As the temperature reached 105 degrees, three Guatemalans made their way north Saturday on the Paso del Norte Bridge linking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, seeking to claim asylum in the United States. On previous attempts over the past day, they had been met at the long bridge’s apex by Customs and Border Protection agents—a highly unusual tactic—who asked them for identification and told them they couldn’t proceed to the port of entry because the holding cells were at capacity.

This time, the three migrants—a badly sunburned woman, her baby, and a 16-year-old girl who was not related to them—were accompanied by two representatives of Annunciation House, an El Paso organization that has helped migrants and refugees for more than four decades. Once again, they were stopped by two CBP agents, asked for documents, and told they would not be allowed to go further into the United States because of capacity issues. So began a tense standoff Saturday that marks an escalation in U.S. tactics to keep immigrants out of the country—including those legally entitled to enter and seek asylum—and relieve crowded immigration facilities that officials say are filled beyond capacity.

“I know you’re not at capacity. I know that’s what you’ve been instructed to say,” said Ruben Garcia, a 72-year-old who was inspired by Mother Teresa to found Annunciation House in 1976. He has a good handle on how many people are being detained at the bridges, because Immigration and Customs Enforcement eventually releases many of them to Annunciation House. Taylor Levy, a recent law school graduate who is working with Annunciation House, told the agents they were legally required to let the Guatemalans make their asylum claim because they are already several steps inside the country, a boundary that exists at the bridge’s apex.

The two CBP agents, whose nametags identified them as Armendariz and Avila, politely but firmly held their ground. Garcia asked to speak to a supervisor, and they made the call. Before the supervisor arrived, another agent came up to the group. His nametag was obscured by a tactical vest and a semiautomatic rifle.

The agents said they had been assigned to check IDs as people cross the boundary line, a highly unusual effort coming at a time when President Trump is expressing increasing frustration that his administration cannot control the nation’s borders—a key campaign promise of his. IDs are usually required a couple hundred yards further north, and well into U.S. soil, at the port of entry, where people make citizenship and customs declarations—and apply for asylum. And while the agents at the top of the bridge said they were checking the identification of all people walking across the bridge, Levy noted that the agents weren’t checking many IDs other than those of people with the dark skin and threadbare clothing that is typical of many Central American migrants.

New Tactics

In recent weeks, Garcia and other immigrant activists in El Paso had been hearing reports that CBP agents were blocking Central Americans from proceeding across the bridge to the port of entry where they are entitled to begin the asylum process. By making asylum claims at a port of entry, immigrants are supposed to be given a court date so that a judge may determine if the asylum claim is credible. But recent reports suggest Central Americans are being turned back to Juárez. Ironically, Garcia said, many of these Central Americans have grown frustrated and subsequently decided to sneak into the United States outside of a port of entry, then gotten arrested by the Border Patrol. New Trump administration policy requires that anyone caught entering illegally be arrested, face criminal charges, and be separated from any children they are traveling with.

Saturday morning, Garcia got a report that a group of Guatemalans was encamped in Juárez after being unable to cross the bridge. He invited me to accompany him and Levy as they investigated. We walked south across the Paso del Norte Bridge, the busiest pedestrian crossing between El Paso and Juárez, and saw two CBP agents standing at the top of the northbound pedestrian lanes. Minutes after crossing into Mexico, we spotted a group of about a dozen people huddled near public restrooms at the Mexican immigration office, one of the few spots offering shade. They told us that they had come from Guatemala and had been turned back by U.S. authorities the previous night.

CBP officials confirmed what Garcia has been hearing from immigrants, both at the bridge on this Saturday and in previous weeks at the Annunciation House shelter.

“Regarding what you witnessed today, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is taking a proactive approach to ensure that arriving travelers have valid entry documents in order to expedite the processing of lawful travel,” agency spokesman Roger Maier said in an email. “That being said, CBP processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency’s overall mission, or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody. 

“The number of inadmissible individuals CBP is able to process varies based upon case complexity; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions. No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. Once space is available and/or other factors allow then CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing. This has been occurring intermittently as needed for about a month here in El Paso and other locations as well where the volume of arriving people exceeds the capacity of our facilities.”

Garcia, Levy, and other advocates for migrants say federal law prohibits agents from turning away people who say they want to seek asylum, which is a means of legal entry in to the United States. The Immigration and Nationality Act states: “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States … irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.” The American Immigration Council last year filed a federal lawsuit in California challenging what it said was the Trump administration’s efforts to illegally thwart the efforts of asylum seekers. The case is pending.

