Two weeks ago in California, I met a 16-year-old Salvadoran boy – I’ll call him Gabriel – who fled his home after gang members threatened to kill him. After traveling through Mexico, he and another boy made their way to the US border in September and tried to tell officials about the risks they faced at home.
By law, if someone arrives at the border asking for asylum or expressing fear of returning to their own country, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are required to refer the person to a specialist asylum officer, who then assesses eligibility for protection.
That’s not what happened in Gabriel’s case. “They just told us to wait outside,” he said. The two boys sat on the Mexican side of the border for most of the day. By chance, a lawyer taking a client to the border crossing spotted and helped them.
The lawyer, Nicole Ramos of the nonprofit group Al Otro Lado, told me she’d seen similar cases. In one, she said, “When we reached the US side, I said, ‘My client is here to apply for asylum.’ The agent looked at us and said, ‘Asylum? What’s that?’ Then he said she couldn’t apply for asylum. I told him she could, and I said he had to accept her application.”
These aren’t isolated accounts, and there’s every reason to fear these abusive practices are becoming more entrenched in the Trump administration. A new report by Human Rights First finds that US agents are illegally turning away asylum seekers along the Mexico border, including a Guatemalan former police officer who resisted gangs, a Salvadoran boy who witnessed gang members murder his sister, and a Mexican man who was kidnapped after reporting cartel violence – more than 100 cases in all.
“Trump says we don’t have to let you in,” a CBP agent reportedly told one Central American asylum seeker. In another case, a Mexican woman who had been raped by gang members after she refused to turn over her teenage son to them said a CBP officer told her Christians “are the people we are giving asylum to, not you.”
These remarks echo Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but these kinds of pushbacks were a problem before he took office. In early January, the American Civil Liberties Union and seven other organizations asked the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate the “systematic denial of entry to asylum seekers” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
US officials should take these reports seriously, ensure that agents stop turning away asylum seekers, and investigate and punish any agents who have done so.
Anything less is a betrayal of the “honor and integrity” Homeland Security says it strives for.