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US immigration

US starts admitting asylum seekers from Central American train in Mexico despite Donald Trump’s fury

Parents in the group, which travelled to the US border from southern Mexico, have been told they may be separated from their kids for several months during processing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 12:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 1:52am

A group of Central American asylum seekers who crossed Mexico in a caravan to reach the US are now starting to enter America for processing, ending a brief impasse over lack of space – and despite criticism from US President Donald Trump. But parents in the group have been told that they may be separated from their children.

Caravan organisers said eight members of the group, which had travelled from southern Mexico to the border city of Tijuana, were allowed in to be interviewed by asylum officers, but US Customs and Border Protection did not provide a number.

About 140 others were still waiting in Mexico to turn themselves in at San Diego’s San Isidro border crossing, the nation’s busiest, said Alex Mensing, project organiser for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which is leading the caravan.

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“The spirits are high, there was good news for everybody,” Mensing said on the Mexican side of the crossing, moments after learning that some were allowed in.

US lawyers who volunteered advice in Tijuana last week warned the Central Americans that parents may be separated from their children and be detained for many months while their asylum cases are pending.

Asylum seekers are typically held up to three days at the border and turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they pass initial screenings by asylum officers, they may be detained or released with ankle monitors while their cases wind through immigration court, which can take years.

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Nearly 80 per cent of asylum seekers passed the initial screening from October through December, but few are likely to win asylum.

The denial rate for El Salvadorans seeking asylum was 79 per cent from 2012 to 2017, according to asylum outcome information from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse. Hondurans were close behind with a 78 per cent denial rate, followed Guatemalans at 75 per cent.

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Trump administration officials have railed against what they call “legal loopholes” and “catch-and-release” policies that allow people seeking asylum to be freed while their cases are adjudicated. 

The president tweeted on Monday that the caravan “shows how weak & ineffective US immigration laws are.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pledged to send more immigration judges to the border if needed and threatened criminal prosecution. On Monday, the Justice Department said it filed illegal entry charges against 11 people identified as caravan members.

US Customs and Border Protection said it processed hundreds of asylum seekers in the previous week, many of them Mexican, which contributed to a bottleneck that led inspectors to turn away caravan members since they arrived late Sunday afternoon.

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Asylum seekers did not appear to be thrown off the by the delay.

Elin Orrellana, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from El Salvador, said she is fleeing the violent MS-13 street gang, a favourite target of both Sessions and Trump because of their brutal killings in communities in the United States. She said her older sister had been killed by the gang in El Salvador, so she is attempting to join other family members in the Kansas City area.

“Fighting on is worth it,” she said.

Customs and Border Protection has room for about 300 people at the San Diego border crossing.

“As in the past when we’ve had to limit the number of people we can bring in for processing at a given time, we expect that this will be a temporary situation,” the agency said.

During a surge of Haitian arrivals at the San Diego crossing in 2016, Customs and Border Protection required people to wait more than five weeks in Mexico. Since then, smaller upticks of Mexican asylum seekers have caused delays of several hours.