By Ana Ceballos
After one Honduran woman and her then 17-year-old daughter were “repeatedly raped” by MS-13 gang members, and later threatened with death, they fled their country and headed to the United States — a country that has long adhered to international law by allowing asylum seekers to plead their case.
In August 2016, Dinora Doe and her daughter, now 18, reached the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego and tried to request asylum. But they were soon turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials who “misinformed them” about their rights and denied them the chance to apply for asylum, according to a class-action lawsuit filed July 12 against the Department of Homeland Security.
The two women made the attempt a total of three times, according to the complaint. In one instance, U.S. customs agents incorrectly told them that the United States did not give asylum to Central Americans. On another attempt Dinora was told that she could cross the border only if she left her daughter behind in the border city of Tijuana, where the two remain today.
The lawsuit mounts numerous cases similar to this one, and claims customs agents across the U.S.-Mexico border have systematically violated the law by denying asylum seekers an interview with an asylum officer.
Under both the U.S. and international law, customs agents have an obligation to screen people who express fear of persecutions and request asylum. Officials are tasked with giving asylum seekers an interview with a trained asylum officer who would then check the legitimacy of each petition.
Once the asylum officer determines the validity of the asylum seeker’s claim a person can either be deported or entered into the immigration court system, where a judge would make the final decision.
The eight immigration rights organizations suing the U.S. government claim customs agents have been turning away people before such a process can even begin. They do so by using an array of tactics including “misrepresentations, threats and intimidation, verbal abuse and physical force.”
And in other instances they pin the blame on the Trump administration. The lawsuit claims that customs agents have told asylum seekers that “Donald Trump just signed new laws saying there is no asylum for anyone.”
While the Trump administration has been clear that it wants to get tough on immigration enforcement, it has not ordered customs agents to turn away people seeking asylum in the U.S.
In fact, a January 25 Trump executive order says “all legally available resources” should be allocated to “immediately assign asylum officers to immigration detention facilities for the purpose of accepting asylum referrals and conducting credible fear determinations.”
Another case that failed to go through the process, according to the lawsuit, is the case of Abigail Doe who escaped Central Mexico with her two children after her husband’s disappearance in May.
Abigail fled the country after she told Mexican authorities that her husband had disappeared after he refused to allow a drug cartel to use his tractor-trailer to transport drugs. Following the police report, cartel members kidnapped her and threatened to kill her if she looked further into her husband’s vanishing.
When Abigail requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, customs agents told her Mexican authorities were the only ones that could help her and then “threatened that her children would be taken away from her if they allowed her to cross the border,” according to the complaint.
Carlos Diaz, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the allegations citing the “pending litigation.”
It’s also important to note that the number of apprehensions of immigrants on the southwest border has dropped since the beginning of the Trump administrations in January, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Last October, data showed about 66,000 people were apprehended at the border. That number fell to about 21,000 this June.
This federal lawsuit is not the first of its kind. In January, immigrant advocates filed a complaint with Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, alleging customs agents had been increasingly turning away asylum seekers.
As a result, they said, scores of migrants are trapped in Mexico “exposed to continuous persecution and threats” and other security concerns as they wait for asylum in the U.S. This also prompts migrants to enter the United States illegally through the desert or across the Rio Grande, which can be a deadly trek.