Every day, the same scene plays out in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. Mixed into the flow of students, commuters and travelers are asylum-seeking families, arriving at their final destination, the entrance to the United States port of entry.
The families drop the required 4 pesos into the turnstile to begin their walk up the international bridge that arches over the Rio Grande and connects this part of Mexico to the United States. Yet when they reach the halfway point, demarcated by orange cones, Customs and Border Protection officers are waiting to turn them away from seeking safety in the United States — a right granted to them under American and international law.
Instead, these asylum-seeking families are provided with the same explanation: “We are full.”
Conversations surrounding President Trump’s focus on spending billions on a border wall have overshadowed border realities. For the past two years, as the number of asylum-seeking families and children has increased, the administration has ushered in a range of additional restrictive border policies. United States government officials have told migrants to go to ports of entry rather than crossing the border without authorization. However, simultaneously, they have imposed other policies that reject asylum seekers trying to do just that.
In July, a family of five arrived (navigating their way through Mexico with the help of smugglers) at the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras border crossing to apply for asylum. The parents and their children — ages 12, 6, and 3 — had fled El Salvador after receiving targeted threats of violence from Barrio 18, a major gang in Central America.
The family approached border officers to assert their right to ask for asylum; they were also seeking help for a son who no longer had medicine for his chronic heart condition. In response, a border officer noted that he was not a doctor, physically pushed the family back across the international line into Mexico, and told them to return to Piedras Negras and the local migrant shelter there.
In the shelter, the family put their names on an informal waiting list for their chance to seek asylum again. However, their smugglers learned they had not yet entered the United States and began demanding more money, promising to infiltrate the shelter and kill the family if they did not send additional payments. Several days later, while the family walked to a convenience store, a white van screeched to a halt and armed men forced the family into the vehicle.
The family was taken to a house and spent two days in captivity, until Mexican state police arrived. However, these officers had not come to save the family but rather to sit down at the table for a leisurely breakfast and to accept money from the kidnappers. When the police did pay attention to the family, it was to call Mexican immigration agents to deport them. These agents proposed a deal, to release the family for $1,000. But with no more money, the family was transported to a Mexican migration detention center. After languishing for two months, the parents and children were released into Mexico City, where the threats continued both from their former kidnappers and Barrio 18 gang members searching for the family.
This family’s harrowing story is far from an isolated case. In February 2017, a Honduran woman and her three children were kidnapped in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas — the migrant kidnapping capital of Mexico — after trying to seek asylum with border officers on three occasions. And in November 2018, a transgender Mexican asylum seeker was robbed and assaulted in Tijuana. The next month, a Cameroonian asylum seeker was stabbed and two Honduran asylum-seeking teenagers were murdered.
Routine turnbacks and the expansion of “metering” systems at ports of entry began in 2016. Yet last summer, border officers doubled down on the practice, stationing its agents mid-bridge from El Paso to Brownsville and at border gates from New Mexico to San Diego with instructions to reject people seeking asylum. Today, these turnbacks are occurring daily at major ports of entry along the southwest border.
Asylum seekers who are denied entry to the United States must wait in Mexican migrant shelters or on the bridges themselves, vulnerable to a range of rights violations and safety concerns. This follows perilous journeys to escape violence at home to reach the United States and legally request protection.
The situation could be improved if United States officials allocated sufficient personnel and resources to efficiently process asylum seekers immediately upon their arrival to the border. However, the Trump administration has not taken these steps and has instead expanded metering and turnback policies. Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will implement a pilot initiative in California to return arriving asylum seekers to Mexico to await their eventual hearings before an immigration judge. Such a policy deliberately places thousands of people in situations similar to the young family of five that was kidnapped and extorted.
As violence and insecurity across Central America continues to go unaddressed, families will continue to join our border communities in search of protection for themselves and their children. Despite attempts to vilify and demonize them as political pawns, asylum seekers from around the world continue to see the promise of the United States. Seeking asylum is a right — one this country must uphold. It is not only the law, it is the moral imperative of this nation.
Stephanie Leutert is the director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. Shaw Drake is the policy counsel for the A.C.L.U. Border Rights Center.