S1: Here in the US, the pandemic has brought a lot of things to a halt, the open air office, the luxury apparel market, a mask list, doctor’s appointment, one thing it hasn’t stopped is the flow of people seeking asylum here. People are still showing up at the border, hoping to escape brutal conditions in their home countries. The U.S. government is supposed to hear these people out.
S2: What was supposed to happen is people are supposed to have their day in court.
S1: That’s Adolfo Flores. He covers immigration policy for BuzzFeed News. He says agreements that the United States has signed and supported promise that people asking for asylum be interviewed and ask why they fear returning to their home country.
S2: That’s an international obligation. And it’s also part of a federal law that people have access to this legal system that we have. But that’s not happening right now.
S1: The Trump administration says the pandemic makes it impossible to give asylum seekers a hearing. Back in March, the CDC said undocumented immigrants could no longer be safely detained at the border while they awaited processing immigrants and asylum seekers.
S2: When they show up at the border and say, present themselves to a Border Patrol agent. They are quickly sent back to Mexico in less than two hours without any access to our immigration court system.
S3: People who are showing up at the border saying, I’m fleeing my country, I’m asking for asylum, they are simply dropped over on the other side of the border.
S4: Yeah, I mean, they’re just turned back.
S1: The government has also scrapped many of the protections in place for unaccompanied minors, kids who’ve crossed the border and are trying to stay in the U.S..
S2: In the past, what would have happened is the kids would have been sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which runs a system of shelters to hold the kids while the government vets sponsors, usually family, but sometimes friends who can take the kids. Then they go through the immigration court system. But that’s not happening either. For them, instead of expelling the children, they will hold the kids in hotels through a contractor via ICE while they prepare to send the kids on a flight back to their home countries.
S5: The Trump administration insists this is all necessary to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. But critics like the American Civil Liberties Union say the US government is using the crisis to continue the president’s crackdown on immigrants.
S2: They’re saying that this CDC order is just an excuse to effectively block asylum at the border and any access to our court system and deny immigrants due process.
S5: On today’s show, how the Trump administration is denying immigrants and asylum seekers access to the US legal system and what that means for the adults and children fleeing violence in their home countries. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S3: Before covid-19, was the United States able to handle the flow of asylum seekers, were those cases being adjudicated before and they’re not now?
S4: They were, but there was and there is a massive backlog in cases. So people’s cases were taking years to be adjudicated. But you also have to keep in mind the administration had another policy before this, the so-called Remain in Mexico program, and so that forced immigrants and asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated, usually these courts along the border. But even then, people were waiting more than a year in some cases.
S3: So this is a policy that’s been in flux already, regardless of covid-19 people who once would show up at the border and have an asylum process scheduled and be kept in custody on the US side of the border or released to relatives or allowed to remain at large. We’re being pushed back into Mexico already. Now they’re being pushed back into Mexico and not even being given a hearing.
S4: Exactly. Yeah, that yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening.
S3: Does the law give a lot of power to any executive branch, not just the Trump administration, but the Obama administration, the Bush administration, in dealing with the day to day treatment of attempted border crossers, of asylum requests of refugee families? Is there normally a lot of latitude in the executive branch?
S4: I think the last three years have shown that there is more latitude than we previously thought. The changes in the policies under this administration, they don’t always stick, you know, but but there’s always a new one or there’s always something on the horizon to take over the previous one. You know, the room in Mexico is a good example. That was one thing. And now we have these expulsions. Of course, they say that this is because of the pandemic and we need to stop the spread of covid-19. But I think that the last few years have shown how much power and influence the executive branch does have in changing or adopting our immigration system.
S3: In your reporting, you’re careful to make the distinction between deportation and expulsion. Walk us through the difference.
S2: The yeah. So I mean, the reason I try to make that distinction is because if you say I was deported, that means you went through our immigration court system. You know, you had you went through the process, expulsions cut you off from that process completely. And so there are people who want to call them like fast deportations, but it doesn’t capture what’s actually happening. And so so let’s say I show up at the border fleeing persecution or violence, and I tell a Border Patrol agent, you know, this happened to me because of this in the past. They would do a credible fear interview. And if I passed that, then I would be able to access the court system and and try to get asylum or some other type of protection, because it’s not just asylum. You also have withholding of removal and and cat. And so then I would go through that process. And if I. Didn’t get it. I would be able to appeal it and go through that process, and so what you’re seeing now is that due process is taken away. I would go to the border today, tell the Border Patrol agent, hey, I’m fleeing persecution. They would quickly process me and then tell me now to go back to Mexico.
S3: I think it’s really important to make the distinction for the listeners between different types of border crossers, because expulsion has been used for people who are just being brought by coyotes to a farm in northwest Indiana or to a dairy and in Iowa for a long time. And it was common under the Obama administration as well. But it would seem that for asylum seekers, there’s a whole different legal architecture and a whole different expectation of what’s supposed to go on once you arrive at the border of the United States.
