Asylum Seekers From the Central American Caravan Are Being Turned Away at the US Border

After weeks of advance notice, Border Patrol says it can’t handle their claims.

A member of the Central American migrant caravan looks through the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico.Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP

Update 4/30/2018: On Monday night, eight members of the refugee caravan—three mothers and their four children, and an 18-year-old man—were permitted to request asylum in the United States at the San Ysidro border crossing, according to Buzzfeed News. There are approximately 200 members of the caravan who are expected to request asylum in total.

For a month, the Trump administration has known that a large caravan of migrants was making its way through Mexico toward the United States border. Two days after the right-wing site Gateway Pundit described the caravan as “a horde” and an “illegal migrant army,” President Donald Trump tweeted angrily, “Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws.” Not long after that, he mobilized the National Guard to patrol the US-Mexico border.

The group, made up of men, women, and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America, has walked, hopped trains, and taken buses for more than 2,000 miles to reach Tijuana from Chapachula, Mexico, where the journey began. Many of the caravan’s members seek to make asylum claims at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, California. 

Yet when 50 members of the caravan presented themselves at the port of entry on Sunday afternoon, they were turned back by Customs and Border Protection, which claimed that the port of entry was at capacity and could not process any new cases. A week ago, Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen had announced that the agency was “sending additional USCIS asylum officers, ICE attorneys, DOJ Immigration Judges, and DOJ prosecutors to the Southern border,” and that was “taking a number of steps to ensure that all cases and claims are adjudicated promptly.” 

Both federal law and international treaties require the United States to process asylum seekers. But the Trump administration has routinely turned them away. As Mother Jones has reported, Border Patrol officers have been rejecting refugees requesting asylum at US ports of entry. Some have been told, “Trump doesn’t want you here” and “Trump says we don’t have to let you in.”

In 2017, Human Rights First documented 125 cases of individuals and families who had been illegally denied access to asylum procedures. In some instances, migrants were sent away from border crossings into dangerous border cities where “cartels, smugglers, and traffickers…have kidnapped, raped, and robbed asylum seekers wrongly turned away by the U.S. government.”

“The administration’s response to the refugee caravan is simply a manufactured PR crisis designed to mislead the American public into closing the door on those seeking protection,” says Laura Gault, a Human Rights First lawyer currently in Tijuana to observe how the US responds to members of the caravan. “While Border Patrol claims that it does not have the capacity to admit members of the caravan, there are women and children sleeping on the ground outside the port of entry, with no bathrooms, waiting to lawfully seek refuge in the United States.” Last year, dozens of migrants who traveled in a similar caravan were admitted at San Ysidro to make asylum claims. 

Not all of the migrants who traveled with the caravan are seeking asylum. Some have requested protection in Mexico. Others have split off, including some who may try to cross the border illegally. Organizers say who those who remain represent the “most vulnerable.”

As of Monday afternoon, they were still waiting for CBP to begin processing their claims. “It is particularly alarming that the government has not yet processed a single person for protection, even though the caravan has complied with requests to break into smaller groups,” said Gault in a statement. “The Trump Administration must stop trying to do an end-run around the law.”