Trump policy to deter asylum seekers is illegal, says Amnesty director

The Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy aimed at deterring asylum seekers, especially at the southern border, is illegal and a human rights violation, the head of Amnesty International in the United States has said.

By law, the US is required to allow asylum seekers to file a request for asylum, but the Trump administration has implemented policies designed to prevent that from happening, including placing Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers at the international boundary to ask travelers for documentation before getting to the port of entry.

“First and foremost the policy is a violation of US and international law and clearly a human rights violation. If the US recognized that an individual has a credible fear of prosecution you can’t send them somewhere else – it is on the obligation of the state to offer protection and not delegate it to some third party,” Margaret Huang, the executive director for Amnesty International US, told the Guardian this week.

Huang cited a memo from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that was leaked last month showing the intent of the Trump administration to traumatize migrant children and parents to deter migrants coming to the US. Huang said the newest policy appeared to be an extension of previous efforts to shortcut all legal avenues for migrants to come into the country.

“It really is throwing the entire system into chaos. It feels like the US government is saying: ‘Lets make things as complicated as confusing as possible so we deter people from coming and if they try, we’ll make it so hard for them and make them feel miserable,’,” Huang said.

Speaking to the Guardian in El Paso, the border city in west Texas, Huang was accompanied on a visit there by a delegation of more than 20 members of Amnesty International, including directors from Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Canada and Mexico aimed at learning more about the repercussions of the new policy, which intends to send asylum seekers arriving across the southern border back to Mexico while their cases go through the immigration court system. The policy strand is just one amid Trump’s crackdown on both lawful and unlawful immigration.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest A migrant and his children wait to hear if their number is called to apply for asylum in the US in Tijuana on 25 January. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP
The group visited San Diego in California and the Mexican city directly across the border, Tijuana, on 28 January and El Paso and it’s Mexican “twin city”, which shares the border fence and Rio Grande waterway cutting through downtown, Juarez on 30-31 January. The group’s conclusion from the visit was simply that the Mexican government doesn’t have the resources, infrastructure nor capacity to ensure the well being of the asylum seekers, regardless of the legal or ethical implications of the Trump policy, according to Huang.

“The implications of the policy mean that we have to rely on the government of Mexico to provide safety, shelter, support services, to give those migrants access to legal counsel and transport them to the border for their court hearings,” Huang said. “The notion that this [US] government is prepared to do that is bizarre and in fact [Mexican officials] would be the first to tell you that they are not prepared and don’t have the capacity to do it.”

As part of their visit to the border, Amnesty International saw first hand the former camp where many asylum seekers recently stayed in Tijuana after some from a so-called caravan of migrants, mainly from Honduras and Guatemala, were stuck there after approaching the US for entry. They visited private shelters there and in Ciudad Juarez and gathered with local advocacy groups in El Paso to get a complete assessment of the current challenges migrants face when they reach the border

Huang questioned what will happen if any of the refugees are harmed in Mexico while awaiting a resolution for their case, saying the US would be responsible for such a mishap.

Advocates say that just like the previous policies the policy to make asylum seekers wait, or remain in Mexico will incentivize then to try to enter the country illegally, which can facilitate their removal and denial of asylum if they are caught by border patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) federal agents.

And it all makes their journeys and their situation after crossing the border that much more perilous, even deadly, especially for children.

Despite the challenges that lay ahead, Huang said the collaboration between advocates and service providerslends some optimism.

“What gives me hope is the community of advocates and providers and volunteers who spend more than 40 hours a week thinking about how to help this population,” Huang said. “Without those private shelters none of these folks would have a shot of getting asylum and without these providers, many more of them would be dead.”