S2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, if even under Obama you had I think you’re referring to expedited removal, that you would be removed really quickly as well if you didn’t have an asylum claim. But, yeah, you know, that would also happen. But if you had an asylum claim or made one, you would be able to make your case before an immigration judge. Do you just not seeing any of that?
S3: I don’t feel. Do we know what happens to people who are expelled? Do we know whether they make the trip again, present themselves at the border again, try to cross again? So that’s actually leading to a statistical uptick in the number of these cases being handled at the border?
S4: Yeah, people are immediately sent back, but there’s nothing stopping them from trying again and again and again. You know, there are no consequences to it. And so your yours like you saw some that the numbers go up, that that is a thing that’s happening and that officials in DC are aware of.
S1: How has the pandemic become a factor in the way border enforcement is being handled writ large, not just in the sector of the border that you’re by now, not just with expulsions rather than hearings, but is is covid-19 also changing the lives of people who are already in custody, adults and children?
S4: Well, in terms of people in detention, the virus is spreading in all the facilities, adults and family detention centres with kids. So there has been an effort to reduce the population and people have been getting released. But if you talk to some of the attorneys working with folks there, they’re not being released fast enough or it’s not enough people and people are getting sick and in some cases dying in ice detention from covid-19. And the immigration court system hasn’t been working as well as it usually did. And so people are getting their cases postponed. Some are not. It depends on what stage of the process you’re at.
S3: Well, behind all this legal language, behind the niceties of the difference between expulsion and deportation, there are real people, people driven north by real distress. Tell us the story of a young Guatemalan sent home. You called her Claudia. What’s her story?
S2: Yeah, so. So Claudia was a 17 year old girl. And what the mother who was living there by herself after her parents and her younger brother immigrated to the US and one day after school let out late, she was walking to, you know, a line of taxis that she would usually take to get home. And she noticed somebody was following her. So she started walking fast and it was a five minute walk. And in that time, a group of men grabbed her and they raped her. And she said she went home and she didn’t have anyone there and she didn’t tell her parents. She didn’t want to worry them, but she had to eventually when she realized that she had become pregnant from the rape. And then after that, she started receiving calls from the men who had raped her, you know, threatening her, telling her that they were watching her, that if she said anything, something would happen to her. After she gave birth to her daughter, she started to make her way from Guatemala to the border. She was abandoned in the Arizona desert by the smuggler because she stopped to change her daughter’s diaper. And by the time she looked up and try to catch up, her and another woman realized the group was long gone and they were lost. And so they called nine one one and they were able to get they were rescued by Border Patrol. But that was when she was told, we’re going to be sending you back to Guatemala. And after I think it was about a day I had a Border Patrol facility. She was taken to a hotel overseen by government contractors and then flown back to Guatemala.
S1: Claudia was held in a hotel supervised by a federal contractor before being sent back to Guatemala and.
S4: Says that practice is not uncommon, but it is legally questionable, so unaccompanied children, in some cases families are being kept in hotels. You know, Hiltons, those are the ones that I was seeing them more often and they were held in. These hotels sometimes are not given access to a phone. Their attorneys have a hard time reaching them. Some kids are able to call their parents, but they’re not allowed to tell the parents where they are or what the conditions are like. One immigration attorney described them as black sites because they sort of disappear into this hotel system. And then from there, they’re taken to an airport and sent back to their country.
S3: The federal government is being sued by advocates trying to free migrant children from detention, the kind of detention you describe. What does the lawsuit argue?
S2: The lawsuit argues that expelling unaccompanied children violates 2008 anti trafficking law and that the law requires them to quickly transfer the kids to the refugee agency that usually took them instead of quickly expelling them. And you know, that law and other laws, you know, give these kids access to the asylum system, but also other protections. And so the lawsuit says that the Trump administration has violated that law specifically, but also the other protections that unaccompanied children are entitled to.
S3: Adolfo. What’s next? What’s the next shoe to drop? Or as long as the Trump administration is in power and the pandemic prevails, are we going to see pretty much what we’re seeing now?
S4: So, I mean, there’s some stuff coming down potentially in the next few months. Like last month, the Justice Department and DHS proposed a rule that would disqualify immigrants from asylum if officials determined they could spread an infectious disease that’s separate from this order. And then you also have some regulations that are being proposed that would also make seeking asylum harder. So this is one one policy. If the administration stays in the White House, we can expect to see more policy sort of build on this one and make it harder for people to access our immigration court system.
S6: Adolfo Flores, a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for joining me on what next. Thank you for having me. Adolfo Flores covers immigration policy for BuzzFeed News. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Danielle Hewitt and Jason de Leon with help this week from Daniel Avis. Special thanks as always, to Alison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in this week for Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back tomorrow with more. What next?