Since April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy, many Americans in support of his plan have stated that asylum seekers needed to come in legally, through a port of entry. We asked Rio Grande Valley attorney Jennifer Harbury why legal entry is so difficult—and what challenges asylum seekers face when they are turned away.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Texas Monthly: What is your focus right now?
Jennifer Harbury: I’m looking at people who are stopped on the U.S.-Mexico bridge, attempting to apply for asylum.
TM: And what are you seeing?
JH: At any legal point of entry, an asylum seeker is supposed to say, “I’m in danger. I want to apply for asylum.” But the asylum seekers are not allowed to get on the U.S. half of the bridge. For awhile, the U.S. made people wait for two weeks, sleeping in the sun. With kids. No water. It’s 100 degrees out there. Then the rules changed: the Border Patrol asked asylum seekers to sit on the Mexican side until “they have room”—while the waiting room has a hundred empty seats.
TM: A hundred available seats total or just one hundred empty seats?
JH: Well, the Reynosa-McAllen bridge port of entry has about one hundred seats. I haven’t counted them one by one, but I’m guessing probably one hundred seats. It’s air conditioned, it’s a great big room. And they don’t have officers who can tend to all these people at the same time; asylum seekers would be waiting their turn. But that’s what the waiting room is for. Right now, they’re not sleeping on the bridge for a week or two or more—that type of thing ended in the middle of June or so, before the tapes of the crying children. Now, people stay waiting on the bridge for a while, but the really bad thing is, if they don’t have a valid transit visa to cross Mexico, U.S. authorities get Mexican immigration to come take them away and deport them. If the asylum seekers are waiting at the turnstile, they could get grabbed and deported by Mexicans.
TM: Mexico is deporting them?
JH: Yes. We’re making people sit on the Mexican side of the bridge so if the humanitarian conditions are bad it’s not our fault, even though we’re the ones not letting them sit on the U.S. side in the waiting room. And if the person does not have a valid Mexican transit visa, Border Patrol will call Mexican authorities to get them.
TM: When did U.S. authorities start calling Mexican immigration to get asylum seekers who didn’t have Mexican transit visas? Was that like a week or two ago?
JH: It was around the time the crying child tape was released [June 18].
TM: And how does one get the Mexican visa papers?
JH: Enter Mexico in the South. There are offices where asylum seekers can go in and apply for transit visas. I understand that’s a slow process, and not everybody can go through there. It’s not always safe. Several people have reported to me that they went in with their kids and saw people from the Honduran gangs right at the door, monitoring the room. And people who come through Mexico with a coyote—it’s not like they’re going to stop at the visa office. Also, people with a visa get their papers stolen all the time. You know, they get attacked at the bus station in Reynosa and arrive there at the shelters with nothing.
TM: So what happens to people who are waiting on the Mexican side of a port of entry, trying to figure out what to do?
JH: Well, they’re the number one target in Reynosa for kidnapping. Anyone who just got deported or looks like they’re heading north from Africa or the Caribbean or Central America, the gangs have figured out that person has someone who loves them up north who will go crazy finding the money somehow. They’ll go get the money—sometimes ten thousand dollars. That’s a good side business. So asylum seekers can’t set a toe outside of their shelter without risking kidnapping. And they get beat up at the bus station. When they try to get to another town on a bus, they risk getting grabbed by Mexican immigration or by the cartels. There’s a price on their head, very literally.
TM: Why are there folks from Africa or the Caribbean passing through there?
JH: I think it got too hard with the Coast Guard trying to stop everybody near Florida, so they seem to be going south and then north.
TM: That’s quite a journey.
JH: Yeah, it ain’t an easy voyage.
TM: And if they have the right paperwork…
JH: Then they won’t get grabbed on their way to the point of entry and deported by the Mexican government. If they apply legally, then they’re put in detention to get the credible-fear interview and pass that. If they’re not with a kid, they’re put into detention at one of the facilities that are run by a correctional institution. They get frisked when they come back from the gym. They can’t touch anyone else. So when a woman found out that her child had just died back home, she was crying and crying, and the other women were told, “Get back from her, you can’t touch her, get back from her or we’ll put you in the hole.”
All these people did was ask for asylum.
Under the old rules, if they went by the river, they could ask for bonds and be released, and if they went by the bridge, they could ask for something called parole. And both of these routes were functioning in about the same way. If they had proper identification and never committed a crime and had family members who were legally in the United States willing to sponsor them, then normally they were released to their families.
But the U.S. stopped doing that, so I’ve had clients who have never committed a crime, who were running from ethnic violence in Africa, for example—I had one man from Ghana who nearly was killed by a vigilante group. He’s been in jail now for two and a half years for doing nothing. So that’s why the detention centers are full … which is why they’re saying they have to make people wait on the bridge. But it’s full because they are violating their own rules. While a case is going up and down and getting afield and stuff, an asylum seeker can spend a couple years in de facto prison waiting for a case to be settled instead of being sent to a family to wait it out. We’re imprisoning refugees, who have never committed a crime, for long periods of time. When someone hasn’t committed a crime, the government doesn’t have the authority to punish them, but that’s what we’re doing. And that, in turn, is why the place is overcrowded. Which is why Border Patrol is saying they have to wait on the bridge instead of the waiting room, which is normally where people wait.