A newborn US citizen and his mother were forced to walk back into Mexico just two days after giving birth despite repeated pleas to border officials that they faced danger south of the border, according to a new complaint filed against the government.
The Honduran family, including a 25-year-old mother, her 33-year-old partner, and their 9-year-old son, crossed the border on the evening of July 27, presented themselves to Border Patrol agents in San Diego and said they wanted to pursue asylum claims in the US after being threatened by gangs in Honduras, their attorneys say.
It wasn't the first time the family, who lawyers declined to identify, had crossed the border and asked US immigration authorities for protection. The family had crossed in early March near Eagle Pass, Texas, but like thousands of others, they were sent back to Mexico to wait while their US immigration cases were completed under a policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
But when the family attempted to get back to the border for their March 25 court date, their attorneys say were detained by a group of armed men who tried to extort them.
More than an hour later the family was released. But they didn't realize that because of the coronavirus pandemic, immigration officials had postponed their court date. So they decided to move to Tijuana and later cross the border, their attorney, Luis Gonzalez, said.
A Human Rights First database has tracked more than 1,000 public reports of rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violence against people sent back to some of the most dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere under the MPP policy.
When the policy was rolled out, the Department of Homeland Security said immigrants would not be involuntarily returned to Mexico if they likely faced persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Doing so would violate the practice of not forcing asylum-seekers to return to a place where they may be persecuted.
But it's rare that an immigrant passes these interviews. A government analysis from last year of over 7,400 screenings to assess fear of returning to Mexico found that only 13% passed their interviews.
This family was not even given the chance to have an interview with a US official to assess their fear of persecution, their attorneys said.
In Tijuana, once it became clear that the mother was about to give birth, Border Patrol called an ambulance, but they sent her alone to a hospital in Chula Vista, California. The father and son were sent to a port of entry and ordered to walk back to Tijuana at 1 a.m., despite pleas to not be separated from his partner, the complaint states.
"An officer told him that if they didn't cross, Border Patrol would call Mexican authorities to come arrest him and separate him from his son," Gonzalez said.
Meanwhile, the mother was giving birth at the hospital in Chula Vista with Border Patrol officers outside the room, attorneys said. Two days later, the mother and newborn were taken to the border and told to walk into Mexico without any information about her partner and son other than they were also south of the border.
"During the entire process, she was in pain from giving birth and she felt no choice but to go into Mexico," Gonzalez said.
The family was able to reunite in Tijuana, but the mother and newborn have had a difficult time receiving follow-up medical care in Mexico because of the pandemic, Gonzalez said. Attorneys working with the family are asking the Department of Homeland Security to exercise its discretion and allow the family to fight their asylum case in the US.
Mitra Ebadolahi, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the family's expulsion from the US to Mexico without being given an interview to determine whether they would likely be persecuted exemplifies the barriers immigrants face.
Immigration officials have been immediately turning away thousands of people at the border citing a March order issued by the CDC that prohibits the entry of those who cross into the country without authorization. The expulsions, the Trump administration said, are necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus — and the rapid removals have alarmed immigrant advocates who said it has barred most immigrants from any legal process.
Since March, about 72,000 immigrants have been expelled.
The complaint, filed with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, accuses the government of violating US law by forcing the asylum-seeking family to return to Mexico without screening them for persecution.
"The adult members of the family repeatedly told government officers their fears of being returned to a place where they face persecution," Ebadolahi told BuzzFeed News. "Border Patrol summarily expelled them from the US twice. It shouldn't be so difficult for the government to meet its legal obligations."
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not immediately return a request for comment.
While the case is somewhat unique because the newborn is a US citizen, Ebadolahi said, many immigrants have continuously found it difficult to explain to US authorities why they shouldn't be sent back to Mexico.
"The government has the authority to prevent a case like this from unfolding in this way," Ebadolahi said. "They were subject to all manner of additional trauma as people already displaced by trauma and it's just really distressing and I hope people are able to put themselves in their shoes and have empathy for their situation."
This post has been updated to reflect new border expulsion numbers.