San Diego “Ground Zero” for Asylum-Seekers

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Just days before a federal judge will decide whether to bar the government from separating asylum-seeking families, a group of about 200 Central Americans descended on the U.S.-Mexico border Monday seeking protection from violence.

There are about 50 asylum-seekers currently waiting to be processed by the federal government at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego. They are part of a caravan of hundreds of Central Americans who wove their way through Mexico in March and April looking to seek asylum in the United States after fleeing violence in their home countries.

Monday marked the second day the asylum-seekers waited at the port of entry to be processed by immigration officials who said Sunday the border crossing facility had “reached capacity.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection has given no estimate of when it would be able to start processing the asylum applications.

According to a statement by CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, individuals seeking asylum were advised they would need to “wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities.”

Over the weekend, San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott said in a statement members of the Central American caravan should seek protections in the first safe country they enter, including Mexico.

Vice President Mike Pence commented on the caravan during his visit Monday at the El Centro Border Patrol station about 115 miles east of San Diego, calling it “a direct result of our weak immigration laws and our porous border.”

“This caravan, like those who have gone before, is also rightly understood as a deliberate attempt to undermine the laws of this country and the sovereignty of the United States,” Pence said during his address.

San Diego has been the epicenter of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies: border wall prototypes were built in an empty lot in Otay Mesa last fall near the U.S.-Mexico border and San Diego is slated to receive improvements to its border wall infrastructure early this summer.

A challenge by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and multiple environmental groups over waivers issued by the Department of Homeland Security allowing the federal government to circumvent environmental laws in order to speed up construction of the border wall was recently appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which agreed to expedite hearing the case last week.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw is scheduled to hear arguments whether to enjoin the federal government from separating asylum-seeking families from their children. The judge will also decide whether the federal government should be ordered to immediately reunite parents and children who have already been separated.

A New York Times investigation put that number at 700 asylum-seeking families who have so far been separated by the Trump administration, including more than 100 children under the age of 4 who have been separated from their parents.

Lead counsel in the case, Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Right Project, said in an interview with Courthouse News the government has “retroactively tried to find a more palatable” justification for separating parents and children by saying it is legally required to separate asylum-seeking parents and children.

But Gelernt pointed out the practice is “unprecedented” and new to the current administration. He noted the hundreds of families currently being held in immigrant detention centers in Texas disproves the government’s position that parents and children must be separated.

“It’s over the top,” Gelernt said.

“No matter what you think of larger immigration issues, no one should be in favor of separating little children from their parents.”

While the government has not produced any written policies on separating parents and children, Gelernt said it’s already a matter of practice, which members of the Trump administration have suggested can be used to “deter” asylum-seekers.

Gelernt said the ACLU is monitoring the situation with the Central American caravan in Tijuana, but that “we don’t really know what’s going to happen with the people at the border.”

He said the civil rights organization not only wants to make sure more families aren’t separated but that the government is following the law for processing asylum applications.

The court hearing for Ms. L v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is scheduled to be heard Friday afternoon in the Southern District of California.



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