Disinformation and Spin: Trump Administration Deploys Troops to Border, Paints Asylum Seekers and Attorneys as Threat
On March 6, 2020, as the Trump administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to freeze a February 28 ruling halting its forced return of asylum seekers to Mexico, government officials announced the deployment of 160 troops to two U.S. border posts. The stated reason for this dramatic show of military force: a senior Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official claimed the ruling had led “large groups” to “mass” at southern border posts and that a future Supreme Court ruling “could disrupt port of entry operations.” That same day, Trump administration lawyers told the Supreme Court that halting returns was “virtually assured to cause chaos at the border,” claiming “large groups of migrants” had “attempt[ed] to cross the border” in the aftermath of the February 28 ruling.
But media reports and public accounts by asylum seekers and attorneys who lined up in Mexico following the decision to enjoin the “Remain in Mexico” policy (officially called the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP)) present a different reality. Groups of asylum seekers with their lawyers—ranging from a few families to several dozen people and up to about 150 individuals in Ciudad Juárez—waited peacefully in Mexico at ports of entry for CBP to comply with the ruling. Instead, U.S. border officials activated armed officers on both sides of the border in what appeared to be an effort to treat – and later portray – asylum seekers and attorneys waiting in Mexico as a threat and intimidate them into leaving.
These modest numbers were and are manageable for CBP, which has the capacity to process greater numbers of asylum seekers at ports of entry, handles thousands of pedestrians daily at these locations, and has been regularly taking in and turning back large groups of asylum seekers during asylum and MPP processing. Former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske has stated that CBP is equipped to handle these numbers and has handled larger migration flows in the past with fewer resources than it has today.
Under MPP, Trump administration officials have returned thousands of asylum seekers from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Mexico. These men, women and children have been sent to some of the most dangerous areas of Mexico, including areas so dangerous that Americans are directed by the U.S. State Department not to travel, or reconsider, travel. In Mexico they must wait for many months and in some cases over a year for their asylum cases in U.S. immigration court. So far over 1,000 asylum seekers subjected to this policy have been kidnapped, tortured, assaulted or attacked after their return to Mexico, as documented by Human Rights First, other researchers, and reporters.
Instead of trying to falsely paint asylum seekers and their attorneys as a threat, Trump administration, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP officials should work with legal and refugee assistance organizations to end the dangerous and illegal Remain in Mexico policy in a prompt, humane and orderly manner. Last week, over 150 legal representation, refugee assistance, faith-based, human rights, and community groups wrote to Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, urging him to end MPP and allow asylum seekers to pursue refugee protection from safety in the United States, as required by U.S. law and treaties. These organizations affirmed that they stand ready to assist in providing legal representation and humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers in the United States and asked to meet with U.S. agencies to plan for a prompt, humane, and orderly end to the MPP. They urged that asylum seekers subjected to MPP, who have already suffered so much in Mexico, should not be subjected to additional harsh or punitive policies—including policies that block them from legal representation in their asylum proceedings—and should absolutely not be jailed in detention facilities and prisons.
DHS and CBP have had many months to plan for an end to MPP, as they have long known that their legally flawed policy could be halted by the courts. Yet they failed to communicate with attorneys, refugee assistance organizations and shelters or to devise a humane and orderly approach to process in MPP asylum seekers.
The information in this factsheet is drawn from accounts of the media, attorneys, and refugee assistance organizations. All in all, asylum seekers followed the “rules” on February 28, as they lined up in Mexico to present themselves at official ports of entry to seek asylum in the United States, while CBP ignored the court’s ruling and treated peacefully gathered asylum seekers, attorneys and aid workers as a security threat.