By Juan Diego Ramirez and Annmarie Gajdos
Jonathan, a 28-year-old Salvadoran who asked that his full name be withheld for fear of deportation, traveled through Mexico by bus, taxi and foot until he reached the U.S. border at El Paso on Oct. 22, 2018. After turning himself into border patrol agents to claim asylum, saying he was persecuted at home for identifying with the LGBTQ community, he spent 15 months in immigration detention centers near the border before he won asylum thanks to the efforts of attorneys from Las Americas, an El Paso legal aid organization.
“Before coming into contact with Las Americas, I was contemplating taking my life,” said Jonathan, who spoke during a phone interview from his new home in New York, where he settled in January. “Being incarnated was traumatizing. It impacts you mentally. They chain your feet. They treat you as if you are a murderer or a drug trafficker.”
Jonathan’s struggles are representative of the tangled and complicated legal battles that many immigrants face at the Mexican border, where immigration lawyers navigate a labyrinth of new laws and policies implemented by the Trump administration to curb immigration, said Nicolas Palazzo, the Las Americas attorney who represented Jonathan.
“I think people don’t understand how insignificant the wall is,” Palazzo said during a Zoom interview in April, referring to President Trump’s promises to build a wall along the border with Mexico. “The real problem is the policies and the laws that prevent people from coming into the country. It’s not the wall. The policies are effective. They accomplish what they are intended to accomplish.”
The Trump administration has implemented some of the toughest anti-immigration laws in recent American history. Under his policies, the number of immigrants detained at the border has risen significantly. In 2016, Trump launched his presidential campaign based on nationalistic promises that called for restricting immigration from Central and South America. During his campaign, Trump also referred to Mexicans, as rapists, drug smugglers and criminals. These comments were a mere preview of how his administration would eventually deal with immigration issues through the creation of stringent immigration laws.
In 2017, Trump enacted several executive orders calling for diminishing the Central American immigration influx to the United States. These included Executive Order 13767, which calls for the construction of a physical border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; Executive Order 13768, which punishes “Sanctuary Cities” that implemented immigrant protection laws by withholding federal funds; and Executive Order 13769, coloquially referred to as the “the Muslim ban,” which restricts residents of majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. All three Executive Orders were challenged in court.
However, these new laws didn’t stop waves of Central American migrants, like Jonathan from El Salvador, from seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border. In 2019, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 977,000 migrants, the highest apprehension rate since 2009. In May alone, 144,000 migrants were apprehended. “It was overwhelming. The number of people that we were dealing with was just astonishing,” said Ernesto Mena, a border patrol agent in the El Paso sector.
In spring 2018, controversy erupted when the Trump administration implemented a policy to separate children from their families, culminating in the misplacement of 1,500 children during the temporary detention period. Many migrants came as family units from countries plagued with poverty and violence. During a short time period, mass migration overwhelmed the American immigration system. Migrants entered the country illegally, without inspection, or would arrive at a port of entry seeking asylum. As a result, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol would either detain or release these individuals while they were physically present in the United States to wait for a decision on their cases.
During detention, families were not allowed to await their trials together; the Trump administration blamed the policy on laws that prohibit underage children from being kept in adult prisons. This caused government workers to physically separate family members, resulting in an onslaught of civil and human rights lawsuits against the Trump administration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 4,200 children have been separated from their parents at American immigration detention centers since February 2020. “Child separation started in El Paso and that’s where it was seriously implemented,” Palazzo said.
He said he met Jonathan while working with migrants detained at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. Before ending up in Otero, Jonathan was placed in two other detention centers in the area. Palazzo helped Jonathan win his asylum case in January 2020, resulting in a successful end to his 15-month detention period.
Recently, Palazzo has been working with migrants who have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Also referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, this piece of legislation requires that migrants “wait outside the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings.” This has made it difficult for lawyers working with Las Americas to adequately defend their clients. “I represented three of the six cases in El Paso that have actually won asylum from MPP, which just shows you how difficult it is for people,” said Palazzo.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Palazzo said that as an immigration lawyer his work has become even more complicated. On March 21, President Trump invoked Title 42, which suspends the entry of people and imports from Mexico and Canada to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
“Since we are in a pandemic and we do want to protect the U.S. from any health risks, when somebody tries to enter the country illegally, we’re not going to take them to any of our facilities,” said U.S. Border Patrol agent Sara M. Cabrera. “We’re going to fingerprint them to make sure that they’re not felons, that they’re not wanted here in the U.S., then we’re going to take them to the nearest port of entry and expel them from the country.”
Encounters along the Southwest border totaled 16,789 in April.
— CBP (@CBP) May 8, 2020
Palazzo described what was happening at the border now as “turn-backs,” meaning that migrants are being sent back to Mexico without being processed. “They are essentially closing off all these people from getting any form of relief from the United States. It is frustrating,” he said, adding that lawyers are no longer allowed to travel to Mexico and work with clients who have pending cases.
“I don’t anticipate these policies are going to end soon, even if the pandemic slows down, because what we see is the pretext of the virus weaponizing the border against migrants and it’s effectively closed off the whole border,” he said.