The group of Guatemalans gathered on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte Bridge were the latest to be caught up in the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce illegal immigration and clamp down on what it sees as exploitation of the asylum process. The group included several men traveling with their sons; a couple of teenage boys traveling without parents or guardians; the woman and her baby; and the 16-year-old girl traveling by herself.

Garcia and Levy introduced themselves and asked the migrants about their stories. They came from different villages but told similar tales of fleeing intense poverty, a corrupt government, and violent street gangs who were trying to dragoon young boys. The men and their sons wept openly as they spoke. The young mother told Garcia and Levy that she had been raped in Guatemala.

The only young girl in the group was more reticent to discuss what caused her to flee her home. “The pieces that she put out there was that she would go to school and then she would lock herself up in her room when she would come back. And I tried to get from her, ‘Why do you feel you need to do that?,’ and I couldn’t get an answer to that,” Garcia said.

One man, barely over five feet tall and wearing a tattered orange t-shirt, told Garcia that his two sons had joined him on the trek from Guatemala. But as they attempted to cross the bridge earlier that day, he had gotten separated from his sons, who crossed the bridge while he was turned back. The man sobbed as he told his story.

“He said there was a group of people and they kind of merged in with that group, kind of included themselves in that group. So they got in and he didn’t, which is going to create a huge problem for him, huge problems not being with his kids,” Garcia said.

Levy and Garcia huddled briefly to determine how to proceed. They decided to focus their efforts on the teenage girl, as well as the mother and child. Garcia told the group of men and boys a bit about the U.S. asylum process, telling them they had to make such decisions themselves. He and Levy then began walking up the bridge with the mother, her baby, and the teenage girl. That’s when they were met by the agents blocking their path at the top of the bridge.

“I’m Following Directions”

 After the initial standoff with agents Armendariz and Avila at the top of the bridge, a supervisor arrived. He introduced himself as Agent Gomez and recognized Garcia, who has a long history of working with border law enforcement agencies.

“This mom is saying to me, ‘I am afraid to be in my country, I’m afraid to go back to my country,’” Garcia said. Gomez asked, in Spanish, where the three migrants were from, and Garcia said Guatemala. Gomez replied, “OK, well, they’re not in Guatemala,” meaning they were now in Mexico. Levy corrected him, pointing out that they were standing in the United States.

Gomez told Garcia that he couldn’t allow the Guatemalans to come forward because the holding cells at the port were at capacity. He reminded Garcia of past surges of Central American migrants that led to what the CBP official called “inhumane” conditions in packed port of entry holding cells. “We are not absolutely saying that they cannot (make an asylum claim), we are just saying that we cannot process them at this time,” Gomez said.

When Garcia said the law required CBP to process their asylum claims, Gomez said: “Sir, I’m sure you know I’m following directions. And this is not even local directions.”

Garcia wasn’t buying it. “I know by the numbers (of migrants) that ICE is turning over to us that there is room, because the numbers are low and they have been low this whole week,” he told Gomez.

Garcia and Gomez had been talking for about four minutes when Garcia asked: “So right now, as far as they are concerned, I’m understanding you to say you will not allow them to present (for asylum).” Then Gomez changed course. “They are, as (Levy) pointed out, stepping on U.S. soil, so we are going to take them in” to process their asylum claims. Agents Armendariz and Avila escorted the mother, her baby, and the teen girl to the port of entry.

By this time, some of the other Guatemalans had made their way up the bridge. Four were standing just inside U.S. territory; three—including the father who had been separated from his sons earlier in the day— were on the Mexican side of the line. Two CBP agents who had been standing a few feet from the border stepped forward and stood directly on the line. I witnessed one of the agents, whose nametag said Augustin, take a couple steps into Mexico to prevent one of the Guatemalans from crossing into the United States. CBP spokesman Maier later said port officials denied that any agent crossed into Mexico.

Garcia told the two boys and two men who were just inside U.S. territory that they could not be ordered to move back across the line. He told them he was going to get some sandwiches and water in El Paso, and would return.

When he came back an hour later, everyone was gone. The four people who had been just inside the United States, gone. The other Guatemalans who had been in Mexico, either just on the other side of the boundary or at the foot of the bridge, gone.

Garcia approached the agents. “I said, ‘What happened to them?’ They said, ‘They went back.’ And I said, ‘What happened to the ones that were standing right here on this side of the boundary line?’ And they said, ‘Well, they went back as well.’”