Supreme Court considers policy for immigrants to wait in Mexico

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) – When a woman cut her leg in mountains inhabited by snakes and scorpions, she told Joel Úbeda to take her 5-year-old daughter. Úbeda refused to let her mother die, despite the advice of her smuggler and another migrant in a group of seven, and helped get her to safety by lighting a mirror in sunlight to signal a Customs and Protection helicopter. US Border Office near San Diego.

The motorcycle mechanic, who used his Nicaragua home as collateral for a $6,500 smuggling fee, says the worst day of his life was still ahead.

Arrested after meeting with US agents, Úbeda learned two days later that he could not apply for asylum in the United States while living with a cousin in Miami. Instead, he would have to wait in the Mexican border city of Tijuana for US immigration court hearings under a Trump-era policy that will be discussed on Tuesday before the US Supreme Court..

President Joe Biden lifted the “stay in Mexico” policy on his first day in office. A judge forced him to reinstate him in Decemberbut only 3,000 migrants were registered by the end of March, making little impact during a period when authorities stopped migrants around 700,000 times. in the border.

Úbeda, like many migrants in a Tijuana shelter, had never heard of the policy, officially called the “Migrant Protection Protocols”. It was widely known under President Donald Trump, who recruited about 70,000 immigrants after launching it in 2019 and making it a centerpiece of efforts to deter asylum seekers.

“It’s a terrifying experience,” Úbeda said after a phone call with his mother to consider whether he should return to Nicaragua to be reunited with her, his wife and their daughter. He was puzzled why the vast majority of Nicaraguans are released in the US to seek asylum, including the woman he saved and her daughter.

Almost 2,200 asylum seekers, or 73% of those registered as of March, are from Nicaragua, with almost all the rest of Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela. However, even among Nicaraguans, the policy is short-sighted. US authorities stopped Nicaraguans more than 56,000 times from December to March.

Criticisms of the policy are the same under Biden and Trump: migrants are terrified in dangerous Mexican border towns, and lawyers from Mexico are extremely difficult to find.

US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in an October order to end “Stay in Mexico,” he reluctantly admitted that the policy had caused a drop in weak asylum applications under Trump, but said it did not justify the damage.

Emil Cárdenas, 27, said he bled his foot and drank urine after running out of water on a three-day hike in the mountains near San Diego with a smuggler who took a $10,000 installment in his fee and stole his passport, phone number. and other identification documents. .

Cárdenas had hoped to live near his brother, a Catholic priest in New Jersey, as he sought asylum, but waits at the Tijuana shelter for his first hearing in San Diego on May 18. He is dismayed to see others in the shelter at his third or fourth hearing. .

“You have to find a way to cross,” said Cárdenas, a Colombian who has twice tried to enter the United States. “I’m thinking about what to do.”

While awaiting hearings, the men at the shelter are hooked up to smartphones — reading, watching videos and occasionally calling friends and family. A large television facing rows of plastic tables and chairs helps to defeat boredom.

Many were robbed and assaulted in Mexico, leaving them too afraid to leave the shelter. Some talk in small groups, but most stay to themselves, lost in thought.

Carlos Humberto Castellano, who fixed cell phones in Colombia and wants to join his family in New York, cried for two days after being returned to Tijuana to await a hearing in San Diego. It cost him about $6,500 to fly to Mexico and pay a smuggler to cross the border, leaving him in debt, he said.

“I can’t leave (the shelter) because I don’t know what could happen,” said Castellano, 23, remembering that his smuggler took a picture of him. “Being kidnapped is fear.”

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the policy is discretionary and can be ended, as the Biden administration argues, or is the only way to comply with what Texas and Missouri say is a congressional order not to release immigrants into the United States. United.

Without adequate detention facilities, states argue the government’s only option is to make migrants wait in Mexico for US asylum hearings.

The two sides also disagree over whether the way the government ended the policy complies with a federal law that forces agencies to follow certain rules and explain their actions.

A decision is expected shortly after the administration ends another major Trump-era border policy.lifting the pandemic-related authority to expel migrants with no chance of seeking asylum on May 23. The decision to end Title 42’s authority, named for a 1944 public health law, is being legally challenged by 22 states and faces growing division within Biden’s Democratic Party.

Due to costs, logistics and strained diplomatic relations, Title 42 has been difficult to apply to some nationalities, including Nicaraguans, which explains why the government favored them to “Stay in Mexico”.

The administration made some changes at the request of Mexico, which may explain the low enrollment. He promised to try to resolve the cases within six months and agreed to bear the costs of transporting migrants to and from the border in Mexico for hearings.

As under Trump, finding a lawyer is a difficult task. US authorities provide migrants with a list of low-cost or no-cost lawyers, but phone lines are overloaded.

Judges warn immigrants that immigration law is complicated and that they face longer chances without a lawyer. Migrants respond that calls to lawyers go unanswered and they cannot pay typical fees.

“I’ve seen many people in your situation who have found lawyers, often for free,” Judge Scott Simpson told an immigrant this month in a San Diego courtroom before granting more time to hire one.

Victor Cervera, 40, has given up on low-cost lawyers after his calls went unanswered. The Peruvian’s online search for those taking “Stay in Mexico” cases yielded a discovery — a Miami attorney who charges $350 for an initial telephone consultation.

Nearly all migrants tell US officials they fear waiting in Mexico, which entitles them to a phone interview with an asylum officer. About 15% are spared when the officer agrees their concerns are well-founded, while others are dismissed for reasons that make them vulnerable in Mexico, such as gender or sexual orientation.

Returnees wonder why they were singled out when so many others are released in the US to pursue their claims.

“It’s a raffle,” said Álvaro Galo, 34, a Nicaraguan man who cleans and cooks meals at the shelter to keep his mind occupied.


Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.

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