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US: Newly Released Files Show Fast-Track to Deportation

Reveal How Asylum Seekers at Border Were Short-Changed on Rights

Migrants seeking asylum wait in line with their case paperwork to meet with an attorney on Oct. 5, 2019, during a weekly trip by volunteers, lawyers, paralegals and interpreters to the migrant campsite outside El Puente Nuevo in Matamoros, Mexico. © 2019 Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP

(Washington) – Two years after the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, newly released government records reveal US immigration agencies’ efforts in 2019 to rapidly deport thousands of people from the United States through the little-known Electronic Nationality Verification (ENV) program, the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, and Human Rights Watch said today.

The records reveal previously undisclosed details about how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its component agencies, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), touted the ENV program as a way to expedite the repatriation of many Central Americans without obtaining travel documents from their home country, a process which traditionally involved contact with foreign consulates. US and international law give foreign nationals a right to contact their consulate when arrested. The records provide no information about how DHS involves consulates when processing a foreign national through ENV.

The American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Human Rights Watch, and the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP obtained the documents through a lawsuit to compel the release of records about the Migrant Protection Protocols. The released documents include a 2019 DHS memo describing how the governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras agreed to pilot ENV with their nationals.

Fast-track procedures at the border, such as ENV, rush the complex process of evaluating the claims of individuals expressing their fear of persecution if returned to their home countries and increase the likelihood of wrongly deporting someone who could be harmed or killed upon return. The rapid process of deportations also makes it more difficult for attorneys or advocates to access a person prior to their removal, which could increase the possibility of erroneous removals.

The US government has provided little information about the ENV program – only fleeting references by officials about the program’s existence – or the number of people removed through the program.

Former Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan testified in February 2019 that 17,000 people had been removed through the ENV program. Separately, ICE’s fiscal year 2021 budget justification to Congress released in February 2020 reported an even higher number, stating that the agency repatriated 35,859 people through ENV on 360 chartered flights since the expansion of ENV on July 25, 2019.

As of January 2021, no further data on ENV removals has been made public. In a recent annual overview of enforcement operations, ICE publicly credited ENV for the increased deportation of families in 2020, but failed to provide specific or updated numbers.

Other documents uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit include MPP Standard Operating Procedures for ICE personnel in San Antonio and El Paso. This document is a handbook guiding the rapid return of nearly 65,000 people – many of them seeking asylum – from the United States to Mexico to wait for their US immigration court hearings. Asylum seekers, many of them families with children, have been forced to wait for months in extremely dangerous cities in Mexico.

These records provide important new insight into some of the border policies of the Trump administration that could help inform President Joe Biden’s new vision on immigration and border enforcement. They are also relevant to lawmakers considering the nomination for a new Secretary for DHS and debating government funding levels for immigration enforcement in 2022.

“Our border policies over the last four years have been defined by a relentless drive to undermine due process with the singular goal of detaining and deporting people as quickly as possible. ENV is the latest example of these polices. The Biden administration will need to reconsider all of these programs in developing a new approach to border enforcement that is committed to providing people with a fair day in court,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

“The lack of transparency around rapid-removal programs like MPP and ENV must stop with the Biden administration. Though this administration is rightly reversing course with respect to the MPP program, it should also reject programs like ENV where removal comes at the expense of due process and the opportunity to present a full case for asylum,” said Emily Creighton, legal director of transparency at the American Immigration Council.

“For two years the government has been short-circuiting due process to deport tens of thousands of people using methods that are almost completely shrouded from the public eye. Government transparency and accountability should not depend on lawsuits being filed to force sunlight onto these practices. Collectively our organizations urge President Biden to halt ENV immediately as well as the many other programs that violate the fundamental American values of fairness and justice,” said Gregory Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The Biden administration should stop the abuse of asylum seekers at US borders by ending summary and fast-track removals without adequate due process checks,” said Clara Long, Associate Director in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of blocking asylum seekers and flouting principles of due process, the Biden administration should focus on setting up a fair and efficient asylum system that ensures humane and dignified treatment for those seeking safety at US borders.”

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