The first asylum-seeking Central American families were sent back to Mexico from the US on Wednesday. The move is the latest in the Trump administration's plan to force migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases are processed, according to a Mexican official.
The five families sent back to Tijuana, Mexico, were made up of four women, one couple, and 10 children, said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the press about the returned families. The families were returned to Mexico at the El Chaparral pedestrian border crossing.
Initially only single adults were being sent back to Mexico from the US as part of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy. It's the latest move by the Trump administration to deter migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering the country.
On Feb. 1, a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told reporters that up until then, the people returned to Mexico under MPP have not included families. However, they said they would be moving to remove families "very soon" and were looking to expand it beyond the San Diego-Tijuana border.
"This is a way to make sure families stay together through the duration of their immigration proceedings," the official said.
The head of Mexico's immigration enforcement agency had previously said Mexico wouldn't accept underage migrants as part of the program, and that it wouldn't extend the policy beyond the El Chaparral pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana.
The unprecedented decision to force US asylum seekers to wait in Mexico has been heavily criticized by immigrant advocates on both sides of the border. Part of their concerns are the dangers migrants face in Mexican border communities.
Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the policy was a violation of US and international law.
“That the Trump administration has chosen to endanger children by returning families seeking protection to danger in Mexico should surprise no one,” Brané said in a statement. "This administration has deliberately and methodically launched assault after assault on asylum-seeking families."
Tijuana, which has hundreds of asylum seekers waiting for their turn to request asylum in the US, is one of the deadliest cities in the world with more than 2,500 homicides last year, a record for the border city. The dangers young migrants face at the border were highlighted in December when two teenage boys from Honduras who traveled with the caravan to Tijuana were killed in a robbery.
A DHS fact sheet said a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) gives them the authority to return immigrants back to Mexico. However, the administration is likely to be challenged in court over it's decision to send back asylum seekers. The policy was announced in December, but the first asylum seeker to be sent back, a lone Honduran man, wasn't returned to Mexico until Jan. 29.
The asylum seekers will be able to return to the US to attend their immigration court hearings, officials said in a statement. It could be months or years before their cases are adjudicated.
The US immigration court backlog, which has continued to ballon under the Trump administration, has grown to more than 809,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).