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In mid-February, a Guatemalan man approached U.S. border officials in Nogales. He had fled violence in his country and feared going back, so when he spoke to the officer at the DeConcini port of entry, he requested asylum.
Under U.S. law, Customs and Border Protection employees are supposed to register such statements, take the individual into custody, and eventually direct them to an asylum officer who assesses the validity of their asylum claim.
That’s not what happened in this case, according to faith-based, migrant-rights group Kino Border Initiative.
The officer told the man that he would help him, but instead had him sign documents stating he was not admissible into the U.S. The Guatemalan was then sent back to Mexico without what’s known as a credible-fear screening.
Kino Border Initiative’s Director of Advocacy Joanna Williams said the case reflects a “systematic” practice by border agents during the last half of 2016, coinciding with a spike in migrants arriving at the Arizona-Sonora border.
“Our staff spent a lot of time with individuals at the border, trying to pressure CBP to exercise and fulfill their legal obligation, which is to process asylum seekers and put them into a credible-fear-screening process,” she said.
A new report from an independent, non-profit rights group claims the practice is widespread along the entire U.S.-Mexico border: U.S. officials turn away migrants seeking asylum at ports of entry, especially in California and south Texas.
The situation appears to have improved on the Arizona border, activists say, though they said it’s unclear why.
A ‘Trump effect’?
Human Rights First published this week its report documenting at least 125 cases of federal agents unlawfully turning away asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The reports’ authors and researchers traveled to border communities in California, Arizona and Texas between February and April, where they interviewed migrants, staff at shelters, and attorneys and volunteers who assist asylum seekers.
The group said the number of people turned away unlawfully is likely much higher than their report states, since many cases are never documented.
Lead researcher Shaw Drake said advocates have expressed concern about CBP’s handling of asylum seekers for some time, especially last summer, when thousands of Haitian migrants were stranded primarily on the California-Mexico border.
That occurred under the Obama administration. But the election of President Donald Trump, who advocates for more immigration enforcement, appears to have emboldened officers to wrongfully turn away people, the report says.
It accuses U.S. authorities of intimidating and deceiving asylum seekers by telling them things such as: “Trump says we don’t have to let you in,” or “You don’t qualify,” even though only asylum officers are authorized to make that determination.
“Since the beginning of this administration, we have continued to see a really alarming rate of complaints and concerns being raised … across the border,” Drake said. “For us, this is a threshold issue: If we can’t guarantee meaningful access to protection … then the very point of those systems are undermined.”
The report is also critical of Mexican immigration authorities, who it says are at times openly hostile and complicit with U.S. authorities in making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach U.S. ports of entry. Mexican officials repeatedly claimed falsely the U.S. was no longer granting asylum, to discourage migrants from seeking protection, the report says.
Human Rights First urged Mexican and U.S. officials to comply with laws granting unrestricted access to apply for asylum. They also called on the Office of the Inspector General to investigate CBP officers, and on Congress to exercise greater oversight of the agency.
The Office of the Inspector General did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Customs and Border Protection denied any change in policy toward asylum seekers, saying it adheres to U.S. and international law.
“If a CBP officer or agent encounters a U.S.-bound migrant at or between ports of entry, without legal papers, and the person expresses fear of being returned to his/her home country, our officers process them for an interview with an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” the statement read.
The agency also denied any wrongdoing on the part of individual employees at the ports of entry.
“CBP officers do not determine or evaluate the validity of the fear expressed,” the statement said. “As an agency, CBP adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.”
Changes in Arizona
If the number of would-be asylum seekers being turned away in the Nogales area has declined, advocates are unsure why.
Researchers said they found conflicting reports in Nogales on whether the situation had improved.
“More investigation needs to happen to determine whether the practice is as prevalent as we heard it was before,” said Natasha Arnpriester, a researcher who traveled to Nogales in mid-April.
In March, a new director took command of Nogales-area ports of entry. Researchers said it’s unclear if he issued new directives or responded to complaints from advocates.
“It would be wonderful to know if they actually took steps to alleviate the situation at the port, and obviously, we think port directors across the border should be doing the same thing if, in fact, the Nogales port is showing some leadership in this issue,” Drake said.
The Arizona Republic requested an interview with the Nogales port director, but the CBP said he was unavailable.
While the report focuses on California and south Texas, it highlights the Arizona-Sonora border for violence and other dangers faced by migrants and asylum seekers.
Last year, the Kino Border Initiative documented 754 cases of aggression against migrants and asylum seekers, including 105 incidents involving physical violence and 52 involving kidnapping. But that number reflects only migrants who were encountered and were willing to report the abuse.
“We know it’s dramatically underreported,” Williams said. “Most of the people we receive who say they’re victims of kidnapping or other crimes are completely unwilling to go to the police because they’re afraid that there will be retributions.”
A spokeswoman for the CBP in Arizona said the agency doesn’t specifically track the number of asylum seekers at ports of entry. The number is included in a broader category of “inadmissables,” which includes unaccompanied minors, Central American families, and Cuban and Haitian migrants.
Since the start of the fiscal year, the number of “inadmissibles” at Arizona’s ports of entry has dropped sharply from 2,291 in October to 592 in March.
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