EL PASO, Texas (AP) — U.S. immigration authorities are testing a program to speed up reviews of asylum claims at a Texas Border Patrol station, offering a glimpse of how the Trump administration may enforce its de facto ban on political asylum.
The pilot project, called the "Prompt Asylum Case Review" system, began Oct. 7 in El Paso, with a goal of having a decision by an immigration judge within 10 days, according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the program have not been made public. Mexicans are exempt.
The rollout has not been publicly announced, leading to complaints by attorneys that they have no access to clients and are left in the dark.
"The most concerning part here is we have not received any official word from Border Patrol and it seems to be purposeful that they have not told the (nongovernmental organizations) what's going on," Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Advocacy Center, said in a conference call Monday with reporters.
Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso, said lawyers cannot enter Border Patrol holding centers, which are designed to keep people no more than 72 hours. She learned about the pilot project from an attorney who was unable to reach two clients, both women from El Salvador with infants who crossed the border Oct. 8.
An immigration judge denied their appeals by phone, meaning the judge couldn't see documents, including proof of death threats they faced in El Salvador. One woman has been deported and another is awaiting deportation.
The pilot program is designed to give asylum-seekers 24 hours of access to a phone in a private room before an initial asylum screening, but attorneys said the rules are unclear and that they have received no notice or instructions. If asylum-seekers fail the screening, they can appeal to judges in Otero, New Mexico, also by phone.
The launch comes as the administration continues to send asylum-seekers back to Mexico to wait while their cases wind through U.S. immigration courts. Homeland Security said Monday that it extended its "Migration Protection Protocols" policy — also known as "Remain in Mexico" — to Eagle Pass, Texas, its sixth location. Homeland Security said more than 55,000 people have been made to wait in Mexico since the policy was introduced in January.
Asylum-seekers who are returned to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Acuña from Eagle Pass will be scheduled for court in Laredo, Texas, a drive of more than three hours. The Laredo facility is inside a tent on Customs and Border Protection property, with a video link to a judge in San Antonio.
The pilot program in El Paso, if expanded, may prove to be a critical tool in the administration's efforts to enforce a ban on asylum for anyone who passes through another country before reaching the U.S. border with Mexico. The de facto asylum ban, which took effect in September, appears largely aimed at Central Americans, Cubans and Africans, who have contributed to making the United States the world's most popular destination for asylum-seekers. Mexicans and unaccompanied children are allegedly exempt from the ban.
The administration has struck agreements to send asylum-seekers subject to the ban to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to have their cases heard there, though officials acknowledge those countries lack adequate infrastructure.
The asylum-seekers confirmed by lawyers to be in the pilot project are being held at a Border Patrol station that grew from a small office building to a sprawling maze of tent camps and new construction this year.
The station can hold up to 500 people, said Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero. Brown army-style tents hastily put up in the spring have been taken down, as arrests in the agency's El Paso sector have plummeted from nearly 1,000 a day in the spring to around 200.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said Monday that because the detainees appear by phone, they could be in any Border Patrol facility in El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico and West Texas.
Homeland Security confirmed the existence of the pilot program on Thursday, hours after it was reported by The Washington Post, but provided few details. It called the program a joint effort with the Justice Department, which runs immigration courts, to expedite proceedings at a single location. The statement said it would be enforced on single men and people traveling in families who are subject to the asylum ban.
Critics have relied on scarce details in news reports to pan the pilot program. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, tweeted Sunday that it "completely abandons due process."
El Paso was also testing grounds for the administration's practice of separating families at the border as part of a "zero tolerance" policy to criminally prosecute every adult who crossed the border without proper documents, including those who came with their children.
The government made no public announcements about the El Paso experiment on family separations. Levy, then-legal coordinator for Annunciation House in El Paso, said in a court filing last year that she noticed a "significant increase" in clients who were separated from their children during that time, but the government did not tell immigration attorneys until Oct. 24, 2017 that its new policy was to separate parents whose children were over 10 years old. The government did not formally announce its "zero tolerance" policy until April 2018.
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