President Donald Trump took office a year ago promising to ramp up border security. New data from the Hope Border Institute and the Borderland Immigration Council shows the situation for asylum seekers has gotten worse. The U.S. can’t turn migrants away who express a fear of persecution. They’re legally entitled to a screening interview to see if they qualify for asylum. But new data shows asylum seekers are being denied those interviews, and being mistreated, both at the border and while in detention.
The report looks at asylum seekers in El Paso and southern New Mexico. These are migrants who turned themselves in at the border, after fleeing violence and hunger in their home countries.
“What were abuses in other presidential administrations – prolonged detention, the separation of children from fathers and mothers at the border, the detention of pregnant women, the detention of journalists fleeing state-sanctioned violence – all these things have become just instruments in the toolbox of the Trump administration to trample on the human dignity of migrants and asylum seekers at the border,” says Dylan Corbett with Hope Border Institute, one of the El Paso-based groups behind the report.
His team, along with the Borderland Immigration Council, studied nearly 300 immigration cases, surveyed local legal advocates, and sat in on immigration court. Corbett says he found case after case of migrants facing serious obstacles when seeking asylum. Some were intimidated by border agents or improperly interviewed. Others were detained without access to legal services or medical care. Some were told Mexicans don’t qualify for asylum in the U.S., even though that’s not true.
In one case, a woman was separated from her 12-year-old daughter at the border; they were sent to different detention facilities, nearly 1,000 miles apart. The woman chose to withdraw her asylum case, so she could reunite with her child.
“Do I remain here, robbed of my dignity in prolonged detention, or do I go back to possibly die? And that is something that our clients are asking themselves on a daily basis,” says Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. She says asylum seekers increasingly face this kind of choice.
None of the practices outlined in the report are new. But researcher Camilo Perez-Bustillo, who helped write the report, says they’re happening much more frequently.
“Many of the patterns we identify here were present before the Trump administration, but the key thing is they have intensified and deepened since then. More isolated instances of abuse have become generalized practices,” Perez-Bustillo says.
And even if asylum seekers make it through detention, and manage to get legal counsel, their odds of winning refuge are slim. Even before Trump took office, El Paso had – and still has – one of the highest asylum denial rates in the country. In 2016, between 94 and 99 percent of applications in this region are denied.