrero Hi works in the Rio Grande Valley office of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a statewide nonprofit alliance of lawyers who serve Texas communities.

She pointed to several cases of vulnerable populations prevented from entering the U.S. and being placed in the MPP program.

“According to MPP, the own policy that the government established is that there is supposed to be certain exceptions to who gets into MPP and who doesn’t,” Marrero Hi explained. “And that is supposed to include certain vulnerable populations.”

Marrero Hi said she had an issue with how the government defined who was part of a vulnerable population because every migrant is vulnerable and wouldn’t be at the border if they weren’t.

Back on the international bridge, Goodwin said the supervisor told her to send an email to several people within the Department of Homeland Security regarding her request for Yulisa.

Goodwin said she’d already done that and hadn’t heard back.

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Johana talks to her daughter Iris, 2, in a tent where they live near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros. They were sent back under the 'Remain in Mexico' program.

About a week later, Goodwin and Yulisa tried to cross again.

They returned to the middle of the bridge again. Agents instructed Goodwin to cross into the U.S. and speak with the Port supervisor. After a few minutes, she returned, and CBP officers asked Yulisa to go with them.

Goodwin was cautiously optimistic. She said she was glad they allowed Yulisa to cross. She would wait and see if they allowed her to stay.

“I think the reason why using discretion gets lost is there are certainly a number of orders from above that state to the officers that ‘this is the new protocol that we’re going to use,’” she said. “And there’s more focus on what that new protocol is as opposed to what that new protocol is not.”

The next morning, Goodwin learned Yulisa was returned to Mexico again and was told she had to stay there until her immigration court date at the end of September. That would be around the time she was expected to deliver her baby.

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to TPR’s requests for comment.